Many of us remember that at Easter every time our parents dressed us in new clothes, we were able to march around the neighborhood as best we could. Whether we went to church or not, it was a fun tradition, as some fashion-panicked kids know to do (or avoid). But where did this tradition come from? A look at history shows that its origins are not what we would expect. Examining customs from a fashion school perspective, we see how changing retail patterns has changed its importance.
Origin of other cultures. Although we associate the wearing of new clothes with spring with the Easter holiday, the tradition goes back to ancient times. Pagan pilgrims celebrated the spring equinox with a ceremony in honor of Ostera, the German spring goddess, and believed that wearing new clothes would bring good luck. Celebrated on the first day of spring, the Iranian New Year has traditions rooted in ancient pre-Islamic history. These traditions include spring cleaning and renewal and the wearing of new clothes to symbolize optimism. Similarly, the Chinese celebrate its 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 need.
Christian origin. In the early days of Christianity, newly baptized Christians wore white linen at Easter to symbolize the rebirth and new life. But just as the Roman emperor Constantine ruled that his court must wear the best new clothes on Easter Day, the new dress became an official decree in AD. Not until 300. Eventually, the tradition came to mark the end of Lent, and after weeks of wearing the same clothes, pilgrims discarded old clothes for new ones.
Superstition. A 15th century proverb in Poor Robin’s Almanack stated that if someone’s clothes are not new at Easter, it will be unfortunate: “Let your clothes be new at Easter, or you will surely make it worse.” During the Tudor rule in the 16th century, it was believed that if a person did not put on new clothes at Easter, the moths would eat the old ones and the evil crows would nest around their homes.
Post-Civil War. As we know, Easter traditions were not celebrated in America after the Civil War. Prior to that time, Puritans and Protestant churches did not see good intentions in religious ceremonies. However, after the devastation of the war, the church considered Easter to be a hope for Americans. Easter was known as “Sunday of Joy”, and women traded the dark colors of mourning for the joyful colors of spring.
Easter parade. In the 1870s, the tradition of the New York Easter Parade began, with women dressed in their latest and most fashionable costumes and walking among the beautiful Gothic churches on Fifth Avenue. The parade became, if you will, one of the foremost events in fashion design, the forerunner of New York Fashion Week. It became popular across the country and poor or middle class people would watch the parade to see the latest trends in fashion design. Before long, clothing retailers took advantage of the parade’s popularity and used Easter as a promotional tool to sell their clothing. At the turn of the century, the holiday was as important today as Christmas for retailers.
The American dream. By the middle of the 20th century, the religious significance of dress for Easter had disappeared, and instead symbolized American prosperity. Looking at old fashioned ads in a fashion school library, it seems that new clothes are something every American family hopes to wear at Easter.
Attitudes today. Although most of us can still wear new clothes on Easter Sunday, tradition does not feel so special, not because of any religious differences, but because we always buy and wear new clothes. At one time in this country, middle-class families only went shopping once or twice a year at a local store or catalog. But retail options have grown over the past few decades. There is a gap around every corner and countless online merchants allow us to shop 24/7. Young people today hear the Irving Berlin song “Easter Parade” and it is not surprising that they do not know what it means.
It is interesting to see where the tradition of dressing in new clothes on Easter Sunday began and how it has evolved over the years. However, even with the changing times, the ritual will certainly continue in some way. Of course, stylists love a reason to go shopping.