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Why We Wear New Clothes on Easter – A History of the Tradition From a Fashion School Perspective
Many of us can remember our parents dressing us 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 come from? A look through history shows that its origins are not what we might expect. And by examining custom from the point of view of a fashion school, we see how changing retail patterns have changed its meaning.
Origins in other cultures. Although we associate wearing new clothes in the spring with the Easter holiday, the tradition dates back to ancient times. Pagan worshipers celebrated the spring equinox with a festival in honor of Ostera, the Germanic Goddess of Spring, and believed that wearing new clothes brought good luck. The Iranian new year, celebrated on the first day of Spring, has traditions rooted in the ancient pre-Islamic past. These traditions include spring cleaning and wearing new clothes to signify renewal and optimism. Similarly, Chinese people celebrated their spring festival, also known as Lunar New Year, by wearing new clothes. It symbolized not only new beginnings, but the idea that people have more than they possibly need.
Christian beginnings. In the early days of Christianity, newly baptized Christians wore white linen at Easter to symbolize rebirth and new life. But it wasn’t until 300 AD that wearing new clothes became an official decree, as the Roman emperor Constantine declared that his court must wear the best new clothes during Easter. Later, the tradition marked the end of Lent, when after wearing the same clothes for weeks, worshipers discarded the old rocks for new ones.
Superstitions. A 15th-century proverb from Poor Robin’s Almanack stated that if one’s clothes at Easter were not new, one would have bad luck: “At Easter let your clothes be new; Or else you will surely be unlucky.” 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 ones, and evil ravens would nest around their homes.
After Civil War. Easter traditions as we know it were not celebrated in America until after the Civil War. Before that time, Puritans and the Protestant churches saw no good purpose in religious celebrations. After the devastation of the war, however, 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 mourning for the happier 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 latest and most fashionable clothing walked between the beautiful Gothic churches on Fifth Avenue. The parade 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 people who were poor or from the middle class would watch 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 in selling their clothing. Before the turn of the century, the holiday was as important to retailers as Christmas is today.
The American Dream. By the middle of the 20th Century, dressing up for Easter lost much of any religious significance it may have had, and instead symbolized American prosperity. A look at vintage clothing ads in a fashion school library shows that wearing new clothes on Easter was something every wholesome, All-American family had to do.
Attitudes today. Although many of us may still wear new clothes at Easter, the tradition doesn’t feel so special, not because of any religious ambivalence, but because we buy and wear new clothes all the time. Once upon a time in this country, middle-class families shopped only once or twice a year at the local store or from a catalog. But in recent decades, business options have flourished. There’s a Gap on every corner, and countless online retailers allow us to shop 24/7. No wonder young people today hear Irving Berlin’s song “Easter Parade” and don’t know what it means.
It is interesting to see where the tradition of wearing new clothes on Easter began, and how it has evolved over the years. Even with changing times, however, the custom is sure to continue in some form. After all, fashionistas love a reason to shop.
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