My Experience with Dress Reform
Agatha M. Thrash, M.D.
Since my conversion in 1964, it has been my great joy to find ever-increasing light. I remember my first great impression concerning my conversion was that of coming from darkness into light. I have had a development of understanding about the meaning of things. I now believe that there is nothing about us that is not intended to reveal some phase of the Creator - His person, His character, His personal interest in our lives. I believe that many err here, and feel that much of what we do is simply our own business and God has no interest in it - our money, our conversations together, the music we listen to, our clothing, our selection of food. He even wants our thoughts to be occupied in a certain way. We are to become like Him again, just as in the beginning when He gave a "Specimen" of Himself (MM 221 and 225) with powers very similar to His own (5T 311), for the purpose of revealing Himself to all the beings He had created in the ages of the past, throughout the starry universe, even to the angels, according to Paul.
I try not to take a step in reform without first making an exhaustive search; a search into what was revealed, and another into what is understood by others. I pray much for guidance and common sense; I look to see if the "light," if followed, would lead toward God or away from Him. As an example: A diet of all raw foods would be improper, as it would generally be expected to lead to exclusion of some things that God has said we may freely eat, such as grains or beans. When I find a discrepancy between what is written and what is spoken, I follow what is written. I know that sometimes it is a matter of interpretation - what I would consider levity from the sacred desk, another would believe to be an acceptable illustration; what to my sensitive ears is unacceptable music, others believe to be good music glorifying God. Since God wants every person to learn to cultivate his own judgment, and not always be dependant on the judgment of others, I believe in matters of interpretation every person should decide for himself on details. My opinions on music are very narrow. Very little music of today is acceptable, holy, pure, and not mystical or even purely "Egyptian." Yet, I rarely mention music. Others do not have my experience - how could they understand? If they had had my 20 years of study of music, or my 7 years study of dancing, they could understand. But perhaps God is not leading them along these lines. Yet, I am responsible for what I know. I feel very sad when somebody denies to me the right to select my own music or avoid music altogether, and summarily condemns me a Pharisee because of my narrow path on music. I recognize that they know not what they do, yet, to explain my position seems either impossible, futile, or self-deprecatory.
Now, to explain my views on dress, as I believe there is a great blessing in dress reform that our church has not yet received. Dress reform could do a work for us that would bring about untold blessings. Ellen G. White said there was a cross in dress reform, and she cheerfully stooped to lift it. 1T 525, 4T 628, 648
Dress reform was given to us primarily for health reasons, for convenience, and to save time and money, but modesty and pride were also features of the reform.
In Review & Herald articles, Volume 1:78, E.G. White speaks of a woman who had the shameful exposure of her legs, because she lifted her skirts (almost twice as high as our skirts) in order to climb stairs or step onto the sidewalk or into a carriage "allowing shameful exposure of the thinly clad limbs." (That would be cotton or wool stockings, as silk stockings were not common until the 20s or 30s.) At that time, Ellen White was wearing her skirts about 5" from the floor. Twice as high would be about to mid-calf. I believe a principle is involved here and that the Lord would like our limbs to be covered. E.G. White said that the author of the fashions that left the extremities bare was Satan.
E.G. White is never pictured with her limbs exposed. We are told in Selected Messages, book 2, that the wearing of girdles is a sin. Also, that failure to clothe children's limbs properly is a responsibility for which parents must answer in the judgment. In another place, we are told that the most important thing deteriorating the spirituality of the churches is a devotion to fashion.
Yet, with all the emphasis on banishing pride in dress and being modest and healthful, the Lord apparently prizes neatness and cleanliness ahead of modesty. Women were told not to adopt the reform dress until they were willing to be neat and cleanly about their persons. Also, we are told that uniformity of color in an outfit is pleasing to the Lord. We can say, then, that the dress should be chosen in the order of the following principles: 1) neatness and order; 2) health; 3) modesty and humility; and 4) convenience and durability.
It is not on the counsel of some extreme person that I began to wear long dresses. I made a meticulous study of the inspired word, of the history of the times Ellen White lived in, of what she meant by the "reform dress," as compared to "dress reform." I understand some things about these matters from my former study of the philosophy and psychology of fashions, and my devotion for many years to current fashions and custom tailoring. For some time after my conversion, I believed that God was not particularly interested in my dress, beyond jewelry. I did not understand how much pride was involved in my dress until my pastor spoke to me for the third time regarding cosmetics. Just at that time, I read what Ellen White said about cosmetics making the blood impure. For the first time, I realized God was interested even in this detail, and that at stake were not only modesty (which shows a concern for other's feelings) and health (my sacred custodianship), but also my character development (I have not been the same proud person since that very day). Gradually, I began to see that Ellen White was right: no act of life is small and without consequence. Dress is, as worldlings well know, an index of character.
While the minister is admonished to be faithful in exhorting the people on health reform, the physician is most especially responsible for the physical preparation of the people to meet the Lord. The sanitariums that we were instructed to build were to teach the people on eating, drinking, and dressing properly. MM 163
"God cannot endorse any institution unless it teaches the living principles of His law and brings its own actions into strict conformity to these precepts." MM 164
How am I to do this instruction and give this example? There are some who are so sensitive to chilling of the extremities that they get high blood pressure if the feet are even slightly chilled. In Disease and Its Causes, reprinted entirely in 2SM 410 and onward, on page 471, and repeated on page 479, we are given the proper covering of the extremities. Notice, that for women and girls, long underwear, stockings, thick-soled shoes, one or two long underskirts, a dress that falls below the knees, and warm, lined pants to the ankles are given as correct winter wear for women and girls. She states on page 472 that only one tightly fitting covering over the limbs (what we would call stockings or tights) is not modest, healthful, or really attractive. And should we not believe that stockings that are worn just for show are immodest? Is not that the principle intended by the statement on the small hat that was worn just for show? "I was shown that the people of God should not imitate the fashions of the world. Some have done this, and are fast losing the peculiar, holy, character which should distinguish them as God's people. I was pointed back to God's ancient people, and was led to compare their apparel with the mode of dress in these last days. What a difference! What a change! Then the women were not so bold as now. When they went in public, they covered their faces with a veil. In these last days, fashions are shameful and immodest. They are noticed in prophecy. They were first brought in by a class over whom Satan has entire control... If God's professed people had not greatly departed from Him, there would now be a marked difference between their dress and that of the world. The small bonnets, exposing the face and head, show a lack of modesty...." 1T 188-189.
"Every true and real reform will bring us nearer to God and heaven, closer to the side of Jesus, and increase our knowledge of spiritual things and deepen in us the holiness of Christian experience." 1T 556
As leaders of the people, it is our privilege to teach them whatever will bring them closer to the side of Jesus. "The reform dress is simple and healthful, yet there is a cross in it. I thank God for the cross and cheerfully bow to lift it. We have been so united with the world that we have lost sight of the cross and do not suffer for Christ's sake." 1T 525
"The idea entertained by some that (the reform dress) would detract from the dignity or usefulness of (the sanitarium) is a mistake. It is just such a dress as one would expect to find there.... Such a dress would preach its own sermon to the devotees of fashion. The contrast between their own unhealthful... garments and the reform dress... would have been most instructive. Many of the patients would have made greater improvement had they accepted the dress reform." 4T 368. "Reformatory action is always attended with sacrifice... perhaps no question has ever come up among us which has caused such development of character as has the dress reform." 4T 636. "I have been shown that the main cause of your backsliding is your love of dress." 4T 647
"As soon as any have a desire to imitate the fashions of the world, that they do not immediately subdue, just so soon God ceases to acknowledge them as His children." 1T 137
"Love of dress, devotion to fashion, are among the teacher's most formidable rivals and most effective hindrances." ED 246 "There is a terrible sin upon us as a people that we have permitted our church members to dress in a manner inconsistent with their faith. We must arise at once.... Unless we do this, our churches will become demoralized." 4T 647-648
"The line of distinction between them and the Israel of God must be made plain." 1T 189 "The reason we have had so little influence upon unbelieving relatives and associates is that we have manifested little decided difference in our practices from those of the world.... When we reach the standards that the Lord would have us reach, worldlings will regard Seventh-day Adventists as odd, singular, strait-laced extremists." FE 288, 289. "Because others will continue to follow this health and life-destroying practice, it is no excuse for those who style themselves reformers. Because everybody around you follows a fashion which is injurious to health, it will not make your sin a whit the less...." 2SM 479
Not only is blood pressure related to cold stress, but the body is more susceptible to viral infections of all kinds: colds, influenza, cancer, encephalitis, etc. Hans Selye, the famous Canadian who popularized stress as a cause of accelerated aging, uses cold stress in many of his experiments with animals to demonstrate these principles. The people of the world are now having a dress reform. Many smartly dressed women students who come to my office from nearby Auburn University take off their woolen stockings, boots, long johns, long thick skirts and pants. I believe God allowed the current fashions of our day to bring in again the long dresses, long sleeves, loose waists, simplicity, and modest necklines so that the Christian woman who wishes to dress modestly and to subdue pride in herself can find clothing in ordinary stores, and patterns in fabric shops. The Lord allowed the dress question to be silent among us, not because it was unimportant, but because "it was the Lord's purpose to prove His professed people, and reveal the motives of their hearts. At camp meetings I seldom had anything to say upon the subject.... I saw that our sisters were departing from the simplicity of the gospel.... Their dresses were... entirely at variance with our faith. Thus has been developed the pride of heart indulged by a people that profess to have come out from the world, and to be separate.... Our people have been steadily retrograding in the work of reform. Wisdom and judgment have seemed paralyzed. Selfishness and love of display have been corrupting the heart and deteriorating the character.... God has been testing His people. He allowed the testimony concerning dress to become silent, that our sisters might follow their own inclinations, and thus develop the real pride existing in their hearts.... Many scorned the idea that this dress was necessary to preserve them from following the fashions, but the Lord has permitted them to prove that pride was cherished in their hearts, and that this was just what they would do. It is now shown that they needed the restriction which the reform dress imposed." 4T 634-640
I do not believe that anything can be gained by teaching dress reform on the basis of modesty before a woman is converted. To attempt it is an exercise in legalism. But the fashions of the world will allow our women to benefit from the healthfulness of dress reform. Many women of the world adopt these new styles, and our women will too, unless they have some reason that interferes with the acceptance of simple dress. "Christians should be preparing for what is soon to break upon the world as an overwhelming surprise, and this preparation they should make by diligently studying the word of God, and striving to conform their lives to its precepts. The tremendous issues of eternity demand of us something besides an imaginary religion, a religion of words and forms, where truth is kept in the outer court. God calls for a revival and a reformation." PK 626
At every step of the way in my study of dress reform, I have wondered if I was taking an extreme position. After much study, much prayer, and a very cautious attitude, I am convinced that I am not. Some may say that I am a Pharisee. If so, I say, "Show me from the Scriptures that I am wrong." In cautioning against an extreme position in 1T 212-213, Ellen White says, "The one who has ventured out and discharged his disagreeable duty by faithfully meeting error and wrong, is grieved and wounded that he receives not the fullest sympathy of his preaching brethren. He becomes discouraged in discharging these painful duties, lays down the cross, and withholds the pointed testimony... and the church suffers for the lack of the very testimony which God designs should live among His people. Satan's object is gained when the faithful testimony is suppressed. Those who so readily sympathize with the wrong consider it a virtue: but they realize not that they are exerting a scattering influence and that they themselves helped to carry out Satan's plans."
"Error is never harmless. It never sanctifies, but always brings confusion and dissention. It is always dangerous." 5T 292
"In 1844, when anything came to our attention that we did not understand, we kneeled down... and then we were able to come to a right understanding and see eye-to-eye. There was no dissention, no enmity...." GW 302
The revival of interest in this topic by many leading women in our denomination is certainly a strong sign of the approaching end, when primitive godliness is again to characterize the church.
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