Monday, September 12, 2011

What did Mary Dyer look like?

© Christy K. Robinson
Mary Dyer at prayer, a Howard Pyle painting.
Pyle was an illustrator in the early 20th century,
like Norman Rockwell.

The few illustrations we have of Mary Dyer, made 250-300 years after her death, show a plain, slim, ageless woman in very severe clothing, her hair contained under a starched cap. No one knows what physical characteristics she had, though several artists have made their own interpretations, including the 1958 statues in Boston and Philadelphia, and the paintings of Howard Pyle in the early 20th century.

In mid-17th-century Europe and England, women’s fashions were all over the board. The country women wore long, full skirts and kept their shoulders and arms covered in long-sleeved jackets. Middle-class merchants’ wives also wore clothes that covered them, though they tucked their overskirts above their petticoats. Ladies of the court, and nobility, wore gowns of silk that were turned back to the elbow, and revealed their bare shoulders and bosoms, right down to the areola, though for some reason, they covered their cleavage with a flower or long necklace pendant.

Queen Henrietta Maria, 
of Charles I. 
Click to enlarge for gorgeous detail. 
In contrast, Queen Henrietta Maria was Catholic, and dressed more conservatively than Puritans or Anglicans. She influenced hairstyles, as we learn from portraits and woodcuts of other women of the day. She had ringlets around her face, and pulled her hair back with masses of ringlets behind her ears. Many women copied that style for formal occasions and portrait sittings. Perhaps they wore a hat or cap at other times.

Mrs. Oliver Cromwell, wife of the ultra-Puritan Lord Protector of the Realm between the beheading of Charles I and the restoration of the monarchy, is shown in a portrait wearing an expensive, low-cut gown—with pearls at her neck and large, pearl earrings. She was considered to be a "plain" (not comely) woman.
Lady Elizabeth Bourchier Cromwell,
Oliver Cromwell's wife.

But in colonial New England, three thousand miles away from corrupt Babylon, men were building the New Jerusalem, the cultural Zion which would contain the saints of God. In this time of God's judgment, the saints ought to be dressed soberly.

Jewelry and cosmetics were forbidden in Puritan culture throughout the 17th century, as something the wicked Jezebel would wear—or the feared, hated Catholics, who wore crosses or saint medals, which were interpreted as idols or pagan amulets. (Again, note the relative lack of ornamentation on the Catholic Queen!)

Mary Winthrop Dudley, daughter and daughter-in-law of strict, legalistic Massachusetts governors John Winthrop and Thomas Dudley, wrote letters to friends in England, lamenting the Puritan ban on stylish clothes in America. She disliked the harsh frontier life and the dress expectations placed upon her. She died in 1643, one day before her four-year-old son also died, never having returned to England for a visit.

Gold and silver embroidery were banned in 1634 Boston, as was particularly fancy lace. Women covered their hair with simple caps. At one point, the religious zealot Gov. John Endecott, along with Rev. Roger Williams who was then a puritan minister, proposed that women wear veils, but that restriction was discarded by the General Court because the women would have rebelled against their husbands. (You think??)  

Anne Dudley Bradstreet
 Anne Dudley Bradstreet, America’s first poetess and daughter of the ultra-conservative Thomas Dudley, wore the clothing of a virtuous matron of high status, blackest black with plain collar and cuffs.

Who decided what women wore? Men. But who wore lace collars and cravats and elaborate periwigs for official occasions? Men. They pointed their beards as King Charles did, and dandified their mustaches, curled their long hair. Their silk brocade waistcoats (vests) were richly decorated with embroidery, and their wives (including Mrs. Endecott) employed lace makers to make collars for them. Colorful ribbon rosettes tied their breeches at the knee, and tied their shoes.

In 1692, Rev. John Cotton's grandson, Cotton Mather (who wore a wig like his grandfather and all men of standing in the community), preached and then published a sermon called "Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion." You can be quite sure that Rev. Mather was not exactly for ornaments! The sermon propounded, "If a woman spends more time in dressing than in praying or in working out her own salvation, her dress is but the snare of her soul."  By Mather’s time, the churches had an attendance very similar to today’s mainline churches: two-thirds of the members were middle-aged and older women. So perhaps the audience he intended to reach didn’t get the memo. 
Rev. John Cotton, with his
research books and Bible.

You may have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman of Governor Endecott's Salem was forced to wear a scarlet A for Adulteress. But did you know that in 1634, Robert Cole, “having been oft punished for drunkenness, was now ordered to wear a red D about his neck for a year.” There’s no record whether his scarlet letter cured his alcoholism.

In her presentation of herself and her family, a woman had to tread a narrow course. She was expected to dress to meet her husband’s social status. A goldsmith’s or tailor’s wife should enhance her husband’s reputation by showing that her husband was successful and popular in his trade, but she should never “get above her station” by dressing like the nobility, even if she could afford it. And she was expected to show her husband’s (not her) godliness by her manner of dress and behavior.  

Most clothes for everyday work in the home, shop, or garden were primary-colored, homespun, calico print, or brown, not the severe black and white that’s been depicted in illustrations of the Pilgrims or the first colonists. Portraits were expensive, and only depicted the highest-income or most-influential colonists, who wore black, an expensive, high-status color, with white collars, cuffs, or shirts, and no jewelry for either gender.  

How did Mary Dyer appear to her associates in England and America? 
There are no portraits of Mary Dyer made in her lifetime, and no descriptions of her clothing styles. But because of her status as wife of a merchant and government official, we may be confident that she was well-dressed for each occasion, and current in fashions.When she became a Quaker, sometime in the last five to seven years of her life, she probably adopted plainer clothing, but still of high-quality material.

Here is the way Mary was described by observers:
  • a person of no mean [inferior or low-class] extract or parentage
  • possessing a piercing [perceptive, acute] knowledge of many things
  • comely [pleasing in appearance] stature
  • comely countenance [facial appearance]
  • wonderful sweet and pleasant discourse
  • fit for great affairs
  • comely, grave [grounded and dignified] woman
  • having a husband of great estate [political/social class, or wealth]
  • a mother of children [eight pregnancies, six living children]
  • goodly personage [distinction, importance]
  • one of a good report [reputation]
  • very proper [appropriate, fit, suitable]
  • very fair [pretty, comely, lovely, blond, pale] woman

This suggests that Mary dressed carefully and appropriately, in what men perceived as a modest, Christian way. But it wasn’t her clothing that defined her. She was noted for her lovely character and demeanor. Surely that was the sort of thing the apostles envisioned when they counseled women to let their beauty come from godliness.

I want women to get in there with the men in humility before God, not primping before a mirror or chasing the latest fashions but doing something beautiful for God and becoming beautiful doing it. 1 Timothy 2:9-10

In the end, which is more important—that we know if Mary Dyer had blond or brown hair, if she had large green eyes, a delicate nose, or full lips, or that she was admired for the beauty of who she was and how her selfless actions influenced people for centuries to come?

Click HERE for images of clothing worn in the 1630s through 1650s, during Mary Dyer’s adulthood. 

When I decided on cover art for my biographical novels about the Dyers, I chose details of two Jan Vermeer paintings to depict Mary Dyer reading and writing. Vermeer's paintings were made in the Netherlands during the last few years of Mary's life.  


  1. Your comments about fashion are so fascinating! And yes, I feel a little indignant that those men in all their finery and frippery were making the rules on how women should dress!

  2. Yes, Heather, across most cultures, men have decided for centuries--millennia--how women ought to dress. Most often, it's been for religious reasons, but on a humorous note, now the Western fashions are also set by men, albeit gay men!

    The restrictions on jewelry, cosmetics, and accessories are a cultural issue (changes with context), that ultra-conservative religious types have made a moral issue by mis-translating and misusing scriptures for their own purposes of control. It still happens today, in SOME Christian and Muslim sects.

    That's why I was so impressed with Mary Dyer's beauty. She was admired for her character, actions--and physical attributes, and those compliments came from conservative men, including one of her greatest critics, John Winthrop. Now THAT must be genius, to have stood out in a positive way, to someone giving her the stink-eye. :)


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