What’s Up with the White Dress?

As shown in the image provided for us by Professor Scanlon, an iconic white dress is associated with Emily Dickinson. A dress, such as the one worn by the poet, is said to be considered an everyday garment to be worn around the home during her time period. According to the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Special Topics discussion of the white dress:  “The dress, made of a cotton fabric with mother-of-pearl buttons, is a style known as a wrapper or a house dress, worn by women as everyday clothing for doing chores and other activities inside the house. It was not a particularly unusual or expensive dress for its time.”

As I continued to read, it seemed like the article was saying that there wasn’t really any significant reference that makes the poet’s white dress specifically unique to her. The article states: “Despite popular conceptions of Dickinson clad in her white dress, the poet herself never mentions wearing white, nor does she wear white in the few existing images of herself. ” Nevertheless, a myth began to arise that Dickinson only wore white. This myth may have begun with Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s description of seeing Dickinson in white and then was promoted by the townspeople. Eventually, “Dickinson was buried in white and enclosed in a white casket.”

So, why do most Dickinson lovers associate the poet with the white dress? Is it because it shows how reclusive she was in (supposedly) always wearing a dress to be worn around the house? Is it because they just greatly appreciate seeing an actual item worn by Dickinson? Does the white symbolize anything? Why do you think they chose to bury her in all that white?

Side note: My mind keeps telling me that Dickinson’s love for gardening doesn’t go well with the myth that she always wore white. That being said, I also read that bleaching was the common way to wash their clothes. So, who knows, maybe her whites were able to stay relatively clean.

8 Replies to “What’s Up with the White Dress?”

  1. I am wondering the same thing, I also read somewhere that she was buried in a white coffen? I am with you, I feel like it just doesn’t make sense. As much as this dress is talked about being on display in museums and how significant it is, there is really no evidence of its importance, not even in her work.

  2. I would think that this assumption about her has to do with how people associate her with being depressed and her interest in death with many of her poems. What could be more iconic than the woman in white? She hid herself and her poetry during life. Maybe it creates a myth that she was so close to death that she lived dressed in a color we associate with purity and ghosts. Since the few photos of her prove that she wore other colors and we know that she enjoyed gardening, I would assume that the myth is one thing that people want to fill the space of knowing something so intimate about her. It sounds believable and has some truth according to the article you mentioned women would wear white for a housedress. Unless we invent time travelling cameras to document her life, it’s one of the few things people feel that they can create a full person out of.

  3. From the Emily Dickinson Museum FAQ section:

    “Legend has it that later in her life Dickinson wore white all the time. When Thomas Higginson met her in 1870, she was dressed in white; her one surviving dress is white; and she was buried in white. During Dickinson’s lifetime, townspeople who had never seen her propagated the myth, as did Dickinson’s family after her death. Although many theories exist about her assumed preference for white, Dickinson herself made no reference in any of her existing correspondence to wearing that color. ”

    I wonder if this is just one of those things where people take a rumor about a celebrity and run with it in order to make said celebrity more of a character. I know this is totally off-the-wall, but I just remembered the rumor from middle school about Marilyn Manson having a rib removed… For reasons. It wasn’t true, but the artist didn’t say much about it outside of his autobiography to dispel the rumor. It added to his character, and I think it made him more marketable/likeable to his crowd. Maybe it’s something similar with Dickinson… Her “crowd” wanted her to be a certain character (pure, lonely, ghostly), so they clung to the idea of the white dress in order to propagate this ethereal artist.

  4. I like the idea of her wearing white. White makes her seem unsullied and pure. She seemed to protect herself from outside criticism, keeping her work pure. (That is until family and well meaning friends began to edit it). Perhaps others feel the same and that is why the myth of white has perpetuated.

  5. I completely agree that gardening and white do not mix well, but I also really like the idea of her being dressed in white. We traditionally associate white with purity and innocence and also the divine. Since she was never married and never had any kids, the question of her virginity is out there as well. It is like the traditional belief that a bride wears white on her wedding day to symbolize her innocence, purity, and chastity until marrying her husband. I have heard that Dickinson was the “virgin recluse” before so I think the while almost might be symbolizing her sexuality as well? Her being buried in white is also really beautiful to me because it is like even after death she is pure, and when I think of angels I like of a bright white light so this makes Dickinson seem pretty angelic to me.

  6. She might have dressed mostly in white due to the fact that white was easy to clean since bleaching was the most reliable way to clean outfits. Since she was an avid gardener, wearing white would have been the better choice to wear since it was easier to clean.

  7. Perhaps Dickinson chose to be buried in her white dress symbolizes her philosophy not being viewed as symbolic for her stance against the institutions perpetuated against her of what was expected of her as a woman and that she was willing to bend the rules of her society, and that despite the pressures that were placed on her both as a ‘poetess’ and as a woman, and that her soul and her imagination are innocent, pure and chaste.

  8. This video posted on the blog explains the exact reason! (Answers start around 3:55)


    As said in the video,
    “…for Dickinson white was not the color of innocence, or purity, or ghosts. It was the color of passion and intensity. ‘Dare you see a soul at the white heat? Then crouch within the door,’ she once wrote. She called red, the color most associated with passion, ‘fire’s common tint.’ For Dickinson, the real, true, rich life of a soul even if it were physically sheltered, burned white hot.”

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