In Western culture, wearing new clothes on Easter or Passover has been a tradition for centuries. But where did this tradition come from? A look through history shows that its origins are not what we might expect.
Other cultures. Wearing new clothes in spring dates back to ancient times. Pagan worshippers celebrated the arrival of spring with a festival in honor of Ostera, the Germanic Goddess of Spring. They 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 which include wearing new clothes to signify renewal and optimism. Similarly, the Chinese wear new clothes for their Spring Festival to convey the idea that they have more than they possibly need.
A Chinese girl carries on a centuries-old tradition.
Western beginnings. In 300 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine made wearing new clothes for Easter an official decree, declaring that his court wear their absolute finest. Eventually, the tradition came to mark the end of Lent, when after weeks of wearing the same clothes, worshippers discarded the old frocks for new ones.
Superstitions. A 15th-century proverb stated that if one's clothes on Easter were not new, one would have bad luck. And in the 16th Century during the Tudor reign, it was believed that unless a person wore new garments at Easter, moths would eat the old ones, and evil crows would nest around their homes.
The Tudor court in their Sunday best.
Post 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 purpose in religious celebrations. But after the war, churches saw Easter as a source of hope for Americans. Easter was called "The Sunday of Joy," and women traded the dark colors of mourning for the happier colors of spring.
Finely dressed women celebrate the Sunday of Joy.
The Easter Parade. In the 1870s, the tradition of the New York Easter Parade began, with women decked out in their newest and most fashionable clothing walking between the beautiful gothic churches on Fifth Avenue. The parade became one of the premier events in fashion. People who were poor or from the middle class would watch the parade to see the latest trends. Soon, clothing retailers leveraged the parade's popularity and used Easter as a promotional tool. By the turn of the century, the holiday was as important to retailer as Christmas is today.
The American Dream. By the middle of the 20th Century, dressing up for Easter had lost much of any religious significance it might have had, and instead symbolized American prosperity. Vintage clothing ads show that wearing new clothes on Easter was something every wholesome, All-American family was expected to do.
A vintage clothing ad urges people to wear their finest.
Attitudes today. Although many of us may still don new clothes on Easter, the tradition doesn't feel as special, not because of any religious ambivalence, but because we buy and wear new clothes all the time. In the past, middle class families shopped only one or two times a year at the local store or from a catalog. But in the last few decades, retailing options have boomed. There's a Gap on every corner, and the internet allows us to shop 24/7.
Today, the NY Easter Parade is more of a satire, like a Springtime Halloween.
But even with changing ties, the custom of dressing up for Easter will surely continue in some form. After all, fashionistas and fashion school students love a reason to shop.