What to Wear – Shaker Sisters Knew the Answer

Ann H Gabhart Ann's Posts, One Writer's Journal

What to wear? What to wear? That’s a question that many of us ask as we stare into our closets every morning. But it wasn’t a question that bedeviled the Shaker faithful. They knew what they were wearing. It could be they might be able to choose between a green dress like the one pictured or a blue dress or even a white dress. The blue and white dresses were considered Sunday dresses or worship dresses. The dress pictured here was worn by Catherine Allen who came to the Mount Lebanon Shaker village as a boarder in 1865 at the age of 13. She took to the Shaker life and eventually became one of the Central Ministry in 1908. The dress was typical of the Shaker dress of the late 19th century and early 20th century and was no doubt one of her better dresses. Prior to the 1860s, the Shakers’ dresses were loose, high-waisted styles. This dress was fastened with straight pins instead of buttons, but this wasn’t because of any dislike of buttons but simply because, at one time, the Shakers decided buttonholes were more damaging to the fabric and the dress wouldn’t wear as long. Shakers were ever looking for ways to be thrifty. They did also use buttons on their clothing. 

I’m thinking about the dress and clothing because I was at the Shaker village last Monday and went through their museum where this authentic Shaker dress has been preserved. Then I met my agent, Wendy Lawton, for lunch at the Trustee House where once more I got to admire those beautiful staircases. And take another photo. I’ve got a dozen of them already, but the stairs demand a new photo each time. 

While we were eating, we were talking books of course. And I confessed that I don’t often really think about that “What to wear?” question for my characters while I’m writing. I have to make myself add info about clothing. If it’s a party dress, I make an effort the way I did in my upcoming book, Words Spoken True, and in the Shaker book I’m editing now that will be released next summer, The Gifted. 

 Of course, with the Shaker characters I know what they’re wearing. Something like the photo above. The caps, the scarves, and the aprons were the important articles of clothing that set the image of the character in the readers’ minds. I know a lot of writers go into major detail about the clothing of their characters and it’s good to know as much about your characters as you can. But I’m more the kind of writer who has to remind myself that uh, she might not be able to do this or that with a dozen petticoats on. 

Sometimes I think the Shaker bonnets or caps are as worrisome for me as I always make them for my characters who come into the Shaker villages. I would have struggled if I’d lived in the time when women were expected to wear bonnets any time they were out in the sun. I’ll take freckles any time.  

So I just let my characters grab whatever they want to out of their imaginary closets and don’t give it a lot of thought. At least not until later when my publisher sends me a form to fill out telling what sort of dresses or shirts my people should be wearing for whatever era I’ve picked for my story. 

What do you think? Do you enjoy reading descriptions of the characters’ clothing? Or do you just imagine them running around in blue jeans or flour sack dresses or do you not bother with imagining what they’re wearing at all? For sure I’m not trying on a corset to empathize with my characters. I don’t have to get squeezed until my ribs pop to know that wouldn’t be pleasant. Or a bonnet. 

That’s what imaginations are for. Mine to give you hints about what the characters look like and might be wearing and you to use those hints to awaken an image in your head. 
Happy reading! And don’t forget just two days until I do the drawing for winners of my birthday giveaway. I’m giving away a Grandmother’s Bible, an audio tape of rThe Believer, several autographed copies of my books, a mixed bag of other writers’ books and a surprise. The surprise and a book goes to winner of the “Never Won” one of my giveaways before entrants. I think the surprise gift will be a Shaker cookbook or some Shaker spices. By the way, I ate the lemon pie Monday. This time I liked it. Yum!!

Thanks for dropping by. Leave a comment if you want to enter my drawing or just to let me know how things are going with you.