Crucial Question 15: Was Ellen White's dress reform vision given under divine inspiration?
An early form of dress arising from the women’s rights movement was the American Costume, also called the reform dress. It consisted of a dress worn over pants, and it was not only championed by feminists, but it was also advocated by health reformers who opposed the constrictions of fashionable dresses. Ellen White initially opposed the reform dress in 1863 because she was told in vision that the pants were an abomination when worn by women. On the basis of this vision, she recommended that women wear their dresses “an inch or two” off the streets to minimize contact with unsanitary accretions. After visiting a health reform institute in Dansville, New York, Mrs. White saw the benefits of the pants, and she re-interpreted her vision on dress, this time commanding the SDA sisters to wear a reform dress with pants. Because the reform dress was frowned upon socially, there was great resistance among both SDA women and their husbands.
From the Pen of Ellen White:
Based on her visions, Ellen White initially condemned the American Costume because of its manly pants, and she commanded women to wear their skirts an inch or two off the ground:
“I saw that God's order has been reversed, and His special directions disregarded, by those who adopt the American costume. I was referred to Deuteronomy 22:5: ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.' 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. There is an increasing tendency to have women in their dress and appearance as near like the other sex as possible, and to fashion their dress very much like that of men, but God pronounces it abomination. . . . 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 [the Advent movement]” (1T 421).
“We do not think it in accordance with our faith to dress in the American costume, to wear hoops, or to go to an extreme in wearing long dresses which sweep the sidewalks and streets. 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” (1T 424).
In 1865, Mrs. White found pants to be an agreeable article of female attire, and she specified a length for the outer dress:
“Whatever may be the length of the dress, females should clothe their limbs as thoroughly as the males. This may be done by wearing lined pants gathered into a band and fastened about the ankle, or made full and tapering at the bottom; and these should come down long enough to meet the shoe” (2SM 479 – originally published in How to Live, no. 6, 1865).
“The dress should reach somewhat below the top of the boot; but should be short enough to clear the filth of the sidewalk and street, without being raised by the hand” (2SM 478 – from How to Live, no. 6, 1865).
People wondered why Mrs. White had apparently changed her mind about the American Costume and the length of the dress; in 1867, she denied changing her mind and insisted that dress reform was all based on the same vision:
“Some contend that what I wrote in Testimony for the Church No. 10 [see 1T 424] does not agree with my testimony in the work entitled, How to Live. They were written from the same view, hence are not two views, one contradicting the other, as some may imagine; if there is any difference, it is simply in the form of expression” (1T 456).
Ellen White became quite frustrated with the lack of uniformity in the reform dresses, so she specified a “length of about nine inches from the floor”; she also assailed disobedient sisters for refusing to “lift the cross”:
“In answer to letters of inquiry from many sisters relative to the proper length of the reform dress, I would say that in our part of the State of Michigan we have adopted the uniform length of about nine inches from the floor. . . . I would earnestly recommend uniformity in length, and would say that nine inches as nearly accords with my views of the matter as I am able to express it in inches” (1T 521).
“In some of our churches I have seen all kinds of reform dresses, and yet not one answering the description presented before me. Some appear with white muslin pants, white sleeves, dark delaine dress, and a sleeveless sack of the same description as the dress. Some have a calico dress with pants cut after their own fashioning, not after "the pattern," without starch or stiffening to give them form, and clinging close to the limbs. There is certainly nothing in these dresses manifesting taste or order. Such a dress would not recommend itself to the good judgment of sensible-minded persons. In every sense of the word it is a deformed dress” (1T 521).
“God knows His humble, willing, obedient children and will reward them according to their faithful performance of His will. To many the dress reform is too simple and humbling to be adopted. They cannot lift the cross. God works by simple means to separate and distinguish His children from the world; but some have so departed from the simplicity of the work and ways of God that they are above the work, not in it” (1T 523).
Confused Adventists peppered Ellen White with questions about the changing length of the dress that she had seen in her 1863 vision; in 1867, the Review & Herald carried the following question with Mrs. White’s response:
“Does not the practice of the sisters in wearing their dresses nine inches from the floor contradict Testimony no. 11, which says they should reach somewhat below the top of a
lady’s gaiter boot? Does it not also contradict Testimony no. 10, which says they should clear the filth of the street an inch or two without being raised by the
“The proper distance from the bottom of the dress to the floor was not given to me in inches. Neither was I shown ladies' gaiter boots . . . .
“As I have before stated, the length was not given me in inches, and I was not shown a lady's boot. And here I would state that although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation. As I wrote upon the subject of dress the view . . . revived in my mind as plain as when I was viewing [it] in vision; but I was left to describe the length of the proper dress in my own language the best I could, which I have done by stating that the bottom of the dress should reach near the top of a lady's boot, which would be necessary in order to clear the filth of the streets under the circumstances before named” (RH, Oct. 8, 1867).
In 1875, Mrs. White received a vision terminating the failed reform dress:
“For years I carried the burden of this work and labor to establish uniformity of dress among our sisters. In a vision given me at Battle Creek, January 3, 1875, I was shown the state of things which I have here represented, and that the wide diversity in dress was an injury to the cause of truth. That which would have proved a blessing, if uniformly adopted and properly worn, had been made a reproach, and, in some cases, even a disgrace” (4T 637).
“The reform dress, which was once advocated, proved a battle at every step. Members of the church, refusing to adopt this healthful style of dress, caused dissension and discord. With some there was no uniformity and taste in the preparation of the dress as it had been plainly set before them. This was food for talk. The result was that the objectionable features, the pants, were left off. The burden of advocating the reform dress was removed because that which was given as a blessing was turned into a curse” (3SM 253).
The removal of the reform dress was so complete that Mrs. White prohibited Adventists from wearing that which had previously been commanded as a duty:
“The Lord has not moved upon any of our sisters to adopt the reform dress. The difficulties that we once had to meet are not to be brought in again. There was so much resistance among our own people that it was removed from them. It would then have proved a blessing. But there must be no branching out now into singular forms of dress” (5MR 405 – written in 1897).
“Follow the custom of dress in health reform, but do not again introduce the short dress and pants unless you have the word of the Lord for it” (5MR 405-406 – written in 1897).
Elder J.H. Waggoner describes how twelve women wearing reform dresses were measured to obtain the nine-inch regulation: “[T]he distance of the dresses from the floor was from 8 to 10 ½ inches. The medium, nine inches, was decided to be the right distance, and is adopted as the standard” (qtd. in Robinson, The Story of Our Health Message, p. 144).
“Having seen the rule [ruler] applied to the distance from the floor of several dresses, and having become fully satisfied that
nine inches comes the nearest to the samples shown me, I have given this number of inches in [Testimony] No. 12, as the proper length in regard to which uniformity is very desirable. If it be said
that a lady's boot is not nine inches high, I would say I wear a boot eight inches high . . . .” (RH, Oct. 8, 1867).
“The style of dress introduced by Mrs. W. and adopted by our sisters, with very few exceptions, is about the same as the American Costume . . . with this difference, the skirt of the American Costume reaches hardly to the bend of the knee, while that introduced by Mrs. W., reaches within nine or ten inches of the floor” (James White; qtd. in Numbers, Prophetess of Health, 2nd ed., p. 141).
Dress reform sounds very human and not very divine. Ellen White began by prohibiting the adoption of the American Costume promoted by some feminists and health reformers, but then she began advocating something very similar. The length of the skirt she saw in vision evolved over time. To add to the human element of this saga, the final length was determined by measuring dresses and settling on an average, rather than by a visionary experience. When it finally became evident that many sisters would not adopt the dress, God supposedly backed down from His requirement. Not only did God back down, but the style that had once been commanded was now de-commanded, meaning that loyal SDA women were prohibited from wearing these dresses. The blunders of dress reform implementation speak of human rather than divine influences. The Bible commands modesty, but it wisely spells out no rules, leaving the specifics to be established based on time and place.
- Is the failure of dress reform Ellen White’s fault, the fault of the early SDAs, or God’s fault for introducing a requirement that He should have known would fail?
- Is there any Bible text that would support such drastic dress reform?
“To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Is. 8:20).
For Further Study:
- Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health, 2nd ed., 1992, pp. 129-147
- Dores E. Robinson, The Story of Our Health Message, pp. 98-112; 135-147
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