This past Monday, Marla Miller led our freshmen seminar at UMass on Historic Dress. The topic for the day was Puritan fashion and we asked the students to prepare for our discussion by reading a chapter by Lynne Bassett titled “The Sober People of Hadley,” on what people wore in and around our neighborhood in the 17th century.
Our first reality check with the students was they were not entirely aware that Hadley is located just one town over from Amherst. However, their impressions from the readings along with Marla’s short lecture allowed us to delve into the socio-economic and cultural reasons behind why most Americans perceive Puritan dress as only comprised of black and white.
Students pointed to the role that class played in determining the type, quality, and quantity of clothing owned by various members of the Hadley community. However, they were puzzled to learn that the differences between the wealthiest and poorest members of society were not as great as they had imagined. Marla pointed out that Hadley was the edge of the British Empire and one did not want to alienate some members of society, since all were needed to band together. Wealthier members of society needed to get along with their less privileged neighbors. However, a culture of modesty was also imposed upon the townspeople and this too could have contributed to the compression of clothing styles.
We ended the class with a brief presentation by Marla that took many of the themes we had discussed and related them to the larger historical context in which the Puritans lived. She also traced the concept that Puritans only wore black to cultural representations in film and literature (from The Scarlet Letter to Pilgrim Barbie) that created the stereotypical concept many of us have of the Pilgrim dressed in black with a black hat with a buckle on it (the logo of the Massachusetts Turnpike even today). However, as Marla pointed out, the Puritans actually wore a variety of colors. Black was very expensive and was worn by the wealthier members of society, yet, those who could afford a painting of themselves were also members of the colony’s wealthiest families; when they had their portraits painted, they tended to wear their most expensive clothes.
In reality, the 17th century was full of color. There were pops of color through accessories and trim. There are even a few examples of colorful dresses that survive. The most exquisite of them include very ornate patterns, which again could have only been afforded by the wealthiest. Nonetheless, we can extrapolate that even in lower levels of society color played a role in their fashion choices. Dyed fabrics were common and outfits were constructed by layering several different color combinations.
The class is off to a great start and we’ll be exploring the ins and outs of museum web design next week.
 Lynne Basset, “The Sober People of Hadley: A Study of Clothing in the Probate Inventories of Hadley, Massachusetts, 1663-1731,” in Marla Miller, ed., Cultivating a Past: Essays on the History of Hadley Massachusetts (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).