From my Newburyport Daily News article A fashion war in the Colonies
Our Puritan ancestors’ actions reveal that human nature is no different today. In the Bay Colony, leaders and church officials forged a campaign of rigid scrutiny, censoring the lifestyle and habits of everyday citizens. Simplicity in dress was the law, but like any other infringement on personal liberties carried out in the name of God, these sanctions would not go down without a struggle. A fashion war raged, and it seems that the Legislature could no more ban fashion plates than it could heretics or tipplers.
The men of the cloth pleaded to Governor Winthrop to repress “men of leisure and power” who emulated London fashions, saturating the pure terrain. These “horrids of vanity” caused “alarm and disgust among the pious families.” To remedy this, “The Simple Cobler of Aggawam” (Rev. Ward) targeted the colony’s ladies, stating they had “no true grace or valuable virtue” if they “disfigure themselves with such exotic garbs” and are no better than “French flirts.”
The holy rollers used sermons to blame these so-called “haughty women” for wars and bad harvest. The magistrates began enforcing sumptuary laws that prevented extravagance by limiting clothing expenditures. “Immodest fashions” with lace, silver and gold thread and other “items of adornment” that had “little use or benefit, but to the nourishment of pride,” were strictly forbidden, as were “slashed apparel, great sleeves, great boots, ribbon, and double ruffs.” Despite a fashion boycott, garments of splendor and other wearable loot poured in — historical records show that our ancestors in and around the Port were quite stylish.
The most notorious of the Vanity Fair, Madame Rebecka Symonds, widow of Deputy Governor Samuel Symonds, was always starving for the newest trends, and she had the means and the connections to stock her trunks. Family letters indicate her appetite for finery. Her son, John Hall, a wealthy London merchant, dutifully supplied her with the latest and most glamorous garb. Apparently, Madame was more worried about catching the plague than tweaking the noses of local lawmen. Her luxury booty arrived with correspondence from Hall assuring her that he purchased the “finery himself, in safe shops, from reliable dealers, and kept all for a month in his own home where none had been infected.” Though her garments carried no contagious germs, Madame was surely dressed to kill that season.
Judge Samuel Sewall, on the prowl for a wife, set his sights on Martha Ruggles and wrote to her brother Thomas Woodbridge, noting fond memories of her great style: I remember when I was going from school at Newbury, I sometimes met Mary, at the end of Mrs. Noyes’s Lane, coming from their School at Chandler’s Lane, in Hanging Sleeves ... “ Martha was not impressed — this fellow was never going to get under her sleeves. After she rejected his two proposals, he moved on to woo Widow Gibbs.
While the genteel usually got a minor shunning for their extravagance, for Colonists with a yearly income of less than 200 pounds, wearing the style of polite society was criminal. To give falsehood of your station in the Puritan Republic was against God’s law. The General Court announced their “utter detestation and dislike” that “over-proud commoners” of “mean condition, education and callings should take upon them the garb of gentlemen.”
Infractions resulted in punishment and fines. Tailors were forbidden from making garments “contrary to the mind and order of the Governors,” and if the grand jurors failed to bring indictments against guilty persons, the courts would impose fines on them. In 1652, Jonas Fairbanks and Robert Edwards were charged for wearing “great boots,” a cavalier fashion of excessive leather. John Chubb was admonished for “excess in apparel, beyond that of a man of his degree.” Additional records from the Quarterly Courts of 1653 regarding Newbury residents include:
Wife(s) of John Hutchings, Thomas Harris, Thomas Wayte and Edward Browne, presented for wearing a silk hood, all discharged testimony being brought up above the ordinary rank and upon proof of education.
Wife(s) of Nicholas Noyes and Hugh March, John Whipple presented for silk hood and scarves, but discharged for being worth 200 pounds.
Wife(s) of William Chandlour and Joseph Swett’s fined ten shillings for wearing a silk hood. Agnes, wife of Deacon Knight, presented for wearing a silk hood, discharged, her husband being worth above 200. (This troubled the good deacon exceedingly, and induced him to solicit Mr. Rawson to send a letter to one of the magistrates at Salem.)
Bridget Bishop, who was the first of the accused to be executed as a witch in Salem, may be the last infamous mention of illicit fashion in Puritan New England. Her famous “scarlet paragon bodice” did not directly cause her death, but it certainly helped lure the judgmental Puritan hordes to her doorstep. Many like Bishop just would not conform, nor be controlled — it is simply not New England’s style!
A big thank-you to historian Richard Trask for outfitting the material on the way we wore!