The Puritans are iconic figures in American History. Nearly every American holds an image of sombre Puritan men and women dressed all in black. However, this cliché isn't quite accurate, especially as concerns Puritan dress. Puritans, or Congregationalists, as they were known, were conservative in their religious beliefs, but they followed the fashions of their day in dress. This means that, by 1850, they would have been following the same fashion trends as the rest of society.
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In 1850, men wore long trousers, dress shirt, tie, coat and vest. A man's "frock coat" was longer than the typical business suit jacket of today. Its wide lapels were sometimes of a different fabric that the rest of the coat --- velvet or silk, for example. Vests were also made of silk and often of a colourful or patterned fabric. Men's shirt collars in 1850 often were not worn turned down as they are today, but were highly starched to stand up. Ties of the day were silk ribbons that were tied at the throat to resemble a bow and were called "cravats." Men of this period often favoured bold patterns, such as checks, and weren't shy about mixing and matching patterns.
By 1850, women were wearing hoop petticoats beneath dresses to give them a bell shape and to emphasise the wearer's small waist. This freed women from the numerous heavy petticoats of the decade before, while maintaining the modest silhouette required by the fashion of the day. The mid-19th century, however, gave birth to the women's suffrage movement, which coincided with a reform movement in women's dress. Annie Bloomer was an early advocate of wearing "bloomers" or women's "trousers," a trend that symbolised women's desire for the same social freedoms enjoyed by men.
Babies and young children of both sexes dressed exactly alike. Long, shift-like garments, referred to as dresses or coats, were worn to provide easy access to change cloth diapers. Once a boy was out of diapers, he was no longer dressed in the unisex outfit of a baby, but put into trousers so he resembled a small replica of a man of his day. Girls were clad in a corset, hoop skirt and petticoat, though dresses were sometimes slightly shorter until a girl became a young woman.
Jewellery was a popular accessory by 1850. Men wore their frock coats unbuttoned to show off the gold watch chains dangling from their vest pockets and women wore their hair severely pulled back from their faces, allowing gold earrings to be easily seen and admired. New techniques in working with gold allowed for more elaborate jewellery designs that were showcased by the wealthy. Jewellery created and worn to honour deceased loved ones, often including locks of hair or photos, were also very popular in 1850.
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- WSU: Puritanism in New England; Donna M. Campbell; Ohio University Press; 1997
- U.S. History: Puritan Life
- Phillipian; President Emerita Lectures on Children's Fashion; Simone Hill; Nov. 2005
- Historic New England: 1820-1850
- Through the Eyes of a Child: Fashion 1850-1860s
- Gentlemen's Emporium: Men's Portrait Gallery - 1850