During the early 18th century, Emma’s time period, the most typical style of dress was the empire silhouette (Above: far right) which entailed a closely fitted torso just under the chest and a loose falling skirt below. Women of Emma’s position even had rules of etiquette for which dress to wear at a particular time of day. Morning dresses, worn inside the house, were high-necked and long-sleeved and devoid of superfluous decoration. Evening gowns such as the one above were low cut, often extravagantly trimmed and decorated with lace and ribbons. A lady of distinction such as Emma would often advise young ladies, like Harriet, to wear softer shades of color, such as pinks, periwinkle blue, or lilacs. The more dignified woman could wear fuller colors, such as purple, black, crimson, deep blue, or yellow.
After having a good laugh (in a good way, I promise) at Celine’s interpretation of Hester’s attire, scarlet letter and all, it occurred to me: What would the contemporary Hester look like? What would cause a member of our modern American society to be isolated and ridiculed as Hester was? In a society in which our first assessment of an individual is often their physical appearance, what breach of accepted morality would cause one to be treated like Hester? Because so many cultures and ethnic groups coexist in the United States, each with their own ideas about morality and rules of social conduct, it is hard for me to imagine one being forced to don an A, or being subject to isolation, for breaching American rules of conduct. But in a society that is largely disensitized to the many ways in which we isolate and persecute others, I imagine that many Americans can identify personally, at least to some degree, with Hester’s experience.
17th century Puritans dressed very conservatively, usually with dull, emotionless colors and modest cuts (gathering around the neck, wide waisted belts and angular shapes). In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the use of bright colors, like red and gold express how separate and different Hester Prynne and her daughter are from the puritan society. The brand of sin, the scarlet letter, shows how something as simple as cloth can drastically change how one is perceived and alter one’s situation and character.
“I found the shapes and structures of the bat wings folded, or at flight very similar to the sharp angles of puritan clothes. This inspired me to start designing angular dresses and jackets influenced by bats and puritans”
— commented Danielle Coe, a fashion/textile student at Northbrook College, in her blog about her second year project “Chance and Accident” where she picked a style and subject at random and linked them together to construct a garment.
Above is her mood board, which looks at both traditional and modern interpretations of puritan clothing.