It seems that no matter how distant we get from those Pilgrims who landed on the shores of Massachusetts in the 17th century, their plain dress seems to endure. It is perhaps paradoxical that Puritan dress continues to hold sway in today’s world when we are both far removed from their ethics and ethos and when our very culture stands in stark contrast to everything their dress stood for. No matter, the stark contrast of white collar against black dress has continued to permeate popular dress for centuries.
While it’s, in fact, a myth that the Puritans only wore black, today we associate them with black dresses trimmed in white, often with square collars. The crux of Puritan dress laws was to dress simply in order to avoid sin: “Dressing in a simple manner meant avoiding the sins of pride, greed, and envy, especially for women.”1 This is what makes the persistence of Puritan dress in today’s culture of hyper-consumerism counterintuitive. The Puritans would be horrified to see their dress appropriated by the ostentatiously expensive designer labels of today.
Today, we even reinterpret the meaning behind Puritan dress. At the Barbican’s The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined earlier this year, Judith Clark reinterprets the purity of Puritan dress as vulgar. As I wrote in my review of the exhibition for The Fashion Studies Journal,
“We may not immediately associate Puritanism with vulgarity, but Clark explains (on the placard) that, “Puritan dress, with its denial of colour and decoration, and its assumed denial of pleasure, forgets the pleasures of denial.” She goes on to write of how in seventeenth-century Flemish paintings of Puritan dress, the black dress often blended into the background, while the white collars stuck out as a sign of purity. “The vulgarity is in the purity,” the introduction declares.”
It goes on to display designs by John Galliano for Dior and, of course, Alexander McQueen. McQueen’s and his successor Sarah Burton’s styles seem to often return to various interpretations of Puritan dress but this season it was Carolina Herrera who had looks reminiscent of the Pilgrims’ code of dress. The opening looks of her AW17 show all displayed an aesthetic inspired by Puritan sumptuary law even as one of the looks featured a leather skirt. While the collection evolved, more Pilgrim-inspired looks were sprinkled throughout. There was no way to avoid the allusion to Puritan dress. Which just goes to show that even in a season when Puritan dress may not be the inspiration, it continues to be present. Perhaps it is even the Puritans’ most enduring legacy, and what a surprise that would come to them.
All images via Vogue.com