NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

July 23, 2013

A fashion war in the Colonies

Our Puritan ancestors’ actions reveal that human nature is no different today. In the Bay Colony, leaders and church officials forged a campaign of rigid scrutiny, censoring the lifestyle and habits of everyday citizens. Simplicity in dress was the law, but like any other infringement on personal liberties carried out in the name of God, these sanctions would not go down without a struggle. A fashion war raged, and it seems that the Legislature could no more ban fashion plates than it could heretics or tipplers.

The men of the cloth pleaded to Governor Winthrop to repress “men of leisure and power” who emulated London fashions, saturating the pure terrain. These “horrids of vanity” caused “alarm and disgust among the pious families.” To remedy this, “The Simple Cobler of Aggawam” (Rev. Ward) targeted the colony’s ladies, stating they had “no true grace or valuable virtue” if they “disfigure themselves with such exotic garbs” and are no better than “French flirts.”

The holy rollers used sermons to blame these so-called “haughty women” for wars and bad harvest. The magistrates began enforcing sumptuary laws that prevented extravagance by limiting clothing expenditures. “Immodest fashions” with lace, silver and gold thread and other “items of adornment” that had “little use or benefit, but to the nourishment of pride,” were strictly forbidden, as were “slashed apparel, great sleeves, great boots, ribbon, and double ruffs.” Despite a fashion boycott, garments of splendor and other wearable loot poured in — historical records show that our ancestors in and around the Port were quite stylish.

The most notorious of the Vanity Fair, Madame Rebecka Symonds, widow of Deputy Governor Samuel Symonds, was always starving for the newest trends, and she had the means and the connections to stock her trunks. Family letters indicate her appetite for finery. Her son, John Hall, a wealthy London merchant, dutifully supplied her with the latest and most glamorous garb. Apparently, Madame was more worried about catching the plague than tweaking the noses of local lawmen. Her luxury booty arrived with correspondence from Hall assuring her that he purchased the “finery himself, in safe shops, from reliable dealers, and kept all for a month in his own home where none had been infected.” Though her garments carried no contagious germs, Madame was surely dressed to kill that season.

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