The Color Black
I am not certain as to where or how the custom originated for professing women to wear Black Stockings, (hereinafter referred to as BS for short). Since it was common in the early 1900s for women to wear BS in other countries, I suspect that the first sister workers who came to America from Ireland, etc. wore them on the boat over. Probably, they rejected the prevailing American styles and continued to wear them, encouraging the women who professed in their missions to do so also. When flesh-colored hosiery became the accepted style for American women, professing women and young girls continued to wear Black Stockings. BS became a hardfast, grievous tradition or custom that separated us from “the world.”
I was 8 years old when my mother professed and my sisters were 6 and 12. When we were little girls, we wore thick cotton hose which we were ashamed of to “cover our flesh.” The worldly girls wore socks. After we professed, we reluctantly donned the black stockings that the professing women and some children wore in the Southern states. As young girls, we were trapped in the outward garments of an old woman. Black, because it was the farthest color from the color of our flesh.
Neither our mother nor the workers pressured us into wearing Black Stockings. Even as a teenager, I was willing to do anything to attain salvation. I wanted to please God, and I wanted to go to Heaven when I died. When I professed a few months before my 15th birthday, I knew I’d have to conform to the outward standards and “suffer for His sake.” Getting to heaven and BS were a package deal.
Women who were “willing” to wear those horrible “flesh cover-uppers” were considered to have made a great step forward in spiritual maturity. It was viewed as a sign of being whole-hearted and willing, similar today to a woman putting up her hair today, or getting rid of a TV. To wear BS was to “suffer” for the kingdom’s sake. It was the ultimate in self-denial. We stifled our “pride” knowing that “Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall” Prov. 16:18. We believed by wearing BS we were pleasing God–although we HATED what we had to do to please Him. We took comfort in the fact we knew we would be saved–there would be a pay-off someday.
The thick brown cotton stockings we already wore were ugly enough, so I can’t begin to explain how much I dreaded changing over to those hideous Black Stockings. On the other hand, I also wanted to be like my professing peers and accepted by them. And, of course, by putting on BS, I would also win the smiling approval of the sister workers and others in authority. I believed it was a necessary step I had to take in order to be accepted by God. I viewed the day I would “put away childish things” and put on black stockings as the day that would mark the beginning of a process of salvation in my life. I wanted, above all else, to please God and receive eternal life, in spite of having to wear the detested BS. I waited until AFTER I graduated from high school in 1941 when I was 17, to don the color Black. It was a very black day for me.
My sisters and I were totally unprepared to face the remarks, the rejection, the questions, the slights, snubs, etc. we received from “those of the world”. Most young girls enjoy going shopping–not us. We HATED it. Shopping took a lot of courage because we were often questioned and usually were gawked at as though we were some sort of freaks. Some people actually turned around to stare at us. Others snickered as we met or passed them on the street. We were even treated differently by clerks in the stores; they would sometimes wait on others before us even when we had been there first. We were often ignored and prejudiced against in the same way some ethnic groups were; considered sub-standard human beings–beneath others. At various times, I was so overcome with embarrassment that I would have liked for the floor to open and swallow me up.
We were seldom asked what church we went to. However, we were asked about our manner of dress and long hair. I avoided questions because I didn’t know the answers. I would just flippantly answer with a question. For example, “Why do you have short hair?” Some people thought we wore uniforms. In reality, I suppose we did. Our faith couldn’t be identified by a name, but we sure were identified by what we wore. When we were wearing BS, we supposedly had on Holy Apparel. “Approved of God, what could we more desire”? We were advertising our righteousness, but no one could see it for the BS, so no one recognized it. Black Stockings were NEVER an example to anyone, but rather a hindrance. We coped with a haughty spirit that looked down on those of “the world.”
I NEVER got used to wearing BS in public. I hated BS right up until the day I took them off for good and threw them away. I remember the day “I changed over.” The first day I didn’t wear BS to work, I happily walked down the sidewalk looking at my reflection in the store windows. I was awed by my own legs! They weren’t black! I stared at them for several blocks to and from the bus stop, as though it were a dream come true. The nightmare was finally over.
It took World War II to bring down the Black Stocking Regime. From other states, servicemen and their wives were sent to areas where the women wore BS. Many of these service men’s wives, especially those from out west, didn’t wear BS. Naturally, this caused unrest and major discontent to set in. Gradually, the younger women quit wearing them. Can you imagine my sister and me going to meeting for the first time without wearing our BS? Of course, we were considered rebellious. Some older women hung onto them for years, and some until they died. I remember one woman talking to a brother worker about how she was dreading to face the public without her BS. What would she tell people? He told her she would just have to “live down” the change.
The EFFECTS of Black Stockings were varied and numerous. Though I only wore them for about 4 years, some 50 years later some of the effects are still with me. I developed a serious self-consciousness that I still have today–long after I delivered myself from that “plague of blackness”. I compensated by becoming very meticulous in other areas of my appearance. For instance, though my hair was long and not in the least attractive, I’d try to make sure every single hair was in place. I noticed all other hair-dos with a highly critical eye. Even today, my hair is one of my greatest frustrations. I also became obsessed with clothes. I shopped weekly for clothes. I never wore anything out. I simply gave them away, sold them and shopped for more. I was trying to cancel out my plague by what I could wear otherwise.
It is an understatement to say that I do not like to attract attention to myself. For years, I suffered from serious health problems which I hid. I went to great lengths to avoid drawing attention to myself, many times enduring severe pain. This stemmed from the adverse attention I received because of wearing Black Stockings.
These obsessions developed progressively so that I didn’t become aware of them until after I left the fellowship and had spent much time studying God’s Word, and in self-examination. With the help of my children, I realized the source of these obsessions that have been with me for such a long time. My children remember me often looking in the mirror, sighing and remarking about how ugly I was. I know these obsessions are directly connected to the years of my life I spent as a young girl trapped with the outward appearance of an old woman.
One of my sisters absolutely detests any black clothing to this day on anyone, and she never wears black. My photo albums of those days are deeply buried in my cedar chest. I can hardly bear to look and I would burn them, except I know I would become depressed as I sorted through them, and would be reminded of the dark “robber” of my youth.
I remember the testimony of a young attractive professing woman at convention one year. She said someone had told her she looked as though she belonged in a circus. She went on to say that if that person could be at that convention, she would probably say, “Here’s the rest of the circus.” Many laughed, but not me. I sat there furious with a poker face.
Not ever hearing or being taught in meetings that we will never be saved by what we do, but by what Christ did, His life and death, we didn’t understand that it is our heart that God looks upon: 1 Sam 16:7: “But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.”
2 Cor 10:7: “Do ye look on things after the outward appearance? If any man trust to himself that he is Christ’s, let him of himself think this again, that, as he is Christ’s, even so are we Christ’s.” When I think of all the “wood, hay and stubble” (1 Cor 3:12), those works that will be burned, I weep. All that painful, suffering–so unnecessary, so uncalled for. I see so clearly today that suffering is as Audrey W. Johnson said: “We must realize that only divinely ordained purposeful suffering, not suffering per se, is Godly. God is glorified through suffering brought upon us because of our faithfulness to Christ, not by what we bring upon ourselves through an attempt to prove ourselves faithful.”
I praise God for His freedom in Christ.
By Dot Berry
TTT Photo Gallery: Black Stocking Photos
Letters by George Walker and Jack Carroll about Black Stockings