Sunday, November 13, 2016

From the Archives: How (Not) to Dress a 17th c.Puritan Maiden

Sunday, November 13, 2016
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 SalemA 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.


Karen Anne said...

I thought they wore that black drab stuff. The clothing in the painting looks like it belongs to a wealthy person, not consistent with being a puritan.

AuntieNan said...

Oh fun! Well, for starters, there's the sleeve length, and of course ruffles, something we are told did not adorn clothing of those who were not Cavaliers, right? I wonder at the criss-crossed scarf --which looks very Jane Austen to me, as do her shoes -- is she wearing SPATS?

Sarah said...

only most of it. Hat, shoes, muff, neckline, sleeves .... shawl ... now I know that the original parliamentarians, pre Naseby, were as likely to wear colours and follow the fashions of the time as cavalier families but the Puritans took everything much further. However the form of dress was still according to the shape of the fashion of the time, shorn of excess, and with plain linen collars unadorned with lace and high to the neck. I believe that puritan women did not wear stomachers, because it was a vanity in improving the figure, but I may be wrong. Besides, it's damnably hard to work hard wearing a stomacher, and you can't bend as easily. Skirts were narrower but still bell shaped, and shoes good sensible ones. No frills or ruffles. Plain bands to the cap, and a sensible felt hat. Did they wear straw for sensible cooling in summer? I don't know, but it wouldn't be frivolous. I've been peripherally involved with the Sealed Knot, but the costumes for that were not hugely different between parliamentarian and cavalier, especially for the lower classes. I think the main early difference between parliamentarians and puritans was the eschewing of decoration or anything frivolous. the muff is wildly frivolous and is so very Victorian in style and form.

Sarah said...

much of her kit says 1790s to me with added extras

Dory said...

Here is one I made for myself, about 1700, worked it out from Dutch art and costume books.

Sarah said...


Lucy said...

It looks a lot like what would happen if 1819 got into a head-on collision with 1745, and side-swiped the 1770s as it went by. Ouch.

QNPoohBear said...

Puritans dressed like anyone else of their social class.
They wore colors, lace, trim, etc. Ministers like to preach against it but the actual sumptuary laws were only on the books in Massachusetts for a short time. However, most of the colonists in Plymouth weren't Puritans at all. They wore what they had. The lady in the painting shows 18th and 19th century influences but is nowhere near accurate.

Michelle said...

The cross front bodice certainly makes me think of 1775-1785...the headdress is vaguely 16th century German. It's certainly a, uh, interesting mix

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