Saturday, April 20, 2019

Wicked Apparell

The Puritans did not dress like this!
Whilst browsing in a favorite used book store, I found a book published in 1928 by Henry W. Lawrence titled The Not-Quite Puritans.  This quirky old book starts with a dedication quoting Viscount Bryce “It is Facts that are needed: Facts, Facts, Facts. When facts have been supplied, each of us can try to reason from them”.  This old book's first chapter "Wicked Apparell" [sic] states some facts about the Puritan Sumptuary Laws in Massachusetts, but neglects to provide footnotes or sources for these interesting tidbits.  Perhaps we can crowd source the origins of these quotes?

From pages 4- 5:

“As early as 1634, some ‘new and immodest fashions’ alarmed the authorities of Massachusetts into ordering ‘that no person, either man or woman, shall hereafter make or buy any apparel, either woolen, silk or linen, with any lace on it, silver, gold, silk or thread’.  A prohibition was likewise laid on ‘slashed clothes, other than one slash in each sleeve, and another in the back’; also on ‘all gold or silver girdles, hat-bands, belts, ruff, beaver hats.’ With due regard for the avoidance of waste, however the law allowed the present possessors ‘to wear out such apparel as they are now provided of, except the immoderate great sleeves, slashed apparel, immoderate great rails, long wings, &c.’
This early prohibition law evidently proved inadequate, especially with the women; whereupon moral suasion was tried.  Governor Winthrop writes that, in 1638, ‘The court, taking into consideration the great disorder general through the country in costliness of apparel, and following new fashions, sent for the elders of the churches, and conferred with them about it, and laid it upon them, as belonging to them, to redress it, by urging it upon the consciences of their people, which they promised to do.  But little was done about it, for divers of the elders’ wives, etc. where in some measure partners in the general disorder.’
… in the very next year, 1639, it was found necessary to pass a law against the improper clothing worn by frivolous males.  ‘Immoderate great breeches’ were forbidden; also broad shoulder bands, double ruffles, and capes.  It seems, too, that the dandies were adorning their shoes with silk roses, till this law plucked them off.”

What is the source for these quoted bits of information?  I used Google to search for some of them and this is what I found:

The first statute mentioned above from 1634 is from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 3 September 1634.  It also forbade “new fashions, or long hair”, or anything of the like nature”.   I couldn’t find the exact law through Google.

The quote from Governor John Winthrop in 1638 about the sumptuary laws comes from Winthrop’s Journal “History of New England 1630 – 1649”, Volume 7, page 179 and is dated 25 September 1638.

The statue against “Immoderate great breeches” comes from the Massachusetts Colonial Records, Volume 1, page 126 with an admonition from the Massachusetts General Court in 1639, and it reads “Immoderate great breeches, knots of ribbon, broad shoulder-bands and rails, silk rases, double ruffs and cuffs… the excessive wearing of lace and other superfluities… [tended]… to little use or benefit, but to the nourishing of pride and exhausting of men’s estates, and also of evil example to others”

For the truly curious:

Sumptuary Laws, by Margaret Wood at the Law Library of Congress

The Puritans: Sumptuary Laws for Those of Mean Condition, by City College New York:


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Wicked Apparell", Nutfield Genealogy, posted April 20, 2019, ( accessed [access date]).

1 comment:

  1. Well, I must be a New Englander through and through,as I agree with the Puritans. Immoderate great breeches, indeed! Most unseemly.