The Pilgrims Didn’t Dress Like ‘Pilgrims’

By J. Wisniewski on Wednesday, February 26, 2014
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“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