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Why We Wear New Clothes at Easter: A History of Tradition from a Fashion School Perspective

Many of us remember our parents dressing in new clothes every Easter so we could parade around the neighborhood in our best clothes. 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 did this tradition come from? A look at history shows that its origins are not what we might expect. And when we examine custom from the point of view of a fashion school, we see how changes in retail patterns have altered its importance.

Origins in other cultures. Although we associate wearing new clothes in spring with the Easter holidays, the tradition dates back to ancient times. Pagan worshipers celebrated the spring equinox with a festival honoring Ostera, the Germanic goddess of spring, and believed that wearing new clothes brought good luck. The Iranian New Year, which is 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, the Chinese have celebrated their spring festival, also known as the Lunar New Year, by wearing new clothes. It symbolized not just 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 dresses 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 should wear the finest new clothes on Easter. Finally, the tradition came to mark the end of Lent, when after weeks of wearing the same clothing, the faithful discarded old dresses for new ones.

Superstitions. A 15th-century proverb from the Poor Robin’s Almanack said that if your Easter clothes weren’t new, you would be unlucky: “At Easter, let your clothes be new, otherwise 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 on Easter, moths would eat old ones and evil 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 did not see a 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 “The Sunday of Joy” and the 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 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, so to speak. It was famous throughout the country, and poor or middle-class people attended the show to witness the latest trends in fashion design. Soon, clothing retailers took advantage of the popularity of the parade 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 for Easter had lost much of the religious significance it might have had and instead symbolized American prosperity. A look at the vintage clothing ads in a fashion school library shows that wearing new clothes for Easter was something every healthy American family was expected to do.

Attitudes today. Although many of us can still put on new clothes at 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 from a catalog. But in recent decades, retail options have exploded. There is a gap around every corner and countless internet merchants allow us to shop 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is no wonder that young people today 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 the changing times, the custom will surely continue in some form. After all, fashionistas love shopping reasons.

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