As a former wardrobe intern at Plimoth Plantation, I can assert with the most expert certainty that the above is not traditional 1620s dress worn in any American colony. Working with the public at that museum is an exercise in patience, as a good portion of the interpreting done by front-line staff is damage control, dispelling seemingly indestructible forefather myths and attempting to build the visitor’s understanding of the difference between “the past” and “history.”
My internship there was a lesson in cultural and temporal relativity: what was commonly accepted as The Past in 1927–especially when it comes to dress–is probably not “accurate” or “authentic” or the Generally Agreed-Upon Past of 2007 (see also: “accurate” vs. “authentic” when re-creating clothing for a history museum). The beginnings of an interest in the history of the history of dress, how our synthesis of historic sources shapes our modern perceptions of fashion history.
An overwhelming number of Thanksgiving costumes (?) and portrayals still use these tropes: buckled shoes, ditto conical hat, wide white collar, head-to-toe black. You might recognize those from Dutch paintings such as:
Did you know members of the Separatist faction of Mayflower passengers had sought refuge in the Netherlands before being swept onto the shores of what is now Massachusetts? Perhaps inspired by that fact, late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century portrayals of the “Pilgrims” may have picked up generic clothing details from seventeenth-century Dutch paintings and played on this clean, austere, puritanical aesthetic to create an idealized picture of the Europeans at Plimoth (who were not all Puritans, p.s.). This coincided with the renewed interest in the “first Thanksgiving” stirred up in the 1890s, and provided a sanitized vision of Our Ingenious, Freedom-loving Forefathers. A bit of transnational transcription, a lot of origin myth, a large pinch of wishful thinking.
So why have these iconic, exaggerated, fabricated clothing details survived? Who cares, it’s Marilyn Monroe!
When you are out of your food coma, get thee to the library! And check these out:
Plimoth Plantation’s short history of Thanksgiving.
Gordon, Beverly. “Costumed Representations of Early America: A Gendered Portrayal, 1850-1940,” Dress 30 (2003): 3-20.
Gordon, Beverly. ”Spinning Wheels, Samplers and the Modern Priscilla: The Images and Paradoxes of Colonial Revival Needlework,” Winterthur Portfolio 33 Nos. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn 1998): 163-194.
Gordon, Beverly. ”Dressing the Colonial Past: Nineteenth Century New Englanders Look Back,” in Patricia Cunningham and Susan Lab, eds. Dress in American Culture. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993, pp. 109-139.
Vowell, Sara. The Wordy Shipmates. Riverhead Trade, 2009.