Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Proprieties and Usages of Good Society — Lesson III. Dress

Proprieties and Usages of Good Society — Lesson III. Dress

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 09, 2010

Here is the next chapter in our turn-of-the-last-century course in courtesy and refinement for the young girls of the church who had grown up in rough pioneer conditions. Before reading this entry on dress, take a moment to imagine what you expect it to be. What would a lesson on clothing address if it were written for today’s Young Women program?

Lesson II. Visitors in the Home
Lesson IV. Traveling

III. Dress.

We are told that the outer clothing does not always bespeak the lady or the gentleman. This may be true to a certain extent. The clothing may be poor or mean; but if the person who wears it is cultured and well-bred, no matter how poor, his clothing will be clean and neat, and at the same time simple and unostentatious. It is the height of ill-breeding to appear on the street or in the church or at any other inappropriate place clothed in gaudy raiment, and clad in such a way that the eyes of passers-by are attracted and offended.

What are some of the requirements of beautiful and tasteful dress for the woman who would appear as a lady, wherever she may be?

In the home, if she has the usual house duties to attend to, her clothing should be of the simplest character. All authorities agree that house dresses should be short – two inches at least above the floor – and plainly made. Wrappers are going out of fashion, even for house dresses, although tea-gowns are worn by fashionable women.

A most comfortable garment for a mother who is obliged to get up in the night, is a loose robe made of outing flannel, or some woollen material.

The house dress, where one is able to afford several costumes, is preferably made of cotton material so that it can be washed frequently. The economical and labor-saving apron made to the bottom of the dress and going well around towards the back, should never be forgotten as a part of the house outfit; not one, but several aprons should be provided. With those who cannot afford special dresses for house-work, the woollen skirts that have finished their career for street dresses can be washed and made short enough for use. These with washable shirt-waists can take the place of the cotton dress, if the skirt be well covered with aprons.

Nothing so betrays a lack of refinement as to find a woman bedecked with tattered finery while busy with her household cares. It is better to rip trimming from ball room dresses, dye and press the material, and make it into a simple housegown; or else cut out all the good pieces with which to make a best dress for some child and put the rags in the rag-bag. It is genuine economy as well as true refinement to have a perfectly plain, serviceable dress to wear in the house and never by any chance to wear Sunday costumes one moment while at work in household cares.

Where we cannot afford a street dress, a housedress, an afternoon and an evening dress, the convenient, and perennial shirt-waist affords a cheap and useful substitute for these various costumes. Therefore, let the skirt, which must thus do duty on numerous occasions, be carefully selected and tastefully made. Cheap woollen goods are never satisfactorily used for this purpose. The home-made light wools, cashmeres and alpaca goods are the most satisfactory.

A hint worth remembering in home-made dress-making is that no skirt pattern should be used which calls for any except a bias seam down the middle of the back; such a pattern always makes the skirt sag on the sides and draw up in the back.

Particular attention must be paid in all costumes to the joining of the waist and skirt at the waistband. Where skirts have bodices of the same material, they should be fastened together on the inside with hooks and eyes. Where shirt-waists are used, a ver comfortable device is to have button-holes made on separate pieces of cloth and sewn on the inside of the skirt-band to match a like number of buttons which are to be sewn on to the shirt-waist at the waist line. A stout piece of cloth, doubled three times, should be sewn on the shirt-waist, preferably on the inside, to hold the buttons firmly. Five buttons are used for this purpose, three in the centre of the back, and one on each side seam of the waist. Make the waist line short in the back.

Ball dresses are not often a separate part of the wardrobe for our young girls and yet, with a very moderate expense, if a girl has been properly trained to use her needle, she can make pretty ball costumes of lawn, muslin, nun’s veiling and albatross cloth, all of which wash beautifully.

There is one thing that must be mentioned in connection with ball costumes and for thin materials. There is a tendency among our young girls to have dresses made quite low in the neck and with short sleeves or no sleeves at all; sometimes it is the dress and again the underwear they use with the dress that is thus made low, showing the neck and arms through the delicate covering of muslin or other thin material to a somewhat shocking degree. This fashion is creeping in rapidly. Where the girl has not received her blessings in the temple, a very modest cutting away of the neck with the sleeves shortened to the elbow is not, perhaps, immodest or unbecoming. But the woman, be she young or old, whether she has been in the Temple or not, who exposes too much of her neck and shoulders and all of her arms to the public gaze is lost to a sense of modesty if not decency. The young girls of the Mutual Improvement Associations should take a stand which will command the respect of their parents and associates. This practice, when carried too far, becomes a positive menace to the morals of good society; and mothers will accept this statement and verify it to their daughters if they are questioned on the matter. These remarks apply especially to summer and ball dresses as well as wedding dresses and to graduating costumes.

Wedding dresses should be made, preferably, of material which will be of some service afterwards, although a neat, pretty muslin, simply made to wear in the Temple, becomes a choice heirloom to pass down from mother to daughter. A wedding dress as the afternoon dress of the bride is called here, of some light cashmere and even of silk, makes a nice gown for the young wife for months after her marriage, if sensibly made and properly chosen.

Graduating dresses are becoming a feature of our school life. The ridiculous custom of making them of expensive material and elaborate fashion is a tax upon the strained purses of parents which should not be encouraged. A gentleman of great wealth, and equally great good sense, insisted that his daughter, in graduating, should have a plain white muslin dress, thus setting the example to the rest of the girls in the class. The results of this denial have been lasting, for, while this incident occurred several years ago, the consequence is that no one has gone to the extravagant lengths in this matter that had been the custom previously in the graduating dresses of the school. The girls have followed the excellent example thus set.

Jewelry has its time and place and use. Diamond rings and brooches are not suitable to be worn with calico dresses or cheap costumes. Nothing so marks the ill-breeding of a woman as the extensive use of jewelry, be it good or bad. The women of the world who possess jewels, possess as a rule the good breeding that teaches them never to wear them except on state occasions or at formal functions. Heavily ringed hands with torn and soiled gloves or frowsy costumes bespeak the mind uncultured and ill-regulated.

In choosing the colors of one’s costume, care should be taken not to produce inharmonious results. As a rule, the color of the eyes and the hair, preferably the former, may be taken as the basis of the color scheme of a costume. Tints and shades (see Mrs. Widtsoe’s article on Color) are much safer to choose than the primary colors. The law of colors should be studied by any woman who desires to have her home suitably decorated and her costumes harmonious and tasteful, for in no way can we offend good taste more than by choosing inharmonious colors. A simple rule for ascertaining the complementary or contrasting color, is to look steadily at the centre of the piece of color to be contrasted for about thirty seconds, then quickly shift the eyes to a fixed point on a white background; the exact shape of the object gazed at will appear on the white background in the complementary or contrasting color.

Some of our girls are wearing large hats. The laws of Utah and the express wish of the presidency of the Church and of the General Board of the Young Ladies’ Associations, require the members of the Mutual Improvement Associations to remove their hats in all public places, and especially in church. The true lady will be found obedient to the wishes of those who have a right to speak on such a matter, particularly in this case, as the laws pertaining to others’ rights and privileges require her to remove her hat or bonnet, if not for her own sake, for the comfort and convenience of those who sit behind her. She thus becomes an example to all her associates.


1. Why and to what extent does the outer clothing bespeak the lady or the gentleman?
2. What are some of the requisites of tasteful dress.
3. What can you say about a house dress? A ball dress? A graduating dress?
4. What is your idea of wearing low-neck dresses, etc.?
5. What are your ideas of appearing in public places in highly colored dress?
6. What would you do with a ball dress out of fashion? What with a wedding dress?
7. What should you do to make the color scheme of your costumes most effective?
8. What is a complementary or contrasting color?
9. What can you say of hats? When, where and how should they be worn?



  1. Wow. So much to say about this and so little time (it’s my longest teaching day). I’ll have to limit myself to a few off the cuff (har har) comments.

    1)”A most comfortable garment for a mother who is obliged to get up in the night, is a loose robe made of outing flannel, or some woollen material.” This is true for everyone and its a real bummer that I can’t wear my vintage Beacon robes in the summer.

    2) I love the emphasis on thrift and remaking clothing. Although written for a specific audience, I suspect that this, like much of the style specifics, is pretty mainstream advice for its time (at least judging by the vintage fashion, sewing and home advice handbooks I collect and read): not high fashion, but practical everyday “womanly lore.”

    3) I instantly thought of Juanita Brooks and her story of the woman she meets on the train to BYU who gives her advice on how to dress on a budget: “Get one good dress. Don’t go to Penney’s or the little shops; go to Dixon-Taylor-Russell and get yourself one good dress, an all-wool, hard weave, navy blue, that fits well, and then get several sets of accessories: different collar and cuff sets, at least four. Then you can wear just a pin or some beads for a change. But you will always be well-dressed. If you give the dress good care, it will last the whole winter long, and you’ll look better than if you had three cheap dresses.”

    4) Though I have not read Mrs. Widstoe’s article on color (but I want to!) I agree with everything in that brilliant paragraph on the importance of color.

    Comment by Mina — February 9, 2010 @ 8:09 am

  2. I was shocked to read the author’s “religious” take on the wearing of hats. It was as if the author was saying, “Ladies, take off your hats during church services, not just because it obstructs the view of those sitting behind you, but because the prophet wants you to do so!” Whoah.

    This is an interesting series. Not to be a party-pooper, but I have to think that some of this advice about refinement and being a lady might have been poorly received by some of the intended audience. Still, I give the author an “A” for effort.

    Comment by Hunter — February 9, 2010 @ 9:15 am

  3. Hats 1902 = Multiple earrings 2010? I think we’re going to find specific pieces of advice directed toward particular 1902 styles or behaviors to be the most peculiar, and perhaps even ludicrous. When the author (or authors — I think there’s evidence in the series as a whole that multiple women were involved in writing these, although I don’t have the names of any) back away from the particular and talk more about principles, how do you think she is doing?

    Mina, I’ll try to find Mrs. Widtsoe’s color article. And I remember the sequel to Juanita Brooks’s story about her one good dress with the multiple accessories: After months of wearing the same dress, she got a new one from her mother (lavender and yellow check, wasn’t it?) — and when she wore that the first time, her friends and even a teacher IIRC confessed how tired they were of seeing her in that one dress and how relieved they were that she finally had another. Ouch! But fun.

    The mindset of thrift and practicality makes fashion something very different than the mindset of consumerism, doesn’t it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 9:32 am

  4. What surprised me was the counsel for women to remove their hats in church, period. Over the centuries here in Scotland, it was (and still is in some other denominations) the custom for women to *always* wear a hat to church, and I suspect it was the same for the rest of Great Britain, too. I wonder why that particular (relatively unimportant) tradition didn’t translate to the Intermountain West of the early 1900s?

    Comment by Alison — February 9, 2010 @ 9:32 am

  5. I suppose I should clarify my last comment about the reception of these articles. I wasn’t paying attention to the indication of the dates, and I guess I was thinking that these articles were from later in the 19th-century, but you say “early in the 20th century” in the preliminary statement. I suppose it would make sense that a third generation of Salt Lakers would be interested in training about the rules of good society and things cosmopolitan.

    Comment by Hunter — February 9, 2010 @ 9:32 am

  6. Hunter, and Alison, the hats that were stylish in 1902 were those huge “picture” hats like you may associate with “Hello, Dolly” — the huge, high, feathered and frothy concoctions on “pompadour frames” — which were a real nuisance in public. Cities all over the U.S. passed laws requiring the removal of those things at the theater and in other public gatherings because they so seriously obstructed the view of others. Even five years later I don’t think remarks about hats would have made it into these lessons, because they are directed specifically against that fad, not to the matter of whether heads were covered or bare.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 9:41 am

  7. “When the author . . . back[s] away from the particular and talk more about principles, how do you think she is doing?”

    Your allusion to GBH’s reiteration of the ban on multiple earrings and your question above brings to mind an important issue for me. To this day, my two oldest daughters (ages 7 & 10) are fixated on the earrings thing. For example, if they make a new friend at school/in the neighborhood/at church, the first thing they will start talking about is the fact the girl might have two earrings.

    As their dad, I want them to see past all that and understand the principle behind the rule, as well as the fact that it’s human nature to take “rules” of dress and appearance and draw lines and make judgments of others based on those superficial things. Someday I hope my girls will understand that their first impression of a person should not be based on the number of holes in their ear lobes. Unfortunately, I think we’re failing in that. Egads.

    In that light, then, I do appreciate the author’s attempt to elevate these rules of fashion and fads into an explanation of principles of frugality, cleanliness, functionality, as well as simple courtesy.

    Comment by Hunter — February 9, 2010 @ 9:50 am

  8. When I was their age, the question wasn’t earrings but was whether or not skirts hit the middle of the knee. I remember being just as judgmental as a child and didn’t grow out of that particular phase for a long, long time. For others it’s maybe whether the parents of a friend drink coffee. I don’t know how we could teach principle without using concrete illustrations, but I also don’t know how to get people past the illustrations when they get stuck there. It’s one of the points I would definitely change about my own youth, if I could. Good luck with that and your girls.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 10:10 am

  9. Skirts are supposed to hit the middle of the knee? I missed that one. (Whoops. Perhaps I should take all my skirts to the tailor to be let down an inch or two.)

    The image of the housewives wearing tattered old ball gowns to do housework blows my mind. But I suppose we live in a day and age where textiles are so much cheaper and easier to replace.

    Here’s a picture of my great grandmother’s wedding dress from that era. I wonder if it fit the guidelines in this article. She never did have the chance to wear it out and do housework in it; it was stolen from her house several years later along with most of her jewelry.

    Comment by Researcher — February 9, 2010 @ 10:56 am

  10. Skirts were supposed to hit the middle of the kneecap in the ’60s, Researcher, and that was as easy a marker as holes in the ears for judging whether a girl was following the rules or not. Hey, I didn’t make the rules — I just judged the girls who broke them.

    That’s a pretty dress, and certainly avoids the problem of a low-cut neckline.

    But don’t be surprised if I drop by your house unexpectedly one of these days. If I catch you sweeping the floor while you’re wearing a bride’s maid dress, especially if the poofy sleeves are looking bedraggled, I’m gonna tell.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 11:10 am

  11. Overall, fascinating for a guy to read this. When I read the bit about removing the hats, I immediately thought of those “Hello Dolly” images (refreshed, alas, by repeated viewings of Wall-E.

    I am interested, though, in what ball gowns made of lawn or albatross cloth look like. I have weird images going through my mind right now. This guy appears to be wearing a suit of Albatross cloth.

    Comment by kevinf — February 9, 2010 @ 11:47 am

  12. Very good, kevinf.

    This couple appears to be wearing lawn.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 11:50 am

  13. I also found this ball gown of lawn.

    Comment by kevinf — February 9, 2010 @ 11:52 am

  14. I like yours better than mine, even if mine IS in color.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 11:56 am

  15. Actually, Ardis, lawn appears to be all the rage this year. The woman in the middle also seems to have found multiple uses for her ball gown, representing both frugality, style, and good taste.

    Comment by kevinf — February 9, 2010 @ 11:59 am

  16. I couldn’t resist one more, evidencing good taste, but it appears to be caught “in moderation”, which is not always one of my strong points.

    I do want to make a serious comment, though, about the strong sense of frugality and the lack of consumerism here. While we all enjoy the quality and convenience of good quality clothing bought off the shelf at reasonable prices, it is too easy sometimes. Since I rarely wear ties except to church meetings any more, do I really need the 20+ ties hanging on the rack? At that, I should rarely wear the same tie more than 3 times a year.

    And the ever patient Mrs. F will talk about some other clothing fixations I occasionally will display. The idea of making something serve multiple purposes, and to keep it clean and in good repair is still sound advice. How many winter parkas does one really need?

    Comment by kevinf — February 9, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  17. Found and freed, kevinf (as #15). And I concur with your evaluation of the finer qualities of that ball gown.

    Thanks for the serious elements, too.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  18. Kevin and Ardis, thanks for that description of textiles. I’ll admit I’ve been fascinated and confused by the subject ever since my girlhood perusal of Little House on the Prairie books. But it all makes sense now. Laura must have made dresses out of lawn/dugout grass during their homestead years.

    Anyway, I really agree with the idea of having a limited quantity of well-fitting, well-made articles of clothing preferably made of something other than melty petrochemicals. But that’s a concept rather foreign to our cheap, disposable everything economy.

    So, overall, I say good advice with the exception of getting up in everyone else’s business about necklines and hats, except where they pose an actual threat or severe view obstruction.

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 9, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

  19. Comment by Anne (U.K) — February 9, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

  20. Anne is performing as a mime today!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

  21. oops! I think the mime is me anxiously checking my home and costumes to ensure the colours are not inharmonious, so as not to offend good taste….

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — February 9, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  22. Ha! Good one, Anne.

    Comment by Hunter — February 9, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

  23. I love that complimentary color detector. As a kid, I remember illusions in the form of shroud-of-Tourin-like cutouts that made Jesus appear on the wall. I never would have though to bridle this silly human trick for any constructive purpose.

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 9, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

  24. Moniker, I’m wearing a very tall, very white picture hat today, so you can try the vision trick using my chapeau as your white area. Then together we can watch Anne run around in her harmonious, tasteful costumes.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

  25. And they say dry parties are no fun.

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 9, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

  26. 😛

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  27. Subtitle for today’s post:


    Comment by kevinf — February 9, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  28. Wow Ardis! You remembered the yellow and lavender check second dress of Juanita!

    Comment by Mina — February 9, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

  29. It made a horrible mental image, actually. Maybe not as bad in real life as in imagination. Memorable, though.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  30. Fiddle-de-dee!

    Comment by Eric Boysen — February 10, 2010 @ 8:32 am

  31. We shall draw a curtain (a green one) across your comment, Eric, and think about it tomorrow.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 10, 2010 @ 8:51 am

  32. My favorite was describing a short dress as one “at least two inches above the floor” and any girls showing an exposed elbow was a lost cause to morality.

    Times change, huh?

    Comment by Clark — February 10, 2010 @ 8:01 pm

  33. Regarding post #5 by Alison, women in Utah were wearing hats to church into the 1950s. My grandmother wore a hat all the time at church in the early 1900s, as did her friends. I have several pictures of ward Sunday School groups where about half of the women had on hats. I even wore a hat quite often in the 1960s, even when I was playing the organ.

    I laugh at the changes of correctness. My grandmother would never think of going to Salt Lake City to shop without her had and gloves on. Mother didn’t wear hat and gloves, but did wear a dress to go to Salt Lake City and insisted that I wear a dress and not pants. When my daughter and nieces came along, we had to remind them that they couldn’t wear shorts to go shopping in Salt Lake.

    I have a lot of grandma’s hats and also some belonging to my aunt.

    Comment by Maurine — February 11, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

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