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Why We Wear New Clothes on Easter – A History of the Tradition From a Fashion School Perspective
Many of us remember our parents dressing us up in new clothes every Easter so we could parade around the neighborhood in our best. It was a fun tradition to look forward to (or avoid, as some fashion-phobic kids have been known to do), whether we went to church or not. But where did this tradition originate? A look at history shows that its origins are not what we might expect. And when we look at fashion from a fashion school perspective, we see how changing retail models have changed its meaning.
Origins from other cultures. Although we associate wearing new clothes in the spring with Easter, the tradition dates back to ancient times. Pagan worshipers celebrated the vernal equinox with a feast in honor of Ostera, the Germanic goddess of spring, and believed that wearing new clothes brought good luck. Celebrated on the first day of spring, the Iranian New Year has traditions dating back to the ancient pre-Islamic past. These traditions include spring cleaning and wearing new clothes, which means renewal and optimism. Similarly, the Chinese have celebrated the Spring Festival, also known as the Lunar New Year, by wearing new clothes. It symbolizes not only new beginnings but also the idea that people have more than they could possibly need.
Christian beginnings. In the early days of Christianity, newly baptized Christians wore white linen clothes at Easter to symbolize rebirth and new life. But it wasn’t until 300 AD that wearing new clothes became an official regulation, as the Roman Emperor Constantine declared that his court must wear the finest new clothes for Easter. In the end, the tradition marked the end of Lent, when after weeks of wearing the same clothes, worshipers shed their old clothes for new ones.
Superstition. A 15th-century proverb from Poor Robin’s Almanack said that if the clothes at Easter were not new, he would have bad luck: “At Easter let your clothes be new; or else it is sure to be rue.” In the 16th century, during the Tudor reign, it was believed that if a person did not wear new clothes at Easter, moths would eat the old and evil crows would nest around their home.
Post-Civil War. Easter traditions as we know them were not celebrated in America until after the Civil War. Before that, the Puritans and Protestant churches saw no good purpose in religious celebrations. However, after the destruction of the war, the churches saw Easter as a source of hope for Americans. Easter was called the “Sunday of joy” and women exchanged the dark colors of sadness for the happier colors of spring.
Easter parade. In the 1870s, the tradition of the New York Easter Parade began, where women dressed in their latest and most fashionable clothes would walk between the beautiful Gothic churches of Fifth Avenue. The parade became one of the most important events in fashion design, a precursor if you will to New York Fashion Week. It was famous around the country and poor or middle class people watched the parade to see 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 clothing. At 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 any religious significance it might have had, and instead came to symbolize American prosperity. A look at vintage clothing ads in a fashion school library shows that wearing new clothes at Easter was wholesome, expected of the entire American family.
Attitudes today. While many of us may still wear new clothes at Easter, the tradition doesn’t feel particularly special, not because of religious ambivalence, but because we’re constantly buying and wearing new clothes. Once upon a time, middle-class families in this country only shopped once or twice a year at a local store or catalog. But in recent decades, retail options have flourished. There’s an outlet on every corner, and countless internet retailers allow us to shop 24/7. No wonder young people today hear the Irving Berlin song “Easter Parade” and have no idea what it means.
It is interesting to see where wearing new clothes for Easter started and how it has developed over the years. Even with the changing times, however, the custom will certainly continue in some form. After all, fashionistas love a reason to shop.
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