As the Puritans set about eking out their survival in Massachusetts in the early 1600s they naturally had to conquer the major problems they faced: managing to obtain food, fighting their enemies for land and, of course, creating a Puritan dress code.
Dress for the Puritans was a significant issue. In England, the king and court set the styles, and the styles of Charles I were very showy. Slashed sleeves were the height of fashion. They allowed the wearer to show rich layers of fabric underneath the top layer of clothing.
Boots were designed with broad, showy circles of leather. Toes were adorned with silk ribbons. Hats for both men and women were enormous showpieces. And broad lace collars and cuffs were very desirable, often adorning fabrics laced with silk, gold and silver. The whole ensemble was designed to both flatter the figure and show the wealth of the wearer.
The idea of such ostentation was anathema to the Puritans. While the image of Puritans dressed in black is misleading – they did wear many colors – the wasteful and unseemly clothing of England’s high society was not appropriately modest. In 1634, the General Court in Plymouth decried ‘the great, superfluous and unnecessary expenses occasioned by reason of some new and immodest fashions, as also the ordinary wearing of silver, gold and silk laces, girdles, hatbands, etc. ‘
The general court banned lace and silver and gold thread. Further, it decreed: ‘No person either man or woman shall make of buy any slashed clothes, other than one slash in each sleeve and another in the back; also all cut-works, embroidered or needle work, caps, bands and rails, are forbidden and hereafter to me made or worn under aforesaid penalty.’
The General Court again revisited the issue in 1651, declaring its "utter detestation and dislike that men or women of mean condition, educations and callings should take upon them the garb of gentlemen by the wearing of gold and silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees, to walk in great boots, or women of the same rank to wear silk or tiffany hoods or scarfs, which though allowable to persons of greater estate or more liberal education, yet we cannot but judge intolerable in person of such like condition."
The court declared that fashions such as silk hoods and scarfs, silver and gold lace and bright buttons would be reserved for magistrates, military offices, high ranking officials and wealthy people with more than £200. Others who wore these things would be fined.
And the punishments weren’t just confined to Plymouth. Throughout Massachusetts court records show punishments handed out for overdress.
In his book, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Thomas Franklin Waters found cases of women charged with “wearing excess apparel” and required by the court at Ipswich to prove their estates were worth £200, not a place a Puritan wanted to find himself.
Others were hauled into court for wearing silver lace, silk hoods and silk scarves. Some defendants were able to avoid punishment, others were fined ten shillings.
By the 1680s, however, the law was losing ground as wealth grew in the colony and men and women were attracted to English fashions. Wigs and fancy dress still created outrage, but with the Puritan influence waning, the courts generally stayed out of the question of clothing and people were freed to wear the clothing they liked best.