Grandmother’s Dress

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A Description of Plain Clothes Dress from the Early 1900’s by Naomi West

Grandmother's DressMay I introduce myself? I am Naomi E. Miller West, granddaughter of Bettie Wine Thomas, 1851 – 1938, whose dress I am wearing. The dress is well worn and patched but it has stories to tell.

If you were able to go back in time and revisit the Old Dunkard Church in Bridgewater, one of the main things you notice would be how the people were dressed. As a child, I remember two outstanding colors that most people wore, black and white. The men wore black suits with the coat buttoned up to the neck especially if they were ministers. The older women wore plain black long dresses using the same pattern when a new dress was made. Sometimes one would see shades of gray in some of the dresses. Younger women wore white waists and long black skirts. I especially remember the women from Bridgewater College who had walked from the College to the Church who wore this combination, especially in the early spring and fall. In the summertime little girls wore white dresses and it was often the same go to meeting dress that was worn about every Sunday. In winter the dresses were of a dark color and made of woolen material. Sometimes girls wore linen hand embroidered dresses and the boys wore linen boy dresses. Black shoes and stockings were worn regardless of the season. When you visited other Brethren Churches in this area, you would find people were dressed in a similar way.

It is easy to believe that the early German immigrants that came to Colonial America and settled in Germantown brought with them the clothing they were accustomed to wearing in their homeland. Many of them were weavers and had spun their own cloth and made their own garments; it is easy to believe that when they came here there was no set form of dress. During the Revolutionary War it is said that the Colonist gave up, voluntarily, the more fanciful designed clothing but at the end of the war, especially those who were active in the war, resorted to the more stylish type of dress. But the plain people maintained their belief in simplicity in daily living, so the dress rather set them apart from the word.

So what I am wearing is the type of dress that one would see the “sisters” wearing when they went to church.

In 1904, Annual Conference of the Brethren was to be held in Carthage, Missouri. Some of my Grandmother’s close relatives had moved there from this area and she wanted to visit them and attend conference. For the trip, she very much wanted a watch. She may have thought she would be considered worldly if she wore one like people wore the, so she make a tiny pocket at the waist line of her dress under her left arm. It was covered by her arm and the cape. She fastened her watch to a black cord, which she wore around her neck.

With a full skirt, a fitted waist and long sleeves, what was the purpose of the cape and the apron? I was told by a Pennsylvania Dutchman since the women did not wear the bra the cape was for modesty. The apron was worn at work by men or women for protection from soilage of what work they were doing, and as a symbol of service.

My Mother told me that in my Father’s home, his mother and sisters would roll up their long sleeves above the wrist when they were working in the kitchen, but before the men were called in to eat, their sleeves would be pulled down over their wrists.

When a woman professed Christ, was baptized and became a member of the Church, she must wear the cap or prayer covering as it was called. Some women wore it every day; some wore it only when they went to Church. The cap was worn under the bonnet. Sometimes it was a little difficult to tell who the woman was if she had a bonnet that was made with little pieces of cardboard inserted in the front part of the bonnet to give it a shape. They could be removed to wash the bonnet. To give the expected kiss, the bonnet needed to be pushed back from the fact. Younger persons wore a bonnet made with a wire frame and covered with brain and tied with a ribbon under the chin.

What shall I wear to church? No problem. Usually the same dress, Sunday after Sunday!

Naomi M. WestGrandmother's Dress to Church
February, 2002

Credits: Naomi West and Emmert Bittinger served as models for these photos. Photos were taken by David Lineweaver, photo editing was done by Greg Owen.