The Pilgrims Didn’t Dress Like ‘Pilgrims’

“The less taste a person has in dress, the more obstinate he always seems to be.” —Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

In A Nutshell

We have a very distinct image of the Pilgrims who established the colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. Simple black-and-white clothing, tall hats, and buckles (on nearly everything) made up the Pilgrim’s wardrobe. But all of those features are actually the ex post facto additions and embellishments of artists’ imaginations.

The Whole Bushel

The Church of England Separatists we call “Pilgrims” may have been a more somber people, but their colorful wardrobes certainly didn’t reflect that. Plymouth during the 1600s was a far more colorful place than is typically imagined. Pilgrims spent most of their time wearing earth-toned and colorful clothes. Some of the most popular colors among the Pilgrims? Green, brown, and orange; which makes sense given how difficult it would have been to keep white clothing clean in a predominantly agricultural community.

So who’s to blame for the confusion? In part, the Pilgrims themselves, because only one of their number ever sat for a portrait, and he couldn’t be bothered to do so until decades after the landing at Plymouth. More likely though, most of the blame ought to fall on the shoulders of the 19th-century painters who weren’t exactly sticklers for accuracy when it came to depicting America’s colonial origins. And it’s these painters who are responsible for the most famous artwork showing life in colonial Massachusetts. Given a dearth of pictorial source material to work with, painters simply turned to their imaginations, which were heavily influenced by the era during which the painters worked.

Nineteenth-century painters depicted the Pilgrims in the exaggerated dress of Victorian-era gentleman: long black coats and high white collars. While Pilgrims did actually wear the familiar stovepipe hat, the large gold buckle was a much later addition. The buckle was a popular anachronistic flourish among Victorian painters. For them, adding buckles to a painting was like retouching a photo today in sepia tones: doing so made images look more “vintage.” Never mind that the Pilgrims didn’t actually wear buckles on their hats or shoes, painters—and presumably buyers—liked the old-fashioned feel the buckles added to the paintings.

Chances are, if you’re looking at a painting of a Pilgrim, what you’re really seeing is an exaggerated portrayal of a 19th-century revivalist wearing a 17th-century hat decorated with 18th-century style buckles.

Show Me The Proof

The Atlantic: Pilgrims With Shoe Buckles, and Other Thanksgiving Myths
Smithsonian: Pilgrims’ Progress
Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, by James W. Baker

  • Lisa 39

    Awesome article, good job!

  • Check

    Ooo, in the pic, that’s a black guy isn’t it? Heh, heh!

    • inconspicuous detective

      oh shit. cue the racists who are going to try to spew their bullshit under the guise of “correcting” a historical misrepresentation.

  • Andyman7714

    Way to ruin Thanksgiving for me! Next you’ll be telling me Santa Claus ain’t real.

    • TheMadHatter

      Thanks Obama

    • The Ou7law

      Andy i think we need to have a talk 🙁

      • Hillyard

        Listen take it slowly, just one thing at a time. No one needs to learn about the corporate comglomeration that is Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny all at once.

        • The Ou7law

          Ill break it to him gently thanks Hillyard, if i need help i hope i can count on you lol

          • Hillyard

            You know I’ve got your back.

          • The Ou7law

            Ill talk to Arjan and see if we cant squeeze you into our brotherhood vigilante crew of “The Brofists”

          • Andyman7714

            Wait, what?

  • Nathaniel A.

    We have always known that the original Thanksgiving feast was embellished, we shouldn’t be surprised to find out that other details related to the Pilgrims were exaggerated also.

  • TheMadHatter

    So they dressed like fall and turkeys… We aren’t too far off on thanksgiving, are we?

  • Hillyard

    Well if they were Pilgrims and they didn’t dress like Pilgrims, what die they dress like?