The Relinquishment of Plain dress: British Quaker women's abandonment of Plain Quaker attire, 1860-1914

  • Hannah Frances Rumball

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis discusses how British Quaker women negotiated relinquishing their religiously prescribed Plain dress from 1860 to 1914 in the context of developments in Quaker feminine identity. This thesis approaches its subjects by examining the primary source of surviving Quaker garments in British dress collections. These items provide the basis from which research methodologies and the personal narratives of Quaker women and their case studies are developed. Surviving garments, alongside historical letters, diaries, religious texts, department store catalogues, photographs and period dress illustrations are analysed in order to understand how women Quakers practised their religion and organised their public appearance through dress during this period. The original quality of this research is the outcome of an interdisciplinary approach. No other research project in the international dress history or religious history fields has discussed and critically considered the identity of British Quaker women through an analysis of their surviving clothing between 1860 and 1914. This aspect of British social history and therefore British identity has until now remained unexplored and unacknowledged. By 1860 Quakerism had undergone extreme doctrinal upheaval, which had led to the abandonment of those rules which enforced Plainness of speech and apparel that same year. Even prior to 1860, this thesis reveals that some women were incorporating fashion into their religious Plain dress, by using fashionable silhouettes and high-quality fabrics albeit eschewing bright colours and ornamentation. After 1860 however, male and female Quakers had complete individual freedom of choice in their clothing. During this period of religious turmoil, female Victorian Quakers vocalised a range of opinions on women's emancipation, education and welfare, on their role within the religious society and their opinions concerning dress through published correspondence in Quaker journals. This thesis identifies a variety of views concerning dress between 1860 and 1914, as Quaker women negotiated their individual freedom of choice in attire in a ternary manner. Moreover, this thesis proves that this ternary interpretation was acknowledged by Quakers themselves and discussed within Quaker journals in the 1860-1914 period. Quakers of the period identified these ternary interpretations as ascetic, moderate and fashionable. This thesis proposes a new set of classifying terms, Non-Adaptive, Semi-Adaptive and Fully-Adaptive, in reflection of the extent to which Quaker women adapted their religious clothing to incorporate fashion alongside their differing interpretations of Quaker belief. Four case studies illustrate further these three adaptive interpretations, and show how individual Quaker women chose to present themselves to their religious community and wider society.
Date of AwardJun 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton

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