Shakers are one of the most pigeonholed groups in American religious history. While many aspects of these stereotypes have a basis in fact, many scholars have offered only a very black and white view of Shaker life. We continually hear about the Shakers being very plain and simple people who believed in perfection in all things. It is sometimes surprising to hear of things that challenge that idea. Yet the Shakers were and are all too human and very few people are capable of living up to the idealized concept of “perfection,” especially since the definition constantly changes. As we examine Shaker fashion, it is important to consider the differences between individual Shakers and various Shaker communities, as well as the fact that everything changes over time – what may have been true in 1897 would have been unheard of in 1834.
When we think of Shaker clothing, we perceive a very dower, dark, and unadorned outfit. A brief visit to a collections room of a Shaker museum will reveal their love of rich colors and tiny, though not excessive, details. Small lace trims on women’s garments and subtle variations and personal touches in otherwise uniform dress are visible in photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century. Examination of a Shaker garment might reveal brightly patterned fabric on the inside, something that was not acceptable for the rest of the piece, but added a unique and personal feel to the garment.
Some historians use the term “fossilization” to describe Shaker fashion; they found a style that worked for them and kept it throughout the years, even after it had gone out of style in “the world.” There was some evolution, though. The sisters eventually shifted from wearing neckerchiefs to berthas, small capes that covered the shoulders and fastened in front. Berthas were worn by non-Shaker women as early as 1840, but the sisters adapted them about 1875. They were first made out of the same material as the dress, but by the turn of the century, silk berthas were favored. One reason the sisters may have switched to the bertha was because outerwear was changing; closely fitted cloaks were popular among the Shakers and the sturdy fabric of the bertha held its shape and wrinkled less than the kerchiefs. Apart from being more practical, the berthas were more fashionable. Shaker women had worn neckerchiefs for an entire century. The berthas served the same purpose – covering the bodice much in the way a neckerchief did – while keeping with the style of the day. Berthas were usually trimmed with lace or rickrack.
Hairstyles also were of great concern to many Shakers. While women had few options for open styling due to their prim white caps, men were surprisingly opinionated regarding the hair on their heads and faces. In 1816, hair caps for brethren devoid of hair were developed at New Lebanon. While it is possible to argue that these caps would also have practical uses, such as preventing sunburn in the summer and keeping warm in the winter, other fascinations with hair suggest that there was at least a slight component of self consciousness. Advertised through the 1880s and 1890s was a “Shaker Hair Restorer” that was available from Mount Lebanon. Advertisements stated that it “restores gray hair to its natural color, beauty and softness and is an excellent toilet dressing.” Another more concise, even biting ad asserted that “Gray hair is honorable, but the natural color is preferable!” While this could be an example of the Shakers knowing their audience and marketing a product designed to speak to the male insecurity of graying hair, it is still interesting that this was a product of a community that generally tried to avoid superfluous items and actions.
Beards were also of great concern to the Shakers. In an article in the New York Times in 1875, the paper gleefully reports of contention between the brethren. On December 29, 1875, under the headline “The Shakers and their Beards,” the Albany Times says:
“A meeting of the leading male members of the Shakers’ Societies was held at Niskayuna on Christmas Day to consider and decide the beard question, which has been agitating the community for some time past . . . Some of the brethren were emphatic in opposition to the abandonment of the old rule which proscribed the growth of hair on the face, while others – and Elder [Frederick] Evans among the number – favored making the wearing of beards by the male Shakers compulsory . . . The result of the conference was a compromise. The beard party triumphed, but failed to obtain a complete victory . . . In addition it was determined that all new male members of the society would adopt this [shaven] style, while the older ones should be giving the option whether they would shave smooth or not.”
Although they believed in living simply and avoiding superfluity, the Shakers had strong opinions when it came to fashion. They were not immune to worldly trends and enjoyed a small amount of personalization in their uniform.