In 1676, Hannah Lyman was in trouble. She was among three dozen or so young women who had been summoned to court: They had flouted the laws of the colony of Connecticut by wearing silken hoods. Among these “overdressed” women, Lyman was, apparently, the most rebellious and strong-willed. She appeared in court wearing the very silk hood that she had been indicted for donning.
The judge was, predictably, not very happy. He accused her of “wearing silk in a flaunting manner, in an offensive way, not only before but when she stood presented” at court. She and the other young women were fined for their offensive sartorial choices.
It’s quite interesting, visualizing just how one would wear a silk hood in an offensive manner. This is obviously projection writ large, but many of the puritan sentiments are still with us, to a very deep degree. Consider how many people refer to something like silk sheets as terribly decadent, something only people of a very weak nature would indulge in, and so forth. We won’t even get into silk underwear. (Pardon, pardon, couldn’t help it.) To the puritans, silk spoke of degeneracy, a terrible flaw in one’s moral framework. All these centuries later, I can feel for Ms. Lyman, who probably just wanted to enjoy her silken hood.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony passed its first law limiting the excesses of dress in 1634, when it prohibited citizens from wearing “new fashions, or long hair, or anything of the like nature.” That meant no silver or gold hatbands, girdles, or belts, and no cloth woven with gold thread or lace. It was also forbidden to create clothes with more than two slashes in the sleeves (a style meant to reveal one’s rich and fancy undergarments). Anyone who wore such items would have to forfeit them if caught.
I can’t help but wonder just who got those “forfeited” clothes. Not that some higher up puritan would be able to wear them outside their own house, but I can imagine some scenes going on behind closed doors. Puritans were very serious about ornamentation of all kinds though, and that extended to things like christmas:
You’ll note in the above: “dressing in Fine Clothing”, with the stress of capital letters.
For decades the colony continued to refine these laws. In 1639, the colony instituted a stricter law against lace and forbade clothes with short sleeves. In the 1650s, the law became more class-conscious. Only those who had more than 200 pounds to their estates were allowed to wear gold and silver buttons and knee points, or great boots, silk hoods, or silk scarves. Exempt from the rule were magistrates and public officers, their wives and children, as well as militia officers or soldiers, and anyone else whose with advanced education or employment, or “whose estate have been considerable, though now decayed.” In 1679, the colony also started worrying about hair, since “there is manifest pride openly appearing among us by some women wearing borders of hair, and their cutting, curling, and immodest laying out of their hair.”
Oh my, how things never, ever change. The rich are different, because money allows them to be. It’s interesting to see the nod to decayed estates, there’s a bit of classism at its very finest. Naturally, those wealthy puritans had to have some way to distinguish themselves, one might say a way to flaunt their wealth. No point in having position and money if you can’t separate yourself from the puritan rabble. The hypocrisy of those who always make a claim to the highest of moral grounds is breathtakingly blatant.
Massachusetts and Connecticut were not the only colonies to pass such laws. In New Jersey, by 1670, it was illegal for a woman to “betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s male subjects, by scents, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, or bolstered hips.” And if they did? The marriage would be “null and void.” Oh, and they would be punished exactly as if they had been convicted of witchcraft or sorcery.
Oh my, my, my. Betray into marriage. That’s pretty strong language, and it would be very nice if that sentiment was one that was long lost to the mists of time. Unfortunately, it isn’t at all lost, and it’s a frequent cry of complaint among MRAs. When it comes to personal ornamentation, women can never win. If we have the nerve to wander about sans cosmetics, there are complaints. If we use cosmetics, there are complaints. And there are never ending complaints about dress, of course. “Too sexy!” “Too distracting!” “Slutty!” “Drab.” “Uninteresting.” “Slovenly.” And so on and on and on it goes. Anyroad, looking at the above list, all I can say is I’m beyond grateful I didn’t live in an age where iron stays were obligatory.