In this day and age, fashion trends change in the blink of an eye. One week, it’s Uggs and leggings, the next, high-waisted pants and crop tops. While these trends in particular did not find their way into English colonial society, the fashion of the early Americans did evolve over time, diverging from the development of English and European styles. The difference in the colonial trends and those an ocean away show the gap in social standards and class between the English and Americans at that time.
Colonial women’s clothing was centered around the dress. In the 1600’s, fitted bodices with whale boning (similar to a corset) and skirts with petticoats were the norm, as were shawls, to cover the shoulders and any exposed chest. At the start of the 1700’s, hoop skirts made of whale bones began to replace the petticoat. Hoops of various sizes were in fashion until the late 1800s. Dresses usually reached the ankles or floor, coming in various colors and patterns, but the poorer working class usually wore plain wool dresses and heavy aprons. Wealthier women wore dresses made of silk, satin, or velvet. The black dress and apron found in most depictions of the Pilgrims would be the most recognizable example of the plainer, solid color dress.
Across the ocean, in England and western Europe, tight, horizontal bodices were in fashion, as were large puffy sleeves that reached the elbow. Another English trend was the mantua-and-stomacher, a stomacher being the triangular piece of stiff fabric that covered the opening in the front of the mantua, a draping and pleated dress worn over a visible petticoat. This fashion was notable for the exaggerated padding of the hips.
However, the why is more important than the what. English and western European fashion evolved as trends and preferences changed. The mantua was revived from earlier forms not out of necessity, but as a stylistic choice. Dresses were often made of high-quality materials and lace, with complicated designs, patterned textiles, and bright colors, a luxury for the time. In the colonies, the clothes were practical, using only a few different plain colored pieces for an outfit. Most middle class women (and men) had only two sets of clothes: an everyday outfit or working clothes and Sunday clothes for going to church. Colonists lived a much more simplistic lifestyle than the English. The priorities of the common English person and settler were different, their clothing and fashion choices evident of the differences in class and people’s needs.