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Thoughts On a Plain Wardrobe

Advice for Women Considering Purchasing Custom-made Plain/Modest Dress Online

On this page:
  • Some Considerations on Construction Details
  • Consider All the Components
  • Care
  • Thoughts on Choosing a Headcovering
  • A Toddler's Plain Wardrobe
  • My Plain Wardrobe
Also see:
  • Advice on Fabrics for Home-sewing Plain and Modest Dresses

First, let me say that if thee has any potential for skill at the sewing machine, I would recommend that route. Thee has more control over the details and fit. Thee could perhaps start small, with a cap or a veil. I keep having the problem of finding a cap or apron or dress I like and then the seamstress must set aside her business, and I must find another source.

If thee decides to purchase, I *strongly* recommend purchasing only one garment the first time. I have known too many women who purchase multiple dresses or caps only to have them arrive ill-fitting or somehow unacceptable and there being no way to return or helpfully alter the dresses. Be cautious. Most of my dresses have lasted ten years, and some appear to have another ten years left in them. Thee may find thyself stuck with a less-than-satisfactory garment for many years, better it be just one than three or six. These hand-made garments are an investment in a way that a ready-made, store-bought garment generally isn't, and the more care taken in ordering, the better.

Some Considerations on Construction Details

When ordering custom-made dresses, I suggest always e-mailing the seamstress first. Have thy measurements (taken by someone else if possible) and ask them what size would be most appropriate. They can be helpful in figuring out what size is correct, and sometimes it is hard to return or alter a dress that doesn't fit right. If they aren't comfortable recommending a size, then I suggest finding another resource. It is also possible to find seamstresses who will make a garment from thy measurements rather than using a set pattern in standard sizes. If thee has a-typical measurements or build, this might be worth the effort to track down.

Keep in mind that some seamstresses do not pre-shrink their fabric. I was trained that this was a big no-no, but it seems fairly common now among online seamstresses. Fabrics can shrink unpredictably, both side to side and length-wise. Poly-cottons aren't as bad, but cottons can be very unpredictable. If thee orders a dress in cotton, for instance, and it arrives fitting perfectly, I would be very careful laundering, to always launder in cold and to hang/iron dry. Thee will be very sad to get a too-small dress out of the dryer!

I would also be careful about purchasing garments that use too much elastic. I have dresses that have lasted me a decade but I have had to replace the elastic. The seamstress I like only offers dresses that use elastic at the wrist, so I got in the habit of ordering extra-long sleeves and then removing the sleeves and re-sewing them to not have elastic at the wrist.

Also, elastic in the waist of petticoats and bloomers can become uncomfortable if they are layered too much one upon another, so I would recommend avoiding elastic at the waist as best thee can. I haven't found anyone making bloomers without elastic, but I have been able to replace elastic in them with a drawstring. Also, using skirts for the petticoat has been a good way to avoid elastic waists. Another option is the full slip, though I have found it tricky to find a full slip that was long enough as I wear rather long skirts. Full slips seem to go to just below the knee.

Keep in mind that different fabric weaves will result in different weight fabrics. Thin cotton weaves include dimity, organdy, gingham, lawn (among many others), while heavier-weight cotton weaves including flannels. While cottons "breathe" better and can be cooler in summer, a heavy cotton weave will be hotter to wear than a lighter-weight poly-cotton. There is excellent information available about fabrics at fabrics.net. Generally, purchasing the fabric online or having the seamstress choose the fabric is cheaper than going to the local shop, but going to the local shop supports local workers and allows thee to see and feel the fabric. I suffer from the cold, and so my concern was to have a nice, mid-weight to heavy cotton poplin (plain weave) that would be warm in autumn, winter and spring. I have read elsewhere some people saying not to use quilting fabrics, as they have been treated, but I pre-wash all of my fabrics before I send them to the seamstress and have been more than pleased with the resulting garments.

Consider All the Components

Consider where thee lives. Does thee suffer more when it is cold or hot? Or both? Layering for plain and modest dress includes both items underneath and on top.

Potential useful considerations:

  • socks vs. hosiery
  • shoes vs. boots
  • half vs. full slips
  • petticoats
  • bloomers
  • weight of fabric of dress (perhaps some winter, others summer weight)
  • size of dress, possibility to allow room for more layers underneath
  • apron (some of the aprons are so large they are essentially another layer)
  • neck-kerchiefs (I have lightweight summer and heavier winter neck-kerchiefs)
  • shawls (I so much prefer them to jackets and sweaters, it is hard to describe.)
  • caps (I have been known to wear two caps in winter for additional warmth.)
  • bonnets (a bonnet can provide sun and rain protection and also extra warmth.)

I find petticoats and bloomers a necessity in the winter for warmth. Also, some women who are new to wearing skirts and dresses will actually feel more exposed because of the airiness. Either thick hosiery or bloomers can help ease that feeling if it is causing self-consciousness. I have also found bloomers preferable in many surprising places where modern playground equipment has holes in the flooring, or modern buildings that have glass floors (!) or stairways that allow a view upward.

I wear a nylon slip underneath my petticoats--it has a slimmer, less full silhouette and I have found it helpful to keep the dress and petticoats out from between my legs. The slip also ends up being over the bloomers when I wear them, which can stick to the cotton petticoats in a most annoying way.

I have found neck-kerchiefs and aprons extraordinarily useful. Neck-kerchiefs preserve modesty when I must wear a back pack or use a seat belt. Neck-kerchiefs and full aprons also provide an additional layer of warmth in the winter. One of the other things I like about aprons and neck-kerchiefs is that they help me maintain a tidy appearance when I have to use seat belts. Something about the extra layers over the dress protects it from wrinkling at waist and shoulder. I can then take them off if need be and I am neat and tidy. Pleats at the waist also seem to handle the pressure of seat belts much better than gathers, so I have developed a preference for aprons with pleats.

I have a preference for solids, but for my toddler daughter I go with petite florals. I have found I don't need an apron for her because her floral dresses recover from food spills and don't ever stain. I have used cotton and poly-cotton florals for her and both have worked equally well for handling food spills and resisting staining, but I do sometimes weary of ironing the cotton. The modern solid knit fabrics have proven to be almost disposable, staining irretrievably after one mishap and fading and getting worn looking after just a few launderings.

For myself, the cotton has proven to be much more durable. They have faded a tiny bit but not gotten thin in the ten years I have had them. It may help that I don't put them in an electric dryer but hang them and iron them dry. My poly-cotton dresses have faded decidedly and gotten thin in the elbows and along creases.

I have found three dresses sufficient for my own needs as well as for Tibbie. It may disturb some people to know it, but we will both wear a dress several times before laundering. I am positive it has extended the life of my own garments and am well-satisfied with my ability to preserve a neat and tidy appearance for her. (She only has three dresses. She also has some non-plain clothes mostly given as gifts, but they are not what I put her in on a daily basis.) I have three neat and tidy dresses for each of our two seasons, cold and hot (so that is six total). I do have additional older, thinner and worn poly-cotton dresses I keep around but don't feel comfortable wearing out, and since I go out most days, I don't weart them as often. They definitely come out if we are doing particularly hazardous (for clothing) work like painting or working with glues. I have three early-pregnancy maternity dresses and three late-pregnancy maternity dresses that are nursing-capable. I don't want to exaggerate the simplicity of my wardrobe, but it is pretty simple. I have found three dresses (plus aprons and other components) sufficient.

Care

Be sure to confirm correct laundering instructions with the seamstress. Keep in mind that not all whites can be bleached with chlorine bleach -- some turn yellow when bleached. Since one of the primary reasons I purchase certain garments in white (aprons, underthings) is for the ease of getting them back to white using bleach, this has become a pivotal piece of information.

My 100% cotton dresses get laundered as little as possible. I dry-brush debris, use a soft wet sponge as necessary, and only fully wash when they clearly require it. They never go into the dryer. Instead, I take them out before the final spin cycle completes so that they are fairly wet (letting them go through the whole cycle can result in excessive wrinkling) and then I iron or hang them dry. Spraying diluted vinegar on the cotton clothing once dry does a surprisingly good job of releasing most wrinkles . . . though one must test it on the fabric in an hidden spot to make sure it doesn't cause the dye to run or streak.

Thoughts on Choosing a Headcovering

If thy religious affiliation offers no precise requirements for a headcovering, there are many options. But in general, consider how thee wants to wear thy hair. In a bun up high on thy head? Down low? Wear thy hair long? Different caps and veils work better with the hair in one arrangement or another. Also consider whether or not something tied under the chin might be annoying (as some experience) or if thee might actually prefer the security of a tied cap that stays securely in place (which I prefer).

I actually wear caps most of the time, but when I have a down-hair day, I wear veils. I like the full coverage and the comfort and ease of caps (my caps don't slip or move while my veils I have to be more careful of). But down-hair days can be a necessity, for instance to dry hair after washing it or because of illness.

A Toddler's Plain Wardrobe

Tibbie's plain wardrobe as a toddler is simpler and slightly different than my own, so I thought I would discuss it separately.

The components for Tibbie include:

  • white socks for summer, thick white tights for winter
  • classic child's white shoes for cold weather and hard play
  • black "mary janes" for warmer weather and dress up
  • 5 pairs of white bloomers
  • 3 white slips
  • a "gardening" coat as I call it
  • 1 white cotton knit sweater
  • 3 plain dresses in small floral prints
  • a white apron
  • 2 white caps
  • 1 gray bonnet

It has been extremely helpful to be able to have 100% cotton slips and bloomers. I soak them in bleach, wash them on hot, and generally bring my fullest arsenal of cleaning tools to bear. I don't put them in the dryer, rather I get them out of the washing machine before the last spin cycle has fully completed and then hang them out to dry. I have found that if I let the last spin cycle complete they are creased and wrinkled and require ironing to have a neat and tidy appearance. I have occasionally found white slips being sold online with a no-chlorine-bleach tag, which I avoid. The other thing I do, when a white garment (socks, tights, cap, slip, bloomers) is soiled, I put it that night to soak in a bin with just water. It is amazing the things that come out with just a good soak overnight in plain water. If that doesn't work, then I start stepping up the treatments.

I opted for short sleeves for Tibbie because I didn't find seamstresses offering grow-pleats in sleeves and didn't want to "lose" a whole dress if only the sleeves were too short. Everytime I tried to order extra-long sleeves they never turned out to be all that extra-long. I am allergic to sunscreen, and so am not much inclined to use it on my daughter, and we live at a very high altitude where I start getting a sunburn in 15 minutes. So protecting her arms became a concern. I opted to design what I call her gardening coat. It is a little coat based on one I found at a local consignment shop. It is a layer that goes on top of her short-sleeve dress that is long-sleeved and provides protection from the sun. It also protects her dress rather well from dirt, mud, grass stains. I have had both light-colored (pink) and dark-colored (gray) gardening coats, and found them equally useful. Light-colored was cooler in the hot sun, and the gray was good for handling dirt and grass stains.

The gray bonnet has also proven pivotal for sun protection. It is easy for her to wear and she can lean back in her stroller and fall asleep and unlike hats it stays in place. Perhaps it helps that I always put on a bonnet before I go out as well, but she doesn't consider it torture as some parents report to me, rather she gets her bonnet and brings me my bonnet when she wants to go outside. (I have had to reinforce this from time to time with the admonition that we couldn't go outside without our bonnets or, if she wanted to take it off outside, that we had to go in if she took off her bonnet.)

Her apron we use for when she is "cooking" with mom, but it has proven not that helpful to wear generally as food stains and other messy play meant I was having to soak and wash it every night. It is nice for keeping flours off her dress, but her floral dresses have proven more resistant to noticeable stains and so I don't have her wear the apron all the time although I wear my own apron nearly constantly.

While her undergarments are 100% cotton, I have only one cotton dress for her and the others are poly-cotton fabrics. Her bonnet is also made of gray poly-cotton.. I do like the wrinkle-resisting nature of the poly-cotton and they are usually less expensive.

My Plain Wardrobe

My wardrobe:

  • 1 pair black driving gloves
  • 1 black outer bonnet, 1 gray sunbonnet
  • 3 white "Caroline" caps, 2 "Laura" caps (Rachel's Seamstress Services)
  • 4 shawls, varying weights
  • 2 white kerchiefs
  • 3 heavy cotton dresses, 6 light weight poly-cotton dresses
  • 1 black petticoat
  • 2 half-slips with shadow panels, 2 full slips
  • 1 pair of bloomers
  • 1 pair woolen leggings
  • 3 pairs of black tights, 6 pairs black knee socks, 6 pairs black "athletic" socks
  • 2 pairs black shoes, 1 pair "tennis" shoes, 1 pair flip-flops, 1 pair knitted slippers

quakers society of friends spirituality plain dress simplicity limiting your palette quaker meeting peace witness George Fox quakerism
quakers society of friends spirituality plain dress simplicity limiting your palette quaker meeting peace witness George Fox quakerism
quakers society of friends spirituality plain dress simplicity limiting your palette quaker meeting peace witness George Fox quakerism
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Ep. 130

"The Power of God is the Cross of Christ"

THEREFORE all Friends, Keep in the Power, and know the Power of God in one another, and the Life, that stands in God; that out of all Dryness and Barrenness ye may be brought, and kept in the Living and Eternal spirit and Power. And so, the God of Glory keep you from the Evil, that is in the World, . . . And when that ye are Met together in the Light, hearken to it, that ye may feel the Power of God in every one of you. So here comes your Ear to be opened to hear the Counsel of the Lord God; and here the ...

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Quaker Jane's
Recommended Reading


Why Do They Dress That Way?

The guide to the practice of plain dress in the United States.


The Quaker: A Study in Costume

Amelia Gummere's classic study of the history of Quaker plain dress, first published around 1900.

(More Recommended Reading on Plain Dress . . .)