Tuesday, January 6, 2015

How (Not) to Dress a 17th c.Puritan Maiden

Tuesday, January 6, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Historical clothing is one of our favorite topics on this blog, and readers of both our posts and books will know how hard we try to get things *right* when in comes to what people were wearing in the past. Yet I'm also willing to concede that there can be considerable wiggle-room when it comes to theatrical costumes (no one really expects Cinderella to wear a perfect replica 18th c. gown, do they?) and other artistic expressions of past fashion.

But what happens when that artist's vision becomes such a potent image that it wipes the real thing clear away?

That was my thought yesterday while reading one of my favorite blogs, historian Donna Seger's Streets of Salem. Her most recent post featured the 19th c. Anglo-American painter George Henry Boughton (1833-1905), and how his paintings of 17th c. New England Puritans have influenced how we today imagine those early settlers. (Read her post here.) She's right: Boughton's paintings have illustrated countless school history books, and his version of Puritan dress is still widely accepted as the real thing. In fact, when I did a search for the painting, left, the Google best guess that comes up is "Puritan fashion", followed by links to a teaching site that labels this as an example of "colonial clothing."

Except that it isn't. Like most history-painters, Boughton's intentions were the best, but what this young woman is wearing bears no more real resemblance to 17th c. clothing than the sturdy stone walls and substantial brick buildings in the background do to mid-17th c. architecture in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Boughton painted his Puritan maiden in 1875, and to me her expression and posture seem more akin to a fashionable lady of that era; compare her with the lady in James Tissot's Portrait, also painted in 1875.

But it's the costume that Boughton contrived for his model that fascinates me the most. I'm guessing that, like many artists, he had a collection of antique and fancy-dress clothing in his studio, and he assembled an outfit from bits and pieces that looked right to him. To be fair to Boughton, he was trying to create an artistic mood, a somber, thoughtful reverie set in the past, rather than a 17th c. fashion plate. In 1875, people regarded historical clothing as old clothes to be worn to masquerades (no one loved fancy-dress more than the Victorians), and the academic study of dress and fashion was in its infancy.

Still, I'd like to offer a challenge to you. Among our readers, there are many art historians, re-enactors, costume historians, historic seamstresses and tailors, and others of you who know your historical fashion. How many different elements and eras can you see represented in this young woman's costume?

Above: A Puritan Maiden, by George Henry Boughton, 1875, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute.


Anonymous said...

For starters I don't believe any Pilgrims carried a dainty fur muff like that one. Looks Georgian.

Drayton Bird said...

Yes; the muff looks utterly absurd. Especially in conjunction with what looks like a straw hat. Just the thing for a freezing night.

Connie said...

You mention that she stands like a James Tissot model. She's also wearing a black velvet ribbon around her throat the way women do in his earlier paintings. Another style more appropriate to 1875 than 1625 or whenever this is supposed to be. http://www.wikiart.org/en/james-tissot/too-early

Cynthia Altoriso said...

I think she's not 'plain' enough to illustrate a Puritan fashion look....after all, that's what the Puritans were about.
I don't imagine they would have gone in for much embellishment in the way of accessories.
For instance, the black neck choker and the fur trimmed muff.
Also....the hat on top of the bonnet....I don't think so...its calling too much attention.
I also have to question the mittens and the lace cuffs.

And finally..I'm wondering why she's wearing an apron......its not as if she's working...
She is clearly gotten up to be 'dressed up'.

Suetois said...

I think a red dress would be deemed completely scandalous by any God-fearing Puritan.

MadameHardy said...

The apron has ties rather than being pinned on, as an 18th-century apron would be.

Anonymous said...

Where to begin? The apron would not have a flounce at the hem. The elbow-length sleeves were not popular until the mid-eighteenth century. Ditto the sleeve ruffles, ruffled cap, fingerless shaped mits, and the curved-brim hat with the ribbon trimming. As was observed in another comment, the hat looks like straw, which would never be worn in the snow. The dress/gown/bodice/petticoats/who knows what is has 1790s raised waistline and narrow skirt. The little half crown extensions on the shoulders are sixteenth century. The narrow scarf tied around the bodice reminds me of nineteenth century working women. The muff and neck ribbon have already been mentioned. Her clothes are a historical hot mess, but still and all, it's a pretty painting.

Also, the dark red color doesn't bother me. Pilgrim/Puritans wore sad or somber colors, but they weren't restricted to black or grey. This would have been okay with them.

Donna said...

Thanks so much for following up on this, Susan, and for your kind comment. I wanted this particular post to be about winter, but the clothes kept getting in the way! I'm very eager to read all the responses to your post.

DSG said...

This kind of thing is still happening. About 15 years ago, I bought my daughter a "Victorian barbie doll". On the box was the old drawing that showed what the company thought was a Victorian woman and thus they copied the dress for the doll from that illustration. What made me laugh was that they had gotten a mid- to late 19th-entury picture certainly but of the Victorian conception of an English Civil War period maiden. So a 19th-century idea of what the mid-17th century woman had worn ended up on a barbie doll. Someone didn't do their research!

Cassidy said...

What's interesting to me is that a lot of what comes off as contemporary to the painting are fashions inspired by history! So the black ribbon around the throat, for example, is something you see in a lot of 1870s art but became fashionable because it was reminiscent of the 18th century. Same with the narrow black cross-over shawl - it's what you see in 1870s art, but it's also inspired by the way women tied kerchiefs in 1780s portraiture and fashion plates.

Let's see, what would I say is characteristic of the early or mid-17th century? The slightly-above-natural waistline is reasonable, and the wings on the shoulders are historical!

The tight elbow-length sleeves are going for 18th century, as are the ruffles and cap. I've seen similar to the hat in the 1780s, but ... it's giving me a "this is ugly so it must be historical, right?" vibe rather than an attempt at imitating anything specific. (I do think it's correct to have a hat over a cap, though, for outdoor wear.)

It would be understandable for a middle or working class girl to have only a couple of petticoats, but that's a really narrow-cut skirt - sort of Regency to me, although it's improbably full at the hem. It would also be understandable for her to wear an apron when not working, but not that apron.

Julia said...

Ohhh, that is a fun challenge!

Let's go top to bottom.

She seems to be wearing a sort of white, snug cap covering her hair. Good choice for anything 16th to 18t century, I think. On a puritan woman I'd expect that to be covered with a simple black cap or high hat. This woman wears something that mostly resembles a cowboy hat. ??? I'd place that in the seventies or in a Country bar. Or of course, any good saloon. (Could be 1780ies fashion if it was a bit wider, slanted and had ostrich feathers.)

Not sure about the white border visible at her neck, and I'd expect the neckline to be even higher, but now I'm nitpicking.

This black thing wrapped around her upper body is, I suppose, a triagonal shawl (or a square folded into a triangle). Earlier than 19th century, I believe. The tops of early 19th century dresses often looked like a triangular shawl was covering shoulders and breast and tapering down to the waiste, but not with the crossing, I believe. That looks a bit more rural to me. I'm thinking contemporaries of Jane Austen (who would wear a higher waist line), so around 1900.

The reddish color of the dress? Not so sure about that, but it's a muted tone, so comparably inexpensive dyes. Pure black would be more expensive.

That elegant fur muff? Could be anywhere between 17th and early 20th century, but definitely something for a fine gentlewoman.

The ellbow length sleeves with white ruffs - I got nothing. Late 20th century faux-historical? Looks like what fashion designers tack to a costume that's supposed to look old-fashioned or romantic.

Ellbow length black gloves? Either evening wear late 19th century or Doris Day.

That white apron - together with a pointed waist and fuller skirts, I'm thinking Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu and other 1650ies and later goodness. Working class rather than higher classes.

The dress appears to be gored - slim on the upper part (I think it would be wider on puritan dress) but gaining width around the ankles. Either late 19th century or 1950ies?

All in all: a beautiful example of Anachronism Stew. Wonderful!

Anonymous said...

looks like she's wearing eye makeup & lipstick too

Heather said...

This is such a fascinating post to me, being an artist--- who sometimes paints a 'whimsical old-fashionedness' and other times I try to be specific to an era. To me, there's really nothing true to era to her costume once you look at it ;) for starters-- as a puritan there wouldnt have been any ruffle or frill of any sort, from the ruffle of her apron to the flare of her skirt. Both for religious beliefs and just plain having to make do with whatever materials they could make on site, her clothes would be extremely plain and more of a blue gray hue from the dyes she would have used. The sleeves also scream colonial era, and she would have been wearing a more corseted top.
Last fall I painted a puritan girl inspired by reinacting costumes from Plimoth Plantation. I humble leave it here for your perusal ;) http://audreyeclectic.blogspot.com/2014/09/an-autumn-gathering.html

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I KNEW you'd all have a lot to say! :) Thank you for sharing your observations and thoughts - you spotted things that I'd missed. I think we can all agree that if a real Puritan Maiden showed up at the door of her church looking like this, she would not have been welcomed! But fashion-crimes aside, it's still a handsome painting. :)

Cassidy said...

I was looking at fashion plates again (for another reason) and think the apron *may* be inspired by the 1780s - although the ruffle would have been gathered then rather than being cut curved on the bias (which is what looks to be going on here).

The black fingerless mitts are 18th century, but it's possible they go back to the 17th - I don't know of any research on the subject.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Donna, I'm glad you've had a chance to read all these comments, too. Your post WAS about winter - how Boughton was emphasizing the harsh conditions faced by the Puritans in New England, and making some striking compositions with their dark clothing and figures against the white snow. But I agree: those costumes just kept getting in the way!

QNPoohBear said...

Yikes what is that? I hate Victorian conceptions of Puritan fashion. They're always wrong and judging from the comments here, highy influential even in this day and age. Puritans didn't necessarily dress plainly. They dressed according to their station in life. Massachusetts Bay Colony had suptuary laws only for a few brief years. I assume because they were too hard to enforce. Google "On apparaling" a puritan minister's sermon and it will give you a good idea of the Puritan ideal but if you look at the court records, you'll see that many people willingly wore lace, ribbons and other items ministers decryed. Only very wealthy people wore black - it was extremely expensive due to using more dye. Sad (dark) colors were worn on Sundays. Bright colors were more common especially madder or cochineal red and indigo blue, and yellow. You can look at what people were wearing in England at that time. Wencelas Hollar made a number of engravings of English countrywomen that show the fashions of the mid-17th century. I have a lot more resources on my other computer. Anyone interested can e-mail me at aupoohbear@hotmail.com

rroffel said...

This is a perfect example how people of the past were not that anxious about getting their history right and it continues to this day. Scholarly research was a thing which some did without any rigor or care and it shows. What makes me sad is that many of these poor attempts at historical veracity are seen as authentically portraying things which either never existed or never happened.

All that aside, I agree with many commenters who see elements of 18th and 19th century fashion in this hodge-podge of a painting.

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