Many of us can remember our parents dressing us in new clothes every Easter so that we could parade around the neighborhood with the best of us. It was a fun tradition to wait (or avoid, as some fashion-phobic kids were known to do), whether we went to church or not. But where does this tradition come from? A look at history shows that its origins are not what one would expect. And examining custom from the point of view of a fashion school, we see how changes in retail patterns have altered its meaning.
Origins in other cultures. Although we associate wearing new clothes in spring with the Easter holiday, the tradition dates back to ancient times. Pagan worshipers celebrated the vernal equinox with a festival honoring Ostera, the Germanic goddess of spring, and believed that wearing new clothes brought good luck. The Iranian New Year, which is celebrated on the first day of spring, has traditions rooted in the ancient pre-Islamic past. These traditions include spring cleaning and the wearing of new clothes to indicate renewal and optimism. Similarly, the Chinese have celebrated their spring festival, also known as the Lunar New Year, by wearing new clothes. It symbolized not only new beginnings, but also the idea that people have more than they possibly need.
christian beginnings. In the early days of Christianity, newly baptized Christians wore white linen robes at Easter to symbolize rebirth and new life. But it was not until the year 300 d. C. that wearing new clothes became an official decree, as the Roman Emperor Constantine declared that his court should wear the best new clothes at Easter. Eventually, the tradition came to mark the end of Lent, when after weeks of wearing the same clothes, parishioners discarded the old dresses for new ones.
superstitions. A 15th-century proverb from Poor Robin’s Almanac said that if one’s clothes at Easter were not new, one would be out of luck: “At Easter, let your clothes be new; or else you are sure to regret it.” In the 16th century, during the reign of the Tudors, it was believed that unless a person wore new clothes at Easter, moths would eat the old ones and evil crows would nest around their houses.
Post Civil War. Easter traditions as we know them were not celebrated in America until after the Civil War. Before that time, the Puritans and the Protestant churches saw no good purpose in religious celebrations. However, after the devastation of the war, churches saw Easter as a source of hope for Americans. Easter was called “The Sunday of joy”, and the women changed the dark colors of mourning for the joyful colors of spring.
the easter parade. In the 1870s, the tradition of the New York Easter Parade began, in which women dressed in their newest and most fashionable clothes walked between the beautiful Gothic churches on Fifth Avenue. The show became one of fashion design’s premier events, a precursor to New York Fashion Week, if you will. It was famous throughout the country, and poor or middle class people watched the parade to witness the latest trends in fashion design. Soon, clothing retailers took advantage of the parade’s popularity and used Easter as a promotional tool to sell their clothes. By the turn of the century, the holiday was as important to retailers as Christmas is today.
The American dream. By the mid-20th century, dressing up for Easter had lost much of the religious significance it might have had, and instead symbolized American prosperity. A look at vintage clothing ads in a fashion school library shows that wearing new clothes at Easter was something every healthy American family was expected to do.
attitudes today. Although many of us may still wear new clothes at Easter, the tradition doesn’t feel all that special, not because of any religious ambivalence, but because we buy and wear new clothes all the time. At one time in this country, middle-class families shopped only once or twice a year at the local store or through a catalog. But in the last few decades, retail options have skyrocketed. There is a Gap on every corner and countless Internet merchants allow us to shop 24/7. It’s no wonder young people today listen to Irving Berlin’s song “Easter Parade” and have no idea what it means.
It is interesting to see where the tradition of wearing new clothes at Easter began and how it has evolved over the years. However, even with the changing times, the custom is sure to continue in some form. After all, fashionistas love having a reason to shop.