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The Debunker: What Did Pilgrims' Hats Really Look Like?

by Ken Jennings

If the Plymouth Pilgrims could see the orgy of overeating and megastore-shopping that their descendants have made of their holiday, I think we can all agree: they would feel nothing but pride. But how much do we really know about our November carb carnival? Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, talks turkey about the Thanksgiving misinformation we’ve been swallowing all these years.

The Debunker: Did Pilgrims Wear Those Big Hats with the Buckles?

Most of us probably only have the sketchiest ideas as to what spiritual convictions led the Mayflower pilgrims to the New World. (Um, religious freedom? Or something?) But we’re sure of one thing: they all dressed really boringly. Black and white from head to toe, with big buckles on their hats, right? And belts. And shoes. Pilgrims were all about the buckles. Maybe they left England so they could worship their buckle-god, Bucklorr.

This idea probably comes from 17th-century portraits of religious leaders in the Puritan and Separatist movements. (For the record, these were Protestants—like the Plymouth pilgrims—who wanted to wipe out any remaining vestiges of Catholicism in the Church of England, including most sacraments, vestments, fancy church architecture, and priestly hierarchies.) In paintings, it’s true that Protestants of the time all dressed like Severus Snape, in severe, high-collared black. But that’s only because people tend to wear their fanciest clothes in portraits, and black was classy back then because it was one of the hardest colors to dye cloth. But you wouldn’t assume that all high school seniors wear tuxes all the time solely on the basis of their prom photos, would you? In reality, the pilgrims wore black on Sunday, but that’s about it. Mayflower cargo records, wills, and other documents reveal that most of their pilgrims’ daily clothes were multicolored: red, brown, yellow, blue, gray, and so on. Those are the colors they would have been wearing at the first Thanksgiving.

But what about the buckles? I know you are asking. Buckles didn’t come into fashion until decades after the pilgrims left England, and were used as a status symbol, since they were more expensive than other fastening solutions. Pilgrims did wear the black conical hats you’re imagining, called capotains, but they didn’t have buckles. In fact, the Plymouth settlers were so poor, and so conservative of dress, that even their belts didn’t buckle! They kept their pants up with leather laces.

Quick Quiz: What biblical apostle, the brother of John, is often depicted in art with a pilgrim’s hat, since his legendary burial place in Spain is a popular pilgrimage site?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.