Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What to Wear - Shaker Sisters Knew the Answer

What to wear? What to wear? That's a question that many of us ask as we stare into our closets every morning. But it wasn't a question that bedeviled the Shaker faithful. They knew what they were wearing. It could be they might be able to choose between a green dress like the one pictured or a blue dress or even a white dress. The blue and white dresses were considered Sunday dresses or worship dresses. The dress pictured here was worn by Catherine Allen who came to the Mount Lebanon Shaker village as a boarder in 1865 at the age of 13. She took to the Shaker life and eventually became one of the Central Ministry in 1908. The dress was typical of the Shaker dress of the late 19th century and early 20th century and was no doubt one of her better dresses. Prior to the 1860s, the Shakers' dresses were loose, high-waisted styles. This dress was fastened with straight pins instead of buttons, but this wasn't because of any dislike of buttons but simply because, at one time, the Shakers decided buttonholes were more damaging to the fabric and the dress wouldn't wear as long. Shakers were ever looking for ways to be thrifty. They did also use buttons on their clothing. 

I'm thinking about the dress and clothing because I was at the Shaker village last Monday and went through their museum where this authentic Shaker dress has been preserved. Then I met my agent, Wendy Lawton, for lunch at the Trustee House where once more I got to admire those beautiful staircases. And take another photo. I've got a dozen of them already, but the stairs demand a new photo each time. 

While we were eating, we were talking books of course. And I confessed that I don't often really think about that "What to wear?" question for my characters while I'm writing. I have to make myself add info about clothing. If it's a party dress, I make an effort the way I did in my upcoming book, Words Spoken True, and in the Shaker book I'm editing now that will be released next summer, The Gifted. 

 Of course, with the Shaker characters I know what they're wearing. Something like the photo above. The caps, the scarves, and the aprons were the important articles of clothing that set the image of the character in the readers' minds. I know a lot of writers go into major detail about the clothing of their characters and it's good to know as much about your characters as you can. But I'm more the kind of writer who has to remind myself that uh, she might not be able to do this or that with a dozen petticoats on. 

Sometimes I think the Shaker bonnets or caps are as worrisome for me as I always make them for my characters who come into the Shaker villages. I would have struggled if I'd lived in the time when women were expected to wear bonnets any time they were out in the sun. I'll take freckles any time.  

So I just let my characters grab whatever they want to out of their imaginary closets and don't give it a lot of thought. At least not until later when my publisher sends me a form to fill out telling what sort of dresses or shirts my people should be wearing for whatever era I've picked for my story. 

What do you think? Do you enjoy reading descriptions of the characters' clothing? Or do you just imagine them running around in blue jeans or flour sack dresses or do you not bother with imagining what they're wearing at all? For sure I'm not trying on a corset to empathize with my characters. I don't have to get squeezed until my ribs pop to know that wouldn't be pleasant. Or a bonnet. 

That's what imaginations are for. Mine to give you hints about what the characters look like and might be wearing and you to use those hints to awaken an image in your head. 
Happy reading! And don't forget just two days until I do the drawing for winners of my birthday giveaway. I'm giving away a Grandmother's Bible, an audio tape of rThe Believer, several autographed copies of my books, a mixed bag of other writers' books and a surprise. The surprise and a book goes to winner of the "Never Won" one of my giveaways before entrants. I think the surprise gift will be a Shaker cookbook or some Shaker spices. By the way, I ate the lemon pie Monday. This time I liked it. Yum!!

Thanks for dropping by. Leave a comment if you want to enter my drawing or just to let me know how things are going with you.



  1. Loved the picture of the Shaker dress and that staircase...what craftmanship!!! I like to read a brief description of what a character is wearing as long as it moves the story along. I'm an avid reader and your new book is on my wishlist!! I don't believe that I have ever won one of your contests before! Thanks for this opportunity!
    Margie at mijares dot net

  2. Hello, Ann!
    I enjoy your books very much.
    Like you, I prefer hints of how a character is dressed. Some are too detailed and unless pertinent to the story I would rather use my imagination.
    Keep up the good work!

  3. Hi, Margie. Got you entered in the giveaways. So glad to hear my new book is on your wish list. I think it will take readers for a romantic ride. One I hope they will enjoy. And those stairways - they had one for the men and one for the women - amaze me afresh every time I see them. I try to work a reference to them into my Shaker stories whenever I can.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hi, Trudy. Thanks for your comment - especially about how you enjoy my books. That has me smiling. You sound like you might be like me and go to skimming when the talk turns to ruffles and ribbons. But there are as many other readers out there who enjoy those ruffle and ribbon descriptions. That's why there are so many different types of books to appeal to all the different types of readers.

  6. The picture of the Shaker dress is interesting but that stairway is awesome. I'm not so sure I'd like to be climbing it too often though. Especially when carrying laundry to be washed outside. I guess that why many hands make light work. Someday I want to visit this Shaker Village. AND someday I would love to win something!! Anything. Even a sticker! Love and Peace to you, Ann.

  7. Carol, the stairway is very sturdy. Has stood strong and under many feet for almost 200 years. It was built in the 1830s. The designer was an architectural genius. The Shakers sent him to architectural school after he showed talent in that direction and he made many great innovations in their buildings. Maybe I should do a blog post about him. Give me a chance to post more stairway photos.

    I've got you in the giveaway drawing, but tell you what. You send me your address via e-mail and I'll declare you a winner of bookplates this very moment. I'd love to send a couple of signed bookplates to you and some bookmarks if you think that would be as good as a sticker. And I've got lots of bookmarks and bookplates if anybody else wants some too.

  8. I really appreciate a description of that the character is wearing! It helps me to "see" what the author had in mind. (When the descriptions are well done, it's like having an illustrated book!)I also LOVED the photo of the staircase, it's amazing! Thank you for sharing it.

  9. Hi Ann! I'm in the middle of Angel Sister and loving it. (I'm the new KY pal you met at KCWC in Etown. Also writing about my mom.) Your characters have such life and your descriptions, of clothes or otherwise, are perfect for me. They capture my imagination and I'm able to run from there. I'm not one who likes excessive details about those kinds of things. Although I've lived in Louisville all of my life, I've never been to Shakertown. On my list and maybe we can meet for lunch. Looking forward to your next book.

  10. Thanks for sharing what you like in descriptions of the characters you read about. I'll hope I put in enough clothing hints to keep you satisfied. And those stairways are fantastic. A work of art by a group of people who at that time believed beauty resided in the utility of any one particular thing. This man managed utility of space with much beauty.

  11. Hey, Wendie. Great to hear from you. So glad you are enjoying Angel Sister. And hope the stories you're writing about your mother are going well. Shaker village in Mercer County is worth the drive. My upcoming book, releasing in February, has a Louisville setting. So you'll be right there in it. Of course it's set in 1855 and things have changed a bit in Louisville since then.

  12. A well done post, and i had no idea what a shaker dress looked like from the 1800s. In fact i dont know very much about the shakers themselves!. Richard from Amish Stories.

  13. Hi, Richard. The Shakers were very interesting people who believed in the simple life, but at the same time some of their ways seemed very complicated to this researcher looking back on them. This dress was actually late 1800s or early 1900s.

  14. Very interesting blog on what the sister's wore. I'd be happy to see you do a blog post on the architect at Pleasant Hill. Ive had the pleasure of visiting Pleasant Hill once, and I find his work fascinating! Id like to hear what you have to say about him.

  15. I'll keep that in mind, Kevin, for a future post. Maybe next Wednesday. Not the Sunday one this week because it's going to be a crazy day w/ Homecoming at church and then staying w/ my mom Sunday night. I'll have to do a this and that blog or a homecoming one Sunday.


Thanks for joining the conversation. I like hearing what you have to say. Thanks for dropping by.