Cromwell's 'Gay Attire': Puritan Souls May Hide a Cavalier Approach to Clothes, According to Patrick Little as He Explores Fashion at the Court of Oliver Cromwell

By Little, Patrick | History Today, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Cromwell's 'Gay Attire': Puritan Souls May Hide a Cavalier Approach to Clothes, According to Patrick Little as He Explores Fashion at the Court of Oliver Cromwell


Little, Patrick, History Today


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'Charles I was a Cavalier King and therefore had a small pointed beard, long flowing curls, a large, flat, flowing hat, and gay attire. The Roundheads, on the other hand, were clean-shaven and wore tall, conical hats, white ties, and sombre garments. Under these circumstances a Civil War was inevitable.'

Sellar and Yeatman's 1930 comic history of England, 1066 and All That, neatly sums up the popular picture of a Puritan. In the public eye, the very, clothes of a Roundhead are deemed to show him to be serious, religious and opposed to all the pleasurable aspects of life. He was 'right but Repulsive'. Such men not only fought a civil war against their flamboyant king, they executed him; they not only created a religious republic, they banned Christmas and horse-racing and set up the regime of those notorious killjoys, the Major Generals. Their leader was the archetypal Roundhead, the quintessential Puritan, Oliver Cromwell.

The traditional image of the Puritan is so pervasive that it comes as something of a surprise to discover that costume historians are becoming increasingly sceptical that clothing of the period can be interpreted in a political or religious way at all. Professor Aileen Ribeiro, in her important recent book on dress in the seventeenth century, emphasizes that the historian needs to be wary of taking clothing at face value. She argues that the sober costume seen in 1630s' portraits of future Parliamentarians merely 'represents a change in fashion from the more elaborate decorated styles of the earlier 1630s towards a simpler mood'. Even that most 'puritanical' of outfits, the black suit, cannot be 'read' as easily as one might expect. Charles I and his courtiers favoured black in the later 1630s. Black dye was very expensive, and sitters in black ate usually portrayed as wearing 'high-quality silks, often figured, and with expensive braid and lace'. Nor was the wearing of armour in portraits necessarily a sign of Puritanism, of even of a military background. Indeed, we are told that armour 'was almost "timeless" in its neutrality'. Ribeiro's findings also hold good for the 1650s, and her question 'how Par is it possible to see a "Puritan" or even a "Republican" influence in dress during this period?' receives a surprisingly equivocal answer. There were apparently no fixed rules. In the absence of a royal court, fashion became 'deregulated', with London merchants supplying the desires of rich customers, especially royalists eager to cock a snook at the protectoral regime.

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Professor Ribeiro's conclusions ate important; but her focus is on the whole of the seventeenth century and her coverage of individual periods is necessarily variable, not least because the quantity and quality of surviving evidence itself varies. One particular problem is that, while there may have been no royal court during the 1650s, from 1653 until 1659 there was a protectoral court. Recent research has uncovered the importance of this institution, not just politically, but also culturally. In fact, when it came to art, architecture, music, literature and horse-breeding, it is now thought that Cromwell's court was just as vibrant as the earlier royal courts had been. With this in mind, should our view of the Puritans and their 'sombre garments' be completely overturned?

The first point that must be made is that there is not a shadow of a doubt that those around Protector Oliver dressed D la mode. Hostile witnesses were quick to link the flamboyance of Cromwell's family with the corrupt nature of the regime. For the disaffected Colonel Matthew Alured, writing in 1659, 'there was no apparel good enough to be gotten in London for the Lord Richard and Lord Henry (meaning his ... highness's two sons) to wear', and he added that they 'did keep courts higher (meaning more chargeable) than ever the prince ... did'. Another critic, Lucy Hutchinson, remarked that Cromwell's son, Henry, and his son-in-law, John Claypole, 'were two debauched, ungodly Cavaliers'. …

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