Women Fight Oppression with Clothing

Quaker Dress; ca. 1820
Gift of Mrs. J.T. Hickman
Kansas State University Historic Costume and Textile Museum, 1987.4.1
Silk, lace, cotton

The term “Quaker” refers to The Religious Society of Friends, a radical Protestant denomination founded in England by George Fox in 1650. Members were popularly and derogatively called “Quakers” due to the shaking movements they made during religious services. This Kansas Quaker dress is of a rich plum color, created by the natural dye cochineal. Cochineal is an Aztec red dye of pre-Hispanic Mexico that became a major trade good. It is obtained from a dried scale insect that manufactures a deep maroon pigment. Notice there are various stains on the plum dress, likely caused by acid spills of fruit drinks or bodily fluids, such as sweat. The material of this completely hand-sewn dress is silk which was likely imported from Asia. Both color and fabric were expensive and point to the festive purpose of the outfit. The dress has an empire waistline and a simple A-line skirt. The gigot sleeves hold thirty pleats and have an expanded bulging shape in the elbows, which tapers at the wrist.

The Quaker dress is fascinating because of its contradictions. While some elements of the dress articulate Quaker plain style, such as the simple A-line skirt, other elements point to a subtle rebellion on the part of the wearer. The curved tailored sleeves of the dress are enormously restrictive, forcing the wearer to hold her arms in a decorative bent position. The lace flower embellishment on the waist and the purely ornamental pleats on the arms, however, suggest rebellion against both plain style and feminine role expectations. Rebellious and articulate women often had Quaker associations because Quakers promoted the most progressive gender politics in the Christian tradition. This explains why many Quaker women, such as Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, led the nineteenth-century women’s suffrage movement. Our dress may not have been that radical, but it is still an articulate textile statement of the wearer’s complex beliefs and opinions. 

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