November 27, 2014

Closet Histories #3.3 : The Puritans

We're a day behind here on Closet Histories, but you can't blame me for wanting to post about Puritans on Thanksgiving! Lets take a short look into the wardrobes of those more pious ladies of the 17th century shall we?

For a bit of context, I am referring to the differences of dress for the Puritan movement at large, not specifically the American pilgrims. The puritans began to emerge as a faction soon after the accession of queen Elizabeth I in England. Essentially started by John Calvin, puritanism became a form of activism within the Church of England. They believed that the Protestant Church of England was still tainted by echos of Catholic rituals and symbols. Some puritans became so dissatisfied with the Anglican Church as to break off and seek asylum elsewhere, first in the Netherlands and eventually in colonies in the new world. The puritans believed in moral purity to the highest possible degree and condemned excesses in life and in dress. The colonies in America went even further, banning Christmas celebrations and most other festivities including games of chance, maypoles, and theater. Doesn't sound very fun does it?

In general, the puritan costume we see today (lank black dress, big white apron and collar) is not necessarily accurate or inaccurate. You could argue that it is a very commercialized and generalized amalgamation of the many 17th century portraits portraying ladies in black gowns with large white linen falling collars. These ensembles did exist, but what modern costume companies seem to be forgetting is that these black gowns were worn for portraits because they were the sitter's Sunday best, not necessarily their everyday clothing. Black fabric was very expensive to make and the color once achieved tended to fade fast. Still, such a luxurious color was indeed worn by pious Puritans of the time, but only by the very richest ones!

Puritans, especially those in America who took everything a bit too far, did indeed wear more conservative clothing than their more secular (or royalist) counterparts. You wouldn't have seen a Puritan in the relaxed off the shoulder, low cut, and spangle embellished gown like those popular at court. No silver tissue dresses for the Puritan! Still, that didn't necessarily mean they wore only rags either. The Puritan idea was to wear simple and modest clothing, but of a quality worthy of one's rank. Since wealth was believed to be ordained by God, to dress below ones station would be highly incorrect.

(fig. 1)                                                                                               (fig. 2)       

Look at these two ladies for example, quite the contrast no? The first portrait is of Catrina Hooghsaet (painted by Rembrandt in 1657), a Dutch mennonite. She wears a black gown and crisp white linen accessories, like our modern puritan costumes today, but notice the cut of her gown still follows fashion even without the low neckline of her contemporaries. The second portrait of Princess Mary Stuart painted in 1652 shows how the other half was dressing; with metallic silver woven fabric at her neck and peeking out from her gown's skirt, a rather full puffed sleeve, gold trimming at her hem, and of course the wide low neck so popular at the time. Comparing an English princess with a Dutch mennonite might not be very fair, but they each show the styles of their time and sect so very well I couldn't resist.

(fig. 3)                                                      (fig. 4)                                                                   (fig.5 ) 
Here are some more examples of ladies in more "puritan" looking dress, though I cannot say for sure these women were part of the movement. In England and the Netherlands, dress was less strictly governed than in the colonies, meaning people tended to continue following fashion more closely. When doing research for this post I found it rather hard to find portraits of women who were labeled as puritans. I can only assume the ladies above were more pious than their more fashionable contemporaries. The difference seems to be observed mainly in the necklines, where courtly ladies had their decolletage and bosoms on display, the more puritanical had layers of linen. I am sure there is scholarly research out there covering just this subject, guys its thanksgiving and I have to go help out in the kitchen....In all seriousness, the subject seems to be less explored in both online research and certainly by modern costumers. Then again the puritans don't seem like a very fun group do they?

For more about Puritan dress, check out these links I found while researching this post!

-Shedding Light on a Dark Era: Baroque, Cavalier, and Puritan Fashions
-Portrait of a “puritan” – Dutch Mennonite
-Puritans Beliefs About Dress Codes
-1600–50 in Western European fashion wiki
-Puritan on Wikipedia

All of the information for this post has been gathered from the textbook Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition) by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eurbank, from the links above or my own knowledge. I want to share the resources I come across with all of you as much as possible. The portraits used to illustrate today's post are credited to either the museum where they reside (whenever possible) or the source where I found them, and are linked via their fig. # underneath. Again I repeat my disclaimer that I am not a historian, and if you have corrections or additions for this post, please begin the discussion in comments as I would love to learn more!

Thanks for reading! 


  1. It wasn't just in America that Christian holiday celebrations were banned--England also banned them under Cromwell, inciting riots especially in Cornwall and the south of England over cancelled Christmas festivities and decorations. Keep in mind too that prior to the Protector's reign, people were accustomed to have every saint's day and major feast days off, which meant they were working about 1/3 of the year. The Protestant work ethic that we are familiar with today came about during this time period and that ethic, in addition to avoiding excess and pursuing sober living drove a lot of the bans at the time. You should read Albion's Seed, which explores a lot of this stuff in depth.

    In places like Austria that never had a Reformation, Catholic holidays are still observed in force, even though the culture as a whole isn't very religious any longer. The whole country shuts down on Sundays and things close early on Saturday nights. There are a ton of saints' days and feast days that are still observed as national holidays where everything is shut (unlike here where almost everything remains open in major cities).

    1. You clearly know much more about the movement than I do! I admit it is not really an area of great interest to me, but I thought the movement worth mentioning in the timeline of costume history. I tend to side with the royalists, not on basis of politics at all, but purely out of love for more frilly and fantastical clothing!

      I certainly noticed how different Europe can be when I studied in France and spent a whole morning trekking out to Montmartre to buy fabric for class, only for every shop to be closed, because of course it was Sunday! I sure am happy the craft stores here in America are open on Sundays or I would never get my sewing shopping done!

  2. Fun may be a bit of a stretch, but they're certainly a fascinating lot for sure and it was highly interesting to learn more about them in celebration of American Thanksgiving this week. I suddenly have an urge for a pair of big buckled shoes... :)

    Wishing you & your family a joyful holiday celebration,
    ♥ Jessica


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