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Article Index

I. Dress Regulation by Law

Who would think of writing a book on woman without including some description of dress? Apparently the colonial woman, like her modern sister, found beautiful clothing a subject near and dear to the heart; but evidently the feminine nature of those old days did not have such hunger so quickly or so thoroughly answered as in our own times. The subject certainly did not then receive the printed notice now granted it, and it is rather clear that a much smaller proportion of the bread winner's income was used on gay apparel. And yet we shall note the same hue and cry among colonial men that we may hear to-day--that women are dress-crazy, and that the manner and expense of woman's dress are responsible for much of the evil of the world.


We should not be greatly surprised, then, to discover that early in the history of the colonies the magistrates tried zealously to regulate the style and cost of female clothing. The deluded Puritan elders, who believed that everything could and should be controlled by law, even attempted until far into the eighteenth century to decide just how women should array themselves. But the eternal feminine was too strong for the law makers, and they ultimately gave up in despair. Both in Virginia and New England such rules were early given a trial. Thus, in the old court records we run across such statements as the following: "Sep. 27, 1653, the wife of Nicholas Maye of Newbury, Conn., was presented for wearing silk cloak and scarf, but cleared proving her husband was worth more than £200." In some of the Southern settlements the church authorities very shrewdly connected fine dress with public spiritedness and benevolence, and declared that every unmarried man must be assessed in church according to his own apparel, and every married man according to his own and his wife's apparel.[128] Again in 1651 the Massachusetts court expressed its "utter detestation that men and women of meane condition, education and calling should take upon them the garbe of gentlemen by wearinge of gold or silver lace or buttons or poynts at their knees, or walke in great boots, or women of the same ranke to wear silke or tiffany hoods or scarfs."

A large number of persons were indeed "presented" under this law, and it is plain that the officers of the times were greatly worried over this form of earthly pride; but as the settlements grew older the people gradually silenced the magistrates, and each person dressed as he or she, especially the latter, chose.