Puritans Beliefs About Dress Codes

Puritans railed against excess, including dress, leading to their reputation for modest clothing.
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Puritanism arose in England in the 16th century as a response to what some Protestants saw as the “impure” practices of the Anglican Church, tainted, they believed, by Catholic ceremony. Puritans grew in both number and historical significance, becoming a key influence in the English colonies of North America and major players in the English Civil War. They emphasized moderation in all things, including dress; Puritan dress was, however, less severe than modern stereotypes may depict.

1 Theology

The Puritans’ emphasis on moderation arose from strong religious beliefs about the nature of human vanity and desires. J. Stephen Yuille, writing in the journal ''Churchman,'' traces this teaching back to Augustine’s theology of affections. The 16th-century Puritan theologian William Perkins makes explicit the connection between moderation of desires and holiness, writing that the “vertue” (sic) of moderation arises when the soul’s affections are “tempered and allayed with the feare (sic) of God.” Perkins devoted a section of his book "Cases on Conscience" to moderation of dress, calling on believers to pay more attention to the “inward” ornament of the soul than the borrowed, outward ornaments of the body.

2 Ornament

The lavish fashions of the 16th century affected a careless elegance, explains Scott R. Robinson, chair of the Central Washington University Department of Theatre Arts; menswear included floppy, extravagant collars and cuffs of lace, for instance. Puritans did not entirely give up on stylish garb; a portrait of Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Endicott shows him wearing a fashionably large collar and long, wavy hair. Still, Puritans called for restraint. In 1634, Massachusetts General Court banned the use of lace and some other fripperies, such as beaver hats. The rule for Puritans was not to eschew fashion, but to strive for Perkins’ “vertue” (sic) of moderation. The Bible does not stipulate whether one or two or more ruffles is acceptable, Perkins preaches, but rather provides precedent for following the model of the “sagest and soberest persons.”

3 Color

The enduring image of Puritans depicts them clad in sober black, but that stereotype is incorrect. Black was actually an immodestly expensive color, because of the prohibitive cost of black dyes, according to The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing through World History. Perkins taught that fashion was one way of discerning God’s ordained social order, where the privileged are visibly distinguished from the artisans and workers, and for ordinary folk to wear black would have been social vanity as well as immoderation. Popular colors included burgundy, blue, brown, and green.

4 Purposes

Perkins asserts the purpose of clothing is important to consider, and he calls for wearing the right garments for the task at hand. The purpose of clothing should never be to attract the attention of others. It is acceptable to adorn oneself in happy times, like a wedding, Perkins preaches, because the utility of clothing may depend on its social function as well as its practical function. Part of that function rested with the social class of the wearer; the less privileged Pilgrim colony of Plymouth, for instance, may have given us the stereotype of the soberly clad colonist, as the hardscrabble Pilgrims relied on a narrow range of color and heavier fabrics.

Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.