Hidden Meanings in Clothing

Essay by McKinley Murphy, Graduate Student in the Department of English at Purdue University

Clothing and material culture played an important role in the Puritans’ formation of identity. Puritans viewed clothing as an outward sign of the wearer’s internal moral goodness. People who had God’s grace were allowed to dress more elaborately because they were the elect, the saints. A waistcoat was similar to the vest in today’s men’s suits, though it would have probably been longer and gone past the hips. Silk was not produced in Massachusetts or any of the other colonies at this time. In fact, it appears silk was not produced in England, either. The English gentry and wealthy merchant class imitated the fashions of the rest of Europe, and there was a high demand in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries for silk, satin, and other types of luxury cloth that were produced in Italy, France, and Spain. That Williams owned anything silk speaks to his wealth and status.


Material culture: Objects, resources, and spaces that people use to define their culture

Elaborate: Involving many carefully arranged parts or details

Gentry: People of a good social position


Why was clothing important to Puritans’ identity?

How did clothing represent someone’s status or wealth?