The Life of Ellen White by D.M. Canright

Chapter 19 - The Reform Dress

A Short Dress With Pants

One of the most manifest mistakes Mrs. White made was about what she called the "Reform Dress." Shortly before the Civil War of 1861-65 a few women wore and advocated a reform dress cut short - about half-way to the knees.1 With this they wore a sort of loose pants on the limbs below the dress. Some Advent sisters favored it as convenient and healthful; but Mrs. White condemned it, with good reason, as follows:

"God would not have his people adopt the so-called reform dress. It is immodest apparel, wholly unfitted for the modest, humble followers of Christ. . . Those who feel called out to join the movement in favor of woman's rights and the so-called dress reform, might as well sever all connection with the third angel's message. . . Let them adopt this costume, and their influence is dead. . . They [the sisters] would destroy their influence and that of their husbands. They would become a byword and a derision. . . God would not have us take a course to lessen or destroy our influence with the world" (Testimonies for the Church, Vol. I., pp. 421, 422).

Notice that she gives God as her authority here. "God would not have his people adopt the so-called reform dress." That was God's mind at that date. Again she says:

"If women would wear their dresses so as to clear the filth of the streets an inch or two, their dresses would be modest and they could be kept clean much more easily, and would wear longer. Such a dress would be in accordance with our faith" (p. 424).

Notice the length of the dress - "to clear the filth of the streets an inch or two." Remember this. Once more she says:

"Christians should not take pains to make themselves a gazing-stock by dressing differently from the world" (p. 458).
Remember this also.

This was in 1863, and was clear and emphatic. But one year later, September, 1864, Elder and Mrs. White spent three weeks at Dr. Jackson's Health Home at Dansville, N.Y. Both were captivated with the new "Health Reform" taught there. Elder White wrote a flattering account of the institution and this system of health care.

Miss Austin, one of the physicians there, wore a "Reform Dress" with pants below the dress made like men's pants. Slightly modified, it was the same dress Mrs. White had condemned only a year before. But both she and her husband were captivated with it. Immediately she adopted it herself, and began to write revelations and testimonies to the sisters, saying God now wanted them to wear it. It will be seen that after her visit with Miss Austin "the Lord" changed his mind on the dress question, for she says:

"God would now have his people adopt the Reform Dress, not only to distinguish them from the world as his peculiar people, but because a reform in dress is essential to physical and mental health" (p. 525).

Here, again, she gives God as her authority for the new departure in dress. This dress was to be adopted by sisters, not only for health, but to distinguish them from the world as God's peculiar people. She quotes Num. 15:38-41, where God directed the Israelites to wear a "ribbon of blue" on their garments to distinguish them from the other nations. So now the Adventists women were to put on the reform dress so as to be peculiar from the world. This was the very thing she had condemned previously. She give the exact length of the dress. She says: "I would say that nine inches as nearly accords with my view of the matter as I am able to express in inches" (p. 521). In her testimony before visiting Miss Austin she expressly said "an inch or two" above the streets; but now it is "nine" inches. Measure nine inches from the floor and it will be about half-way up to the knee on a woman of ordinary height. That was the way Miss Austin wore hers.

Mrs. White had patterns of the dress, coat and pants cut out of paper. These she advertised in the Review, took with her wherever she went, and sold for one dollar each! She thus pocketed quite a nice sum of easy money. She strongly urged that these paper patterns of hers be obtained by all. She says:

"I shall have patterns prepared to take with me as we travel, ready to hand out to our sisters whom we shall meet, or to send by mail to all who may order them. Our address will be given in the Review. . . Old garments may be cut over after a correct pattern. . . I beg of you, sisters, not to form your patterns after your own particular ideas" (p. 522).

The only correct pattern was hers, the one she advertised in the church paper, carried with her everywhere she went, made out of cheap paper, and handed out to the sisters at only one dollar each! I was there, and that one dollar was the price. Many a poor sister who could ill afford it paid the dollar, and put on the pants.

I was married at Battle Creek in 1867, to a young sister of nineteen. It was at the height of this short-dress craze. Of course, as a minister's wife, she reluctantly put on the dress and wore it for eight years. So I know all about it. It was a shameful thing, and brought ridicule everywhere. On the street, people would stop and gaze at her and mock. I have seen troops of boys follow her, making fun, till she would step into a store to hide from them. We were both ashamed of it; but God's prophet said it was his will, and we must bear the cross! Here is the warning Mrs. White gave:

"I have done my duty; I have borne my testimony, and those who have heard me and read that which I have written, must bear the responsibility of receiving or rejecting the light given. If they choose to venture to be forgetful hearers, and not doers of the work, they run their own risk, and will be accountable to God" (p. 523).

The issue was clear. Buy a pattern, cut off your dress, put on your pants, become peculiar, or reject the light, and meet the frown of God! So, quite largely, the faithful ones put on the dress. But it was a failure. The pants were hot in summer, and in winter the ankles were wet with snow. Husbands were mad, brothers would not go out with their sisters, and outsiders sneered and called them freaks. Girls with this dress on in school were avoided and ridiculed. But for eight years Mrs. White wore it and urged it. I have often sat in the desk with her when she wrote it and preached on it as a Christian duty. If God ever gave her a revelation about anything, he did about that, for so she said strongly over and over. But at length she saw it was a mistake and a failure. So she went away to California and quietly laid it off herself, and never wore it afterward. Of course she was plied with requests for explanations; but she simply refused to give any. She said she had given the light. They could obey it or reject it. That was all! The fact was, she had been misled by Miss Austin, and dared not own it, for she had said it was light from heaven, and had made God responsible for it all.

Instead of assuming the responsibility for misleading the entire denomination on the subject, as she should have done, she threw the responsibility all on God, and blamed the sisters for abandoning the disgraceful and obnoxious custom, and for making it necessary for her to introduce "another less objectionable style." Here is what she wrote in 1875:

"As our sisters would not generally accept the reform dress as it should be worn, another less objectionable style is now presented" (Testimonies, Vol. IV., p. 640).

This is the course she took in shirking and shifting responsibility for an objectionable custom which she herself introduced and sought to impose upon her own people as a Christian duty.

But if others disobeyed God in putting off this reform dress, so did she. When my wife discarded it she gave a great sigh of relief, and told me how she had always disliked it. Not one in the denomination wears it now, though there it stands in the "inspired testimonies" as the word and will of God. This is only another illustration of the fact that Mrs. White in her revelations simply followed the lead of some one else, and was naturally inclined and easily influenced to take up with fanatical and extreme views, and advocate them as direct revelations from God.


1. The dress reached halfway between the hips and the knees, not halfway between the ankles and the knees.

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