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Image Massachusetts Dress Ways: The Puritan Taste for Simple Clothes and “Sadd” Colors

The typical New England Jonathan—and Abigail as well—were also known by their habits of dress. The founders of Massachusetts had strong views on this subject. For them, clothing was not a matter of cultural indifference. By and large, they believed thatcostume should not be a form of sensual display. This did not mean that the Puritans wore the black suits and gray dresses of historical legend. With a few exceptions, they avoided black—not because it was too plain for their tastes, but because it was not plain enough. Even this strong color was thought to be pretentious in the general population. It was reserved for ruling elders and the governing elite.1

The Bay people cultivated a style of dress which drew its inspiration from the customary folk costume of East Anglia in the seventeenth century. The taste of New England ran not to black or gray, but to “sadd colors” as they were called in the seventeenth century. A list of these “sadd colors” in 1638 included “liver color, de Boys, tawney, russet, purple, French green, ginger lyne, deer colour, orange.” Other sad colors were called “gridolin” from the French gris de lin (“flax blossom”). Still others were called puce, folding color, Kendall green, Lincoln green, barry, milly and tuly.

Specially favored was russet, and a color called philly mort from the French feuille morte (“dead leaf”). One country gentleman from the east of England, Oliver Cromwell, made these “sad colors” into a badge of virtue when he celebrated his “plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows.”

Sad colors were brought in Massachusetts in the first years of settlement, and their popularity has persisted even to our own time. In a region where nature adorns herself each year in flaming red and orange and yellow, the plain folk of Massachusetts dressed in shades of feuille morte.

New England dress ways were also special in the cut of clothing. The Massachusetts Bay Company specified an outfit for men of ordinary rank which included:

4 pair shoes

2 pair Irish stockings

1 pair knit stockings

1 pair Norwich garters

4 shirts

2 suits of doublet and hose, of leather, lined with oil skin leather, the hose and doublet with hooks and eyes.

1 suit of Hampshire kerseys; the hose lined with skins, the doublet with linen

3 plain falling bands

1 waistcoat of green cotton bound with red tape

1 leather girdle

1 Monmouth cap

1 black hat lined at the brim with leather

5 red knot caps

2 dozen hooks and eyes

1 pair of leather gloves, calfskin or sheepskin2

This outfit included the legendary black felt steeple hat, but was otherwise very different from the stereotypical image of the Puritan. It was a remarkably full wardrobe, much superior in quality and cost to the clothing that most Englishmen wore in 1630. The common costume of English laborers and cottagers ran to cheaper fabrics such as frieze, tow and canvas, rather than to these materials.

Leaders and elders in the Bay Colony dressed differently from ordinary people. For godly men and women of “good age” or high rank, black was thought to be suitable. A surviving portrait (ca. 1629) of John Winthrop shows him in a suit of black velvet with slashed sleeves, a starched neck ruff and delicate lace cuffs. In his hand he carried gossamer gloves so thin as to be transparent. Their fragility was meant to show that their wearer did not have to work with his hands. John Winthrop’s costume differed in its restraint from the opulent display of Stuart courtiers and Virginia cavaliers, but it was unmistakably the dress of a gentleman.

To discourage excessive display, the Bay Colony passed strict sumptuary laws. Statutes of this sort existed in most American colonies and European states. But the earliest Massachusetts sumptuary laws were very different—they applied not merely to the common people, but to “ordinary wearing” by everyone. One such statute in 1634 forbade men and women of every rank to wear “new fashions, or long hair, or anything of the like nature.”


Steeple hats and “sadd colors” were typical of Puritan dress ways. Both men and women in New England did actually wear the broad-brimmed steeple hats of legend, historical revisionists notwithstanding. One such hat survives today in Pilgrim Hall, Plymouth. It belonged to Constance Hopkins, who arrived in the Mayflower. Most steeple hats were made of wool felt. In Britain the best were called “beaver hats” and were handsomely blocked. The Massachusetts General Court in 1634 forbade everyone in the colony (not merely the poor) to wear beaver hats and hatbands as “superfluous and unnecessary,” on pain of a fine (two shillings sixpence). But it also urged every male immigrant to bring a black wool felt steeple hat.

Full-length cloaks were also common in New England for both women and men. This one belonged to Richard Smith in Rhode Island (ca. 1659) and is owned by the Rhode Island Historical Society. The fabric is camlet, an untwilled wool closely interwoven with hair; it is lined with a twilled wool called drugget. Its color was “sad green,” one of a range of modest and restrained hues which were much favored in New England.

It ordered that “no person, either man or women,” could wear “slashed clothes, other than one slash in each sleeve, and another in the back.” Also forbidden were “ordinary wearing” of silver, gold, and silk laces, girdles, hatbands, and “immoderate great sleeves … great rayles, long wings, etc.” These prohibitions applied to everybody in the colony.3

The sumptuary laws of Massachusetts also forbade the manufacture and sale of fancy clothing. A statute in 1636 ordered that “no person, after one month, shall make or sell any bone lace, or other lace. … neither shall any tailor set any lace upon any garment.”4The court decreed that “no garment shall be made with short sleeves, whereby the nakedness of the arm may be discovered.”5

Later in the seventeenth century, the sumptuary laws of Massachusetts became more conscious of rank. In 1651, the General Court complained that “intolerable excess and bravery hath crept in upon us, and especially amongst people of mean condition, to the dishonor of God, the scandal of our profession, the consumption of estates, and altogether unsuitable to our poverty.” The selectmen of every town were ordered to judge whether the dress of men and women exceeded their “ranks and abilities.” Costly dress was restricted to those whose estates were worth more than 200 pounds, and also to families of magistrates. But subsequent statutes returned to general prohibitions.6

The austerity of New England’s dress ways also appeared in other customs. Through the seventeenth century this culture maintained an intense hostility to wigs. When a Puritan clergyman named Josiah Willard cut off his natural hair and put on a wig, he was visited by a magistrate who told him that “God seems to have ordained our hair as a test, to see whether we can bring our minds to be content to be at his finding: or whether we would be our own carvers.” Attitudes changed in the eighteenth century, when wigs of white or grey (grizzled as if by age) became acceptable. But long youthful curls were strictly condemned in the seventeenth century.7

The women of Puritan New England made less use of cosmetics than most affluent females in the English-speaking world, except the Quakers. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison observes that his ancestors “loved bright-colored paint on ships and houses—but not on women.”8 Cosmetic aids of every kind were condemned not merely as extravagance but as an act of blasphemy. Even false teeth were uncommon, and Josselyn described New England females in 1684 as “pitifully tooth-shaken,” a condition not much improved by the Puritans’ favorite toothpaste—a suitably strenuous mix of brimstone, butter and gunpowder.9

Washing was uncommon amongst these people. Charles Francis Adams recalled that there were no baths in the town of Quincy for two hundred years. But much use was made of scented powders and leaves. Houses were hung with bouquets of herbs. Perfumed leaves were heated over the fire, to mask the ripe aroma of the inhabitants.

There were many exceptions to these general patterns. The dress ways of New England were tempered by the stubborn individuality of its population. Most wills and inventories included a few articles of private extravagance. The will of Jane Humphrey (Dorchester, 1668) listed “my best red kersey petticoat,” which was worn beneath outgarments of “sad grey.” There was a taste for aprons with “small lace at the bottom” and pocket handkerchiefs with a “little lace” on the edge.

Puritan women were not nearly as austere as Quakers would later become. They normally wore modest lace caps and bright sleeve-ribbons which made a cheery contrast with the “sadd colors” of their skirts and bodices. But these indulgences were monitored by elders who struggled to enforce a rule of restraint. Even Mary Downing, the niece of Governor Winthrop himself, was reprimanded for wearing a little lace, and “crosse clothes.” She wrote to her father:

I wrote my mother for lace not out of any prodigal or proud mind, but only for some crosse clothes, which is the most allowable and commendable dressings here … the elders with others entreated me to leave them off, for they gave great offense.10

These small excesses made all the more striking the comparative austerity of New England dress ways from the seventeenth century to the twentieth.11

After the great migration, the people of New England fought a two hundred years’ war to preserve the values of their culture. Young men and women strained against the sartorial limits that elders imposed upon them. From time to time the magistrates cracked down. At Northampton in 1676, thirty-six young ladies received criminal indictments for “overdress chiefly in hoods.” One of them, a spirited young woman named Hannah Lyman, defiantly appeared before the court wearing the silken hood for which she had been indicted. The magistrate was not amused; Hannah Lyman found herself in serious trouble not only for “wearing silk,” but for “wearing silk in a flaunting manner, in an offensive way, not only before but when she stood presented.”12 Legal evidence of this sort always points two ways. It shows that some New Englanders rebelled against their culture, while others labored to preserve it. It also tells us that even as challenges and changes occurred in the dress ways of this region, elements of continuity remained very strong.

Fashions of dress were never static in this society, but changed as rapidly in Massachusetts as in other parts of the Western world. Doublet and hose yielded to smallclothes, and smallclothes to pantaloons, and pantaloons to sack suits. But through all these changes, the dress ways of Massachusetts have preserved strong continuities. A female traveler wrote in the eighteenth century:

They are generally very plain in their dress throughout all the colony, as I saw, and follow one another in their modes, that you may know where they belong, especially the women, meet them where you will.13

Even in the twentieth century, the descendants of the Puritans still wear suits of slate-grey and philly-mort. In Boston’s Back Bay and Beacon Hill, Brahmin ladies still dress in sad colors, and their battered hats appear to have arrived in the hold of the Arbella.

Sad colors also survive in the official culture of New England. In the older universities of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, scholars and athletes do not appear in colors such as Princeton’s gaudy orange or Oxford’s brilliant blues and reds. The color of Harvard is a dreary off-purple euphemistically called crimson. Brown University’s idea of high color is dark brown, trimmed with black. On ceremonial occasions, the president of that institution wears a mud-colored garment which is approximately the color of used coffee grounds. Dartmouth prefers a gloomy forest-green. All of these shades were on the official list of “sadd colours” in 1638; and are still in vogue today.

In the New England dialect, it is interesting to discover that clothes have been called “duds” for three centuries. This was an old English term of contempt for dress. A scarecrow, in his castoff rags was sometimes called a “dudman.” The language of dress in New England was a vocabulary of deprecation. That pejorative attitude still survives in the culture of this region.

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