The Puritans in New England quickly learned that silks, lace, and other finery were the privilege of only the wealthy. The first generation of colonists in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colony didn’t seem to obsess about the finer things in life, as far as clothing. Likely, they were too busy clearing land, building a home, and plowing and harvesting in the fields.
Fashion policing was scarce until 1652 when a shipment arrived from the Continent that included clothing items considered new and immodest. Illegal finery was defined as lace, silver or gold threads, silk, tiffany hoods, points and ribbons, “broad lace” and French fall boots. Twenty defendants of this type of high fashion were accused in 1652, but the numbers declined in the following years.
Joan Braybrooke, Mehitabel’s stepmother, was brought to court for wearing a silk scarf in 1653. The Puritan authorities insisted that it was a crime for those who could not prove their property value exceeded £200 for the privilege to wear these niceties. Richard, Joan’s husband, was a prosperous land owner who evidently showed that his farms and property were above the “ordinary rank.”
The Puritan elite evidently recognized class distinctions based on wealth. Paintings of the elite reveal that the wealthier Puritans were not plainly dressed. They displayed their wealth in dress and accessories as a sign of divine blessing.
These two paintings from 1671, depict John Freake in the first portrait, and his wife Elizabeth and daughter Mary in the second. The portraits eloquently speak as to what it meant to be part of the upper-middle-class elite in Colonial New England in the later part of the seventeenth century. The Freakes understood their place in their world and allow us to dismiss our mistaken stereotypes of seventeenth-century Puritans. The Freakes were not an austere couple, entirely dressed in black. They displayed their wealth—both in dress and in accessories—in a moderate and acceptable way.