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Religion in History of American Fashion


When most people think of the famous Pilgrims of the Mayflower and Plymouth Colony, they imagine a somber and conservative people dressed in somber and conservative hues of black and white. In fact, black cloth was actually quite expensive and difficult to obtain; it was typically worn only for Sunday church services or other special occasions. For everyday wear, Pilgrims dressed in hues from red to yellow to green to purple to—most commonly—russet, an orangey shade of brown. These were more subtle colors than we might imagine today, because vegetable dyes were used in the centuries before the invention of modern chemical dyes. Seventeenth-century colonists had literally dozens of names for the materials that they used to make their clothing. Most of those materials were subtle varieties of wool, leather, and linen: they were known as serge, baize, Holland, darnacle, kersey, lockram, linsey wooley, and calico, to name a few.223

Yet Puritans did manifest their religious values of thrift, piety, and simplicity by shunning jewelry—even wedding rings. Despite stereotypes of Pilgrims wearing black-and-white costumes adorned with buckles, English colonists did not wear buckles on their shoes, clothing, or hats until the eighteenth century. (Subsequent illustrators depicted Puritans with buckles because buckles seemed old-fashioned).224 Puritan colonists also passed down their garments to their children, and sometimes a single item of clothing could be made to last for three generations. Because they were so durable, and hard to come by in the colonies, clothes were also very expensive in colonial America. The finest petticoat or men's suit could cost up to one pound, ten shillings in 1650; the same amount could purchase a complete set of armor, half a dozen goats, or a young steer.225

In Plymouth and nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony during the seventeenth century, laborers and servants usually wore leather-made goods, such as traditional English breeches, since deerskin was inexpensive and abundant. Most men also wore stockings and shoes with wooden heels. Men of higher social standing wore tight-fitting jackets called doublets (usually red, and made of leather with a hook-and-eye closure) and full breeches (trousers extending to the knee). Their shirtsleeves were slashed, as per the European style, and they wore "falling bands," white collars consisting of two strips of material that extended down from the neckline. To survive the cold New England winters, colonists also wore gloves and beaver or felt hats with steeple crowns. Women often wore bonnets or caps, carried muffs to keep their hands warm, and added mantles, gowns, or cloaks over their dress.226 By the late seventeenth century, farmers and mechanics commonly wore frocks, or loose-fitting outer garments worn in cold weather or to protect the clothes beneath. They were worn to market or the village but removed before men entered their homes.227 Thus Puritans exhibited a range of clothing styles based on social rank and profession, and they employed a wider variety of hues than they are typically given credit for wearing. Early New England settlers may have lived according to principles of piety and simplicity, but they were not all black-and-white.

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