As the Puritans set about eking out their survival in Massachusetts in the early 1600s, they naturally had to conquer some major problems: managing to obtain food, fighting their enemies for land and, of course, creating a Puritan dress code.
The Puritans took the issue of dress very seriously. In England, the king and court set the styles, and Charles I adopted a very showy look. Slashed sleeves topped the list as the height of fashion. They allowed the wearer to show rich layers of fabric underneath the top layer of clothing.
Fashionistas, 17th-C Style
Fashionistas in Charles’ court wore boots with broad, showy circles of leather. Silk ribbons adorned fashionable toes.
Both men and women wore enormous showpieces on their heads, also known as hats. And broad lace collars and cuffs topped off the stylish outfit, 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.
Such ostentation was anathema to the Puritans. Though the Puritans didn’t always dress in black – they did wear many colors – they found the wasteful and unseemly clothing of England’s high society immodest.
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. ‘
Plymouth’s General Court banned lace and silver and gold thread. Further, it decreed: ‘No person either man or woman shall make or buy any slashed clothes, other than one slash in each sleeve and another in the back.
Also forbidden or worn under penalty:
…all cut-works, embroidered or needle work, caps, bands and rails.
Puritan Dress Code Revisited
The General Court again revisited the Puritan dress code in 1651. By then it softened its attitude toward silver and gold thread — at least for the rich and powerful. For others, not so much.
The Plymouth General Court declared its ‘utter detestation and dislike’ that men or women of ‘mean condition, educations and callings should take upon them the garb of gentlemen.’ The Court forbade the poorer folk to wear gold and silver lace, buttons or points at their knees. Ordinary men couldn’t walk in great boots, and women of the same rank couldn’t wear silk or tiffany hoods or scarvess.
Persons ‘of greater estate or more liberal education,’ on the other hand, had much greater freedom of dress. You could wear silk hoods and scarves, silver and gold lace and bright buttons if you had the rank of magistrate, military officer, high official or wealthy person with more than £200. Others who wore these items would be fined.
And the punishments weren’t just confined to Plymouth. Throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut, 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.’ The court at Ipswich required them to prove their worth amounted to at least £200. No Puritan wanted to find himself in court, unable to pass the test.
The Puritans hauled others into court for wearing silver lace, silk hoods and silk scarves. Some defendants somehow avoided punishment for violating the Puritan dress code, while others had to pay fines of 10 shillings.
Demise of the Dress Code
By the 1680s, however, the Puritan dress code lost ground as wealth grew in the colonies. English fashions also exerted an even stronger pull on men and women.
Wigs and fancy dress still outraged the Puritan leaders. But their influence was waning. By then the courts generally stayed out of the question of clothing, and people wore the clothing they liked best.
You may also be interested in this story about Puritan punishments here. This story about the Puritan dress code was updated in 2020.