A stitch in time

By on August 21, 2019

It was a fashion show of scarlet red skirts, mustard yellow jackets, and flowing dark capes at the Lititz Museum on Aug. 9.

If you’re thinking that some famous fashion designer was visiting Lititz, not quite. The fashion show was a presentation by Janet Smedley, a retired architect and working artist from Lititz.

The topic was “What Early Moravians Wore for Work and Worship.” The models were members of the Lititz Historical Foundation, who donned clothing inspired by the clothing worn in Lititz more than two and a half centuries ago.

If you assume that Moravians in Lititz wore grey or brown clothing with little design detail, you might be almost right. Indeed, based on Smedley’s research, the earliest settlers in Lititz’ Moravian community did wear drab colors like grey and brown.

Later, however, things began to change. In the years to follow, those plain grey skirts were gradually replaced with more color. All brown wardrobes began to show a pop of color that might surprise modern-day people learning about fashions of the past.

As Smedley explained, Johannes Mueller worked dyeing fabrics, which were most often linen. Records from the Lititz Historical Foundation show that Mueller used natural dyes to create more than 23 different colors, maybe even as many as 30. Among the colors were scarlet red, indigo blue, and a bright goldenrod color that might have been called yellow ecru.

“They weren’t quite ready to go that far,” said Brother Paul Miller, who was dressed in traditional Moravian garb that included dark trousers, white stockings, a dark waistcoat, white jabot, black cape, and three-corner hat.

Records also show that one Moravian gentleman requested permission from the church to have a pair of scarlet trousers made for him. He was turned down.

Diana Egnatz was dressed in an outfit that a young Moravian woman might have worn to church services. Photos by Laura Knowles.

Miller’s brother Mel Miller’s ensemble was typical of what a Moravian man wild have worn to church in the 18th century. For work, that man would have worn a shirt, vest and apron to protect his clothing from the task at hand, whether it was fabric dyeing or blacksmithing.

For women, the difference in clothing varied more noticeably, based on whether the woman was heading to church or doing her household work, such as cooking a stew over the fireplace or spinning flax into thread.

One of the staples of women’s wear was the short gown, which sounds like a dress that is short. It was actually more like a jacket, constructed with pleats in the back, a flowing front, and sometimes with a peplum at the waist. The short gown might have shorter sleeves, making it almost like a vest. With longer sleeves, the kimono-like styling might even work in today’s fashion world, with its loose, free-flowing structure.

For work wear, women often dressed in darker, more muted colors. For church, however, they were far more stylish. They didn’t always wear the same skirt over and over again either.

Smedley had a record of a Moravian woman in Lititz who had a rather extensive wardrobe.

“She had nine skirts,” said Smedley.

Models (left to right) were Gina Yoder, Paul Miller, and Mel Miller. Program host Janet Smedley (far right) led the discussion on early Moravian clothing at the Lititz Museum Aug. 9.

The well-dressed Moravian lady might have had skirts and short gowns in colors such as scarlet or golden yellow. When it came to getting dressed for church, it could be quite a production.
As Smedley’s daughter, Diana Egnatz, noted, women’s wear for church was a multi-layered affair. Egnatz was dressed in an outfit that a young Moravian woman might have worn to church services. She was dressed to impress.

A long white gown or shirt was worn beneath her clothing. Then there was a stomacher, a triangle-shaped foundation garment that provided an hourglass shape. On top of the stomacher, Egnatz wore a light grey linen short gown that was very fitted with a peplum at her waist. A full bright scarlet skirt, petticoats, black stockings, black boots, and colorful purse gave her outfit flair.

“And they did wear patterns too,” added Ignatz, showing off her patterned scarf with a swirling floral woodblock print that was tucked into her collar.

Some of the other women wore clothing with fine checks and stripes, adding a dash of pattern to what most people think of from Moravian attire. For work, the short gowns were often fuller and looser, so women could do their work better. For church, a short gown was more fitted and form flattering.
During her presentation, Smedley wore typical work attire, that consisted of a dark blue short gown, golden brown skirt, blue and white checked apron, and white scarf tucked into the short gown.

On her head, a fitted white cap completely covered her hair.

Smedley had patterns for short gowns, which were perfectly constructed to serve as a top shirt or jacket-like article of clothing. In cold weather, a long cape would keep the women warm. In warm weather, women often wore wide brimmed straw hats to keep the sun off their faces.

“I am still doing research on what Moravians wore,” said Smedley, noting that as an artist and seamstress, she has become fascinated by the subject.

Laura Knowles is a freelance feature writer and regular contributor to the pages of the Record Express. She welcomes feedback and story tips at lknowles21@gmail.com. 

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