, Newburyport, MA


July 23, 2013

A fashion war in the Colonies


Judge Samuel Sewall, on the prowl for a wife, set his sights on Martha Ruggles and wrote to her brother Thomas Woodbridge, noting fond memories of her great style: I remember when I was going from school at Newbury, I sometimes met Mary, at the end of Mrs. Noyes’s Lane, coming from their School at Chandler’s Lane, in Hanging Sleeves ... “ Martha was not impressed — this fellow was never going to get under her sleeves. After she rejected his two proposals, he moved on to woo Widow Gibbs.

While the genteel usually got a minor shunning for their extravagance, for Colonists with a yearly income of less than 200 pounds, wearing the style of polite society was criminal. To give falsehood of your station in the Puritan Republic was against God’s law. The General Court announced their “utter detestation and dislike” that “over-proud commoners” of “mean condition, education and callings should take upon them the garb of gentlemen.”

Infractions resulted in punishment and fines. Tailors were forbidden from making garments “contrary to the mind and order of the Governors,” and if the grand jurors failed to bring indictments against guilty persons, the courts would impose fines on them. In 1652, Jonas Fairbanks and Robert Edwards were charged for wearing “great boots,” a cavalier fashion of excessive leather. John Chubb was admonished for “excess in apparel, beyond that of a man of his degree.” Additional records from the Quarterly Courts of 1653 regarding Newbury residents include:

Wife(s) of John Hutchings, Thomas Harris, Thomas Wayte and Edward Browne, presented for wearing a silk hood, all discharged testimony being brought up above the ordinary rank and upon proof of education.

Wife(s) of Nicholas Noyes and Hugh March, John Whipple presented for silk hood and scarves, but discharged for being worth 200 pounds.

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