Inspired by Fashion:
American Masonic Regalia
By AIMEE E. NEWELL, PhD
Over the past 50 years or so, popular television programs and movies frequently poke fun at Masonic groups by featuring characters that belong to made-up fraternities with goofy names and even funnier hats and costumes. Think of Mr. Cunningham, the “Grand Poobah” of his Leopard Lodge on Happy Days; Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble who were members of the “Royal Order of the Water Buffaloes” on The Flintstones cartoon, and “Raccoon” member Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners. Members and non-members alike have often perceived Masonic costume as weird, funny or outlandish.
And, indeed, Masonic regalia can have an element of wackiness. An 1890s photograph of a Royal Arch degree team from Kansas shows a rather weird and wild mix of costumes. But, we may think the same thing about the clothing we see in historic prints, paintings and photographs from the 1700s and 1800s. Even people of the era reacted to what they perceived as the extremes of fashion by publishing cartoons and satires. Then, as now, fashion itself was as wacky, if not more so, than the regalia worn by Masonic groups.
However, when we start to look more closely, comparing Masonic costumes and photographs with clothing and images from the same time periods, we can see that regalia manufacturers often took their cues from fashion houses.
A new exhibition at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library in Lexington, MA, “Inspired by Fashion: American Masonic Regalia” (opening in June), aims to trace the fashionable inspiration behind traditional Masonic costumes and regalia. Using garments and images from the museum’s collection, the exhibition explores four different muses for Masonic garments – contemporary fashion, the military, Orientalism, and theater – to show the connections between everyday style and Masonic fashion over the centuries.
When it was organized in the early 1700s, Freemasonry offered a way for upper-class men to meet together, socialize and share views. Over the centuries, American Freemasonry has continually adapted its aims and activities to reflect the interests of its members. During the mid- and late-1700s, the fraternity experienced a tremendous upsurge in popularity, in part because its values echoed those of supporters of American independence. Mid-1700s fashion trends for men mirrored this cultural interest in equality and found men wearing relatively simple and unornamented clothing, whether merchant or artisan. The clothing worn in the lodge followed the principles of equality and Brotherhood that guided all Masonic lessons. Yet, Freemasons still wished to set themselves apart by what they wore and the materials used. Their regalia demonstrated a familiarity with genteel style and resonated with its gentleman founders. For example, Masonic aprons were made from soft, supple lambskin, rather than the durable cowhide of most workmen’s aprons.
Early Masons are exemplified by the appearance of Mr. J. Hull, who sat for a portrait, with his wife, around 1815. He wears the traditional Masonic costume – apron and sash – which would have been quickly understood by almost all who saw this image.
There are also a number of print sources to illustrate Masonic costume of the early and mid-1700s, as the fraternity gained popularity. One of the best known is an engraving by William Hogarth titled Night. One of four engravings in Hogarth’s satirical series, The Four Times of the Day, shows an alley scene outside the Rummer & Grapes Tavern in London, which was the meeting place for one of the city’s lodges. Two Masons are depicted. One wears an apron, collar and square jewel (emblem of the Master’s office). The man assisting him carries a sword, probably signifying his role as the lodge Tyler.
This print shows how Masonic regalia was worn over one’s street clothes, while also suggesting how these basic elements fit with contemporary dress. They do not look out of place, yet are noticeable.
The Masonic apron comes from the traditional garb of working stonemasons who wore protective aprons. In the 1700s, Masonic aprons retained their animalistic shape, but over time, they became more geometric, eventually becoming smaller and rounder or square.
By the late 1800s, menswear had become extremely standardized, offering little room for individuality. Men, regardless of profession or location, became somewhat indistinguishable from each other, as illustrated in fashion plates from the time. Following this trend, large regalia houses offered mechanically-manufactured aprons, sashes and uniforms. Materials, colors and styles were similar throughout the country. But, even as regalia became more standardized, it still offered men a way to dress expressively, particularly during degree rituals and public processions.
The Civil War profoundly affected all aspects of American culture and society, including fashion. As thousands of men turned out in uniform, military style was in vogue from the 1860s through the end of the century. Masonic regalia – and even women’s fashions – followed the trend, incorporating elements of military uniforms including epaulettes, piped seams and tailored silhouettes.
After the war, many Freemasons joined the Knights Templar. The group’s explosion in membership following the Civil War is not coincidental. There were no more local militia units which had provided an outlet for male sociability. Joining a fraternity, particularly one with a militaristic uniform and activities, filled the void for many men. The group also offered the promise of order during a chaotic time. For those men who didn’t serve (or couldn’t serve) in the military, the Knights Templar offered the chance to wear a uniform and have a military-like experience. Other Masonic groups also formed “military” sections and adopted regalia with martial styling. The regalia built on a contemporary fashion that was widely understood in American society.
Historic photographs, from the museum’s collection, such as the 1860s carte-de-visite of Georgia’s Grand Commander George S. Anderson, show us what the Knights Templar uniform looked like – black chapeau-de-bras style hat with plume, black or white velvet sash, large gauntlet-style gloves, sword and prominent medals. Practicality drove the development of the Knights Templar uniform in the years following the Civil War. Regalia makers were able to buy up surplus Civil War uniform materials and adapt them for fraternal uniforms – this is particularly evident in the epaulettes and braid trimming seen in regalia catalogs and on extant uniforms.
As more Americans traveled to and read about the Middle East after 1865, Islamic-inspired design and clothing became increasingly fashionable. Even those who could not make the trip could achieve the “feel” by wearing Middle Eastern-styled clothing or by joining the Shrine. Middle-Eastern culture, with its aura of pleasure and opulence, offered a respite for Americans who were increasingly confronted by the changes that industrialization and emerging capitalism brought to their lives. Joining the Shrine gave men a place to try out new roles, to foster supportive friendships and to explore a new world of fashion.
Elements of Shrine regalia include baggy pants, bolero-style jackets and the fez. One highlight of the exhibition is a brown velour bolero-style jacket with Shrine emblems embroidered on the sleeves. While the colorful Shrine regalia seen today seems anachronistic at best, it was adopted in the 1870s at a time when, Shrine member or not, a man might don a smoking jacket and fez to relax at home or to visit a gentlemen’s lounge and “play Eastern.”
Combining the interest in Middle Eastern fashion with the vogue for military style, Shrine regalia took inspiration from the well-known Zouave uniforms, which were adopted by some Union and Confederate units during the Civil War. Marked by their couched braid decoration, jackets and trousers, these uniforms were originally inspired by those worn by the French Foreign Legion during the Crimean War in the mid-1850s.
While the Knights Templar are marked by military style and the Shrine adopted exotic Orientalist costumes, the Scottish Rite is known for its theatrical degree rituals. After the Civil War, the Scottish Rite began to rewrite their earlier rituals, turning them into theatrical productions with costumes, make-up and props.
The degrees often took place in specially- constructed spaces. This change may have been partially inspired by the craze for historical pageantry during the early 1900s. Towns across the country put on elaborate plays about their history. Like the Scottish Rite degrees, these productions offered a shared sense of values, built a collective story of the community and helped create an identity for participants and audience alike. Frank A. Stockwell, of the Valley of Buffalo, captured a backstage scene at one Scottish Rite degree ceremony in his late 1930s painting, Degree Night at the Robing Room.
Over the course of the fraternity’s existence, Freemasons developed and retained their regalia to suit both the organization’s needs and prevailing fashion styles. For Freemasons, Knights Templar, Shriners and others, the traditional costumes are part of their identity, reflecting the values of the organization and helping to maintain the group. In the 1700s and 1800s, employing contemporary fashion elements was reassuring. Later, the reassurance evolved into tradition, adding meaning to membership and communicating that the wearer is part of a sartorial brotherhood.
Today, Masons still wear aprons and sashes in their lodges. These items have become a type of “fossilized fashion.” Now, members think of this regalia as traditional and often greet any change with resistance. These garments help to identify members and to inspire pride amongst them. Masons continue to adapt contemporary garments to fit the fraternity – even Hawaiian shirts and bathrobes.
“Inspired by Fashion: American Masonic Regalia” opens on Saturday, June 4, 2011, at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library in Lexington, MA. If you have questions, would like to know more about the exhibition, or make a donation of objects to the museum, please contact Aimee E. Newell, Ph.D., director of collections, at email@example.com or 781-457-4144.