Many of us can remember our parents dressing us in new clothes every Easter so that we could parade around the neighborhood in our best selves. It was a fun tradition to look forward to (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 might expect. And by 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 Easter, the tradition dates back to antiquity. 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. Celebrated on the first day of spring, Iranian New Year has traditions rooted in the ancient pre-Islamic past. These traditions include spring cleaning and wearing new clothes to indicate renewal and optimism. Similarly, the Chinese have celebrated their spring festival, also known as 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. 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 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 unlucky: “At Easter, let your clothes be new; or else you will surely 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 their old ones and wicked 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 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 “Joy Sunday”, and the women changed the dark colors of mourning for the joyous colors of spring.
the easter parade. In the 1870s, the tradition of the New York Easter Parade began, in which women decked out in their newest and most fashionable clothes walked among the beautiful Gothic churches on Fifth Avenue. The show became one of the major events in fashion design, a precursor to New York Fashion Week, if you will. It was famous all over the country, and poor or middle-class people would watch the show 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 garments. 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 held, 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 on 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 by catalog. But in recent decades, retail options have exploded. There is a Gap on every corner and countless internet merchants allow us to shop 24/7. No wonder today’s youth hear 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 changing times, the custom will surely continue in some form. After all, fashionistas love to have a reason to shop.