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In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, how are the settlers dressed?

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buckston | (Level 1) Honors

Posted October 10, 2011 at 3:21 AM via web

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In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, how are the settlers dressed?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted October 10, 2011 at 5:56 AM (Answer #1)

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In Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, The Scarlet Letter, the story is set in a Puritan settlement in the 1640s. In this case was can assume that Puritans all wore very simple clothing—grey and black (though it faded quickly), with some white, would have been common. The women would not have worn any adornment: no hair ribbons or even fancy buckles on their shoes. Their collars and trim on sleeves or aprons would also have been severe (very plain). Their behavior, even in dress, had a direct effect (they felt) on their religious life—which was not separated from affairs of state:

...the Puritans required a strict moral regulation; anyone in the community who sinned threatened not only their soul, but the very possibility of civil and religious perfection in America and in England.

The beginning of the story describes how the people are dressed as Hester is released from jail:

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of the wooden edifice.

This would have reflected the manner in which Puritans were expected to dress anywhere within the area of the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlements.

Puritans advocated a conservative form of fashionable attire, characterized by "sad" or somber colors and modest cuts. Gowns with low necklines were filled in with high-necked smocks and wide collars. Married women covered their hair with a linen cap, over which they might wear a tall black hat. Men and women both avoided bright colours, shiny fabrics, and over-ornamentation.

The author describes the moral and material fiber of the cloth worn by the women of the community:

Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fiber in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding...

Hester Prynne, on the other hand, comes from her prison with a regal demeanor that only highlights her natural beauty, much to the disgust of the women who believe she should have been killed for her sin. We might assume that she would wear the plain and simple clothing of Puritans—but such is not the case. Ironically, the "A" she wears on her dress is anything but plain as would be Puritan dress in general, and her dress is too "rich" to be acceptable Puritan dress:

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold-thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the day.

In other words, the A for adultery is embroiders beautifully, and the clothes she wears are not as simple and course as those  of most of the community of Puritans. In general, the clothing of Puritans reflected their lives on earth: simply and basic: God was to be glorified, not people in their manner of dress.

 

Additional Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1600–1650_in_fashion#Puritan_dress

http://www.historyonthenet.com/Stuarts/puritans.htm

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