The Hidden Rules of the Puritan Fashion Police – Atlas Obscura

A Puritan lady (as imagined by a 19th-century artist).
A Puritan girl (as imagined by a 19th-century artist). Library of Congress/96502459

In 1676, Hannah Lyman was in bother. She was amongst three dozen or so younger ladies who had been summoned to courtroom: They'd flouted the laws of Connecticut colony by wearing silken hoods. Amongst these “overdressed” ladies, Lyman was, apparently, the most rebellious and robust-willed. She appeared in courtroom sporting the very silk hood that she had been indicted for donning.

The decide was, predictably, not very pleased. He accused her of “sporting silk in a flaunting method, in an offensive method, not solely earlier than however she stood introduced” at courtroom. She and the different younger ladies have been fined for his or her offensive sartorial selections.

New England’s Puritan colonies had many legal guidelines proscribing how residents—significantly ladies—might costume. “Sumptuary legal guidelines” like these weren’t distinctive to that point or place; that they had ruled private conduct way back to historic Rome. Often sumptuary legal guidelines have been enacted to regulate conduct so as to distinguish the excessive courses from the decrease ones, although typically they have been supposed to maintain rich-sufficient individuals from squandering all these assets on trendy indulgences. Pirates’ dramatic and colorful type of dressing was, as an illustration, a deliberate and brazen violation of these legal guidelines.

However Puritans, being Puritan, gave sumptuary legal guidelines a very ethical solid. Dressing in a easy method meant avoiding the sins of pleasure, greed, and envy, particularly for girls. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne make this level explicitly when he described the scarlet “A” that Hester Prynne wore on the breast of her robe, made “in positive purple fabric, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and implausible thrives of gold thread.” This letter, Hawthorne writes, “was of a splendor in accordance with the style of the age, however drastically past what was allowed by the sumptuary laws of the colony.”

This was the sort of thing Puritans were trying to avoid.
This was the type of factor Puritans have been making an attempt to keep away from. Circle of Gilbert Jackson/Public domain

The Massachusetts Bay Colony handed its first regulation limiting the excesses of costume in 1634, when it prohibited residents from sporting “new fashions, or lengthy hair, or something of the like nature.” That meant no silver or gold hatbands, girdles, or belts, and no fabric woven with gold thread or lace. It was additionally forbidden to create garments with greater than two slashes in the sleeves (a mode meant to disclose one’s wealthy and fancy undergarments). Anybody who wore such objects must forfeit them if caught.

For many years the colony continued to refine these legal guidelines. In 1639, the colony instituted a stricter regulation in opposition to lace and forbade garments with quick sleeves. In the 1650s, the regulation grew to become extra class-acutely aware. Solely those that had greater than 200 kilos to their estates have been allowed to put on gold and silver buttons and knee factors, or nice boots, silk hoods, or silk scarves. Exempt from the rule have been magistrates and public officers, their wives and kids, in addition to militia officers or troopers, and anybody else whose with superior training or employment, or “whose property have been appreciable, although now decayed.” In 1679, the colony additionally started worrying about hair, since “there may be manifest pleasure brazenly showing amongst us by some ladies sporting borders of hair, and their chopping, curling, and conceited laying out of their hair.”

Lace collars were only for fancy Puritans like John Winthrop.
Lace collars have been just for fancy Puritans like John Winthrop. Charles Osgood/Public domain

Massachusetts and Connecticut weren't the solely colonies to cross such legal guidelines. In New Jersey, by 1670, it was unlawful for a girl to “betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s male topics, by scents, paints, cosmetics, washes, synthetic enamel, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, excessive-heeled footwear, or bolstered hips.” And in the event that they did? The marriage can be “null and void.” Oh, and they'd be punished precisely as if that they had been convicted of witchcraft or sorcery.

Finally, even Puritan New England relaxed, variety of, about the method its individuals have been allowed to decorate. Though the legal guidelines remained on the books, they weren’t all the time enforced with vigor. That is partially as a result of the punishments didn’t present a lot deterrent. Six years after Hannah Lyman flouted the courtroom together with her silk hood, one other Justice of the Peace went after a distinct group of ladies for the identical offense. However that second time, nobody else in the group was all in favour of indicting them. Regulation or no regulation, Puritan ladies have been going to take pleasure in sinful extravagance, a minimum of each as soon as in awhile.

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The Hidden Rules of the Puritan Fashion Police - Atlas Obscura