What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “Pilgrim”? Perhaps, dour-looking early Americans sporting black-and-white clothes accessorized with buckled hats and shoes? This image of the first colonists to New England—popularized in the 19th-century—is based on a 1651 portrait of Edward Winslow, third governor of the Plymouth colony. But is it based on historical accuracy?
Not so much.
Pilgrims loved their colors as much as we do today. They wore everything from green to red and orange, only limiting their choices based on the natural dyes available to them. Read on to find out how the color-craving ladies and gents aboard the Mayflower actually dressed.
Color Me Fabulous
While we tend to think of the Pilgrims as the kind of folks that Johnny Cash, “the man in black,” could’ve swapped shirts and pants with, color was a surprisingly common element of even the most devout Pilgrim’s clothes chest. Both women and men enjoyed a broad palette of colors, from browns to russets, greens to yellows. Scarlets and lavenders also proved popular colors for various items, from caps to petticoats.
How do we know this? From examining the Pilgrims’ detailed probate records. For example, one Plymouth colonist, Mary Ring, died in 1633 leaving behind some of the following garments:
- White stockings
- Blue stockings
- A red petticoat
- A violet petticoat
- Three blue aprons
- Two violet waistcoats
- A “mingled-color” waistcoat
Ring also owned blue and red cloth at the time of her death, presumably to make more colorful clothes. And she was no lone rainbow-colored rebel. When William Brewster, one of Plymouth’s church elders, died in 1644, he left behind green pants, a violet coat, a blue suit, and a red cap. Like Ring, Brewster was no one-color wonder.
William Bradford, who served five non-consecutive times as Governor of Plymouth colony, listed among his possessions:
- An old violet cloak
- A light-colored cloak
- An old green gown
- A light-colored coat
- A red waistcoat
- Two hats, a black one and a colored one
- A lead-colored cloth suit with silver buttons
If these estate lists are providing you with a new picture of what the first Thanksgiving looked like, that’s a good thing. The Pilgrims would’ve worn a wide assortment of clothes colored with dyes made from berries, leaves, and roots.
That Whole Somber Business of Black
The black-and-white palette that we see in so many Victorian-era depictions of Britain’s early New World residents says more about the Victorians than the Pilgrims. It speaks to their intense desire to romanticize the past and create an idealized esthetic around the Pilgrim’s spiritual belief in the daily struggle between the forces of good and evil.
What’s more, fashionable Victorians were obsessed with black and white. Paintings such as Edgar Degas’s Self-Portrait (1855) and Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) illustrate this point. So, they dressed the Pilgrims in ways they found respectable.
The issue of what Pilgrims once wore has been further confounded by the tendency of later people to confuse Pilgrims and Puritans. In all fairness, it’s easy to see why so many people have made this mistake over the years. Yet, while both represented groups of religious reformers who landed in modern-day Massachusetts, they came to the New World at different times, motivated by different reasons, and defined by different social classes.
Pilgrims Versus Puritans
Pilgrims, or Separatists, lived apart from British society, driven out over religious conflict. As a result, no matter how educated they were, they subsisted at the bottom of the economic spectrum.
They never used the term “Pilgrims,” either. In fact, the association didn’t exist before 1800. Instead, the people who landed at Plymouth would have referred to themselves as “forefathers” or “first-comers.” Roughly 50 percent of them died within the first year of making landfall in North America. Without the help of the neighboring Wampanoag people, who taught them how to fish and farm, the colony might have collapsed altogether. Of course, this cooperation resulted in a feast attended by natives and new arrivals in 1621 that we still celebrate today while stuffing our faces around the Thanksgiving table.
Unlike the “first-comers,” Puritans never separated from the larger Church of England. As a result, they enjoyed high economic status. They displayed their wealth in a variety of ways, including melancholy black get-up that would make Severus Snape envious. While about 200 “first-comers” landed at Plymouth with more following in subsequent years, Puritans came in droves. When they founded Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, they brought along 17 ships carrying 1,000 passengers. They quickly swallowed up the 2,600 Pilgrims in the area, engulfing their colorful attire in an inky sea of buckled shoes and hats.
You see, black was among the most expensive dyes of the day, and buckles represented another audacious sign of wealth. The average Pilgrim proved too poor to wear either of these. But Puritans loved to show off in shades of ebony with prominent buckles.
Sure, portraits of Plymouth governors depict them in severe black suits. But it was commonplace to dress in your absolute best for a portrait sitting, the Baroque equivalent of prom pictures today. Of course, just as tuxes and evening gowns are inaccurate representations of how we dress, the austere black garments pictured in portraits offer little insight to Pilgrims’ daily wear. The same goes for the extravagant buckled accessories.
Over time, Puritans and Pilgrims became blurred in American history because they shared a similar back story. But while lavender cloaks and red petticoats would’ve been all the rage among the impoverished “first-comers,” the Puritans made black the esthetic standard. What’s more, Pilgrims forged a fascinating relationship with the Wampanoags, one that included fighting in battle together against the Wampanoag’s enemies. But the Puritans neither believed in religious tolerance nor cooperating with native peoples, which make them the antithesis of everything Thanksgiving should stand for.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com