Tuesday, November 20, 2018

From the Archives: How (Not) to Dress a 17thc Puritan Maid

Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Susan reporting,

With Thanksgiving just round the corner and festive Pilgrims featured in every advertisement, let's revisit one of our most popular posts with a "Puritan maid."

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 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.


Krissy said...

Not a professional, but I'll take the challenge anyway ;)
The dress looks rather high-waisted and has a silhouette like from the 1810s.
The black scarf thing resembles 18th century fichus.
The black choker and the long black half-finger gloves were also fashionable in the 18th century as well in the 1870s.
The hat - I don't know! XD

Courtney said...

Recycling old posts?

Loretta Chase said...

If the post title begins with "From the archives," the post has appeared previously. That's how we try to make it clear it's not new.

Susan Hebert said...

The muff looks to be early to mid-19th century.
He has put a white cap under her hat, but the hat itself does no look late 17th century.
And I don't think the puritans, who dressed very plainly, had a gathered ruffle their aprons or dresses. Both the dress and the apron are too narrow; I agree early 1800's, as the dress also very high-waisted.
The fichu was worn later - in the mid-1700's and again in the 1860's - but not in the late 1600's, when the Puritan's reach North America.

Lucy said...

Like several others, that Regency-era silhouette, muff, etc., was the first thing that caught my attention. Ouch.

To balance it, however, when you have the time, do you happen to know of more authentic paintings of "Puritan" dress?

sarah c said...

Muff is off. Dress looks to be at about an 1820 or 30 waistline as empire went out. And I think the flowers or whatever on the front of the hat.

Steph from fangswandsandfairydust.com said...

No idea about the variety in the costume. But you are so correct. The Regency Revival also changed how we see Regency clothes, and unless we have actual period paintings, or costume, we are npt going to know.

What would the Puritan Maid have worn.

Loretta Chase said...

Plimoth Plantation interpreters dress in correct period dress, based on the best available resources. This video offers some glimpses of clothing.
2011 17th Century English Village Virtual Field Trip - Plimoth Plantation
and there are some glimpses here:
Plimoth Plantation: Virtual Field Trip
If you ever get a chance to go, it's well worth a visit.

Lucy said...

@ Loretta

Thank you so much!! Happy Thanksgiving to both of you! :-)

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