The Pilgrims Didn’t Wear All Black and White Clothing with Buckled Top Hats

Myth: Pilgrims wore black and white clothing with buckled top hats.

The myth that they dressed like this stems from the popular clothing style of the day in England in the late 17th century, which carried over to 18th and 19th century depictions. Artist depictions, at that time, depicted Pilgrims having worn the same style clothing that had become the fashion in England. These depictions of the Pilgrims’ clothing then endured to this day.

In fact, historical records of Pilgrims’ clothing, such as the passenger list of the Mayflower, wills, which included descriptions of clothing, and other such records, paint a very different picture than the late 17th century artists depicted. For starters, the Pilgrims didn’t wear buckled hats. They also didn’t wear buckles on their shoes or waists. Buckles were expensive and not in fashion at the time. They simply wore the much cheaper leather laces to tie up their shoes and hold up their pants. Buckles later became very popular in England for their expense and as a fashion statement. Those who were too poor to afford buckles wore laces, similar to the Pilgrims.

They also didn’t only wear black and white. Their common garb was very colorful, as was the fashion at the time. They only wore predominately black and gray clothing on Sundays. The rest of the time, they wore heavily dyed clothing in many different colors; basically all the colors that could be achieved with natural dyes. For one example, a Pilgrim by the name of Brewster left his clothing in his will to someone, which was described as such: “one blew clothe suit, green drawers, a vilolete clothe coat, black silk stockings, skyblew garters, red grograin suit, red waistcoat, tawny colored suit with silver buttons.”

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Bonus Facts:

  • Another myth surrounding the Pilgrims is that they would have probably died the first winter had the Native Americans not taught them various agricultural tips and tricks. In fact, the Pilgrims didn’t come so unprepared. They had a contract with various merchants who would come regularly to bring them supplies of food, clothing, etc for a term no less than seven years, while they established their colony. They were also well versed in hunting and farming techniques from Europe. When the Pilgrims left, they were quite well aware of the colonies that had tried to settle in America and failed; thus, they took appropriate steps to avoid that happening to them.
  • The first record of the term “pilgrim” applying to the Mayflower passengers, and those of their group that followed later, appeared in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. In it, he used biblical imagery to describe the Pilgrim’s departure from Leiden in 1620: “So they lefte goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, here 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.”
  • The next two instances of them being called Pilgrims came when Nathaniel Morton and Cotton Mather in 1669 and 1702, respectively, both paraphrased Bradford’s words. The next reference was in 1793 by Rev. Chandler Robbins who recited Bradford’s words at a Plymouth Forefathers’ Day observance. From here, the term caught on and it became popular to toast to the “Pilgrims of Leyden” on this observance day. By 1820, Daniel Webster referred to this group as the “Pilgrims” at the Plymouth’s bicentennial, which is hugely responsible for the term being picked up popularly as the name of this group.
  • Yet another myth surrounding the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving is that they were taught by the Indians to make Popcorn and served it at the “first” Thanksgiving (note: the Pilgrims weren’t the first settlers to celebrate an annual Thanksgiving feast in America). In fact, while there is little evidence of what they actually ate at their first Thanksgiving, it is very unlikely that they ate popcorn, due to the fact that all they had available was flint corn, at the time. This type of corn doesn’t pop when heated, rather just expands slightly. Thus, it wasn’t very palatable in this form, so they tended to boil it, preparing it as hominy.
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  • Just a minor point, but it’s “waists” not “wastes” – Probably your spellchecker…

    • Daven Hiskey

      @anonymous: Thanks for catching that. My fingers always seem to want to type wastes regardless of context. Knowing this, I usually catch it when editing, but missed it this time. 🙂

  • Thanks you mind if I use a chunk in my history report?

  • The image used here is a painting of a different kind of pilgrim–the walking kind. The scallop shell gives it away, since it is a universal symbol of someone on a spiritual journey or pilgrimage. He’s got a walking stick too. Just wanted to point out that this is not the kind of pilgrim you are talking about!

    • More specifically, the scallop shell is the badge of a pilgrim walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain (it may be be used for other pilgrimages as well, but not that I know of.) Also, since the artist of the portrait is Gheorghe Tattarescu from Romania, who doesn’t appear to have travelled to England, it almost certainly is a portrait of a continental pilgrim, rather than the English Puritan kind.

  • Where can I find the passenger wills? I am a teacher and want to show the students these items listed for fact checking purposes. I have tried finding it on the web with no success. While I have found a site that gives a list, they do not mention the color of the clothing. It just says clothe and cloake