Dressing up as a witch is something many of us have done — a makeshift plastic bag cape and pound shop conical hat usually do the trick. But witch fashion is so much more than this simple get-up. A quick Google search brings up images of striped tights, shift dresses, and buckles — along with contrasting white Peter Pan collars.
Why the Peter Pan collar? What is the collar’s relationship to witchcraft and horror, and why are we seeing so much more of it these days?
Over the course of the twentieth-century, the Peter Pan collar adorned the neckline of some of the most iconic horror pop culture characters such as Wednesday Addams, Rosemary Woodhouse and Sabrina Spellman. These women represented the kinds of feminist, progressive values found in Wicca and other occult-oriented religious systems, which evidence shows are becoming more popular. A 2008 study by Trinity College Connecticut found an increase of self-identifying Wiccans over a twenty-year period: from 8000 in 1990 to around 340,000 in 2008. There has also generally been a rising interest in the occult and spiritualism, with Nielsen Book Research reporting a noticeable uptick of sales of books on ‘Alternative Belief Systems.’ Dr. Dawn Llewellyn believes this surge of interest in witchcraft is a mixture of the “blend of empowerment with concern for the environment, acting justly, not doing harm to others, and a liberal approach to LGBTQI issues.”
Alongside this cultural shift there has been a boom in “witch style” thanks to recent releases such as Netflix’s Chilling Adventure of Sabrina (a loose remake of the 1990’s hit series, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and based on the Archie Comics spin-off). It can be helpful to view these changes through the simple costume that has characterized a long history of how women are imagined and represented. A great place to start is with the Peter Pan Collar, an oddly recurring element of witch costumes that has come to signify freedom, progress, and the valuation of women’s belief systems.
The Peter Pan Collar
According to the Business of Fashion’s A-Z, the Peter Pan collar is typically “shaped to fit the neckline” and “is a flat collar that lies upon the torso with soft, curved corners.” Those curved corners are the defining feature of the collar. Reportedly the collar first appeared on stage, worn by theatre actress Maude Adams who played Peter Pan during the 1905 New York production of Peter and Wendy. The costume was designed by John White Alexander who took creative licence to design something off piste from J. M. Barrie’s description of the lost boy in the original novel The Little White Bird (1902). Adams and the enlarged floppy white collar became somewhat of an unlikely style icon and a number of copies began to pop up in the US and UK in the first half of the century.
The Peter Pan collar is relatively easy to construct with traditional pattern cutting techniques and online DIY tutorials are now easily accessible thanks to the internet. It can be attached to a garment such as a jumper or can be a separate design detail worn to embellish an existing item of clothing. It has popped up all over the fashion industry since the early 1900s and has been recreated in a myriad of materials from cotton to latex.
The Collar’s Bewitched History
So how did this cutesy accessory become a central part of the “witchy” look? A lot of what we now know about the witches, true and false, is derived from the Salem Witch Trials. These were a series of prosecutions of people accused of practicing witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts from February 1692 to May 1693. Over 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft, with 19 people found guilty and sentenced to death, mostly by hanging.
Many of the people at the heart of the infamous trials were female members of the Puritan community based in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Puritan women wore full coverage dresses, known as shifts, in brown or indigo wool and cotton with large white aprons. Black was seldom worn by Puritans as the dye was extremely expensive. Large sailor style collars could be worn over jackets, with embroidered and lace collars worn by wealthy Puritans to show status. The simple dress of the community reflected their staunch morals and avoided forbidden frivolities of vanity.
There have been a number of artist representations of the Trials over the centuries that show the accused witches wearing plain traditional Puritan dress complete with an oversized white collar. The Puritan stark white collars, apron and cuffs have trickled into our popular consciousness and are intrinsically linked to the dress of witches — whether historically accurate or not.
Witches on the Silver Screen
One of the first representations of the Puritan ‘witch dress’ in popular culture is that worn by fictional character Wednesday Addams of The Addams Family (who first appeared in a cartoon for The New Yorker by cartoonist Charles Addams in 1938). She comes from a long line of witches including her Grandmama and mother Morticia Adams. Wednesday has been dressed in a black shift dress with white buttons, white contrast Peter Pan collar and matching cuffs since the first publication of the satirical cartoon strip. Although Wednesday would not be named by Addams until the mid 1960s, he had been drawing the youngster with the collar since the late 1930s.
Intricately designed collars such as the sailor, Eton and Peter Pan enjoyed popularity during the 1930s, particularly in childrenswear, with fashion designers mimicking historical garments and producing removable collars to increase longevity of wears between washes. Wednesday’s dress was a basic shift that did not correspond to any of the popular styles of the later 1930s aside from the contrasting collar and cuffs. The simple, plain silhouette reflected that of the Puritan’s shift but was shorter in length, with the inclusion of the curved fashionable Peter Pan collar. Wednesday Addams and her monochromatic Peter Pan shift dress went on to be replicated a number of times as the family enjoyed success in the 1960s television series, the 1990s films where Wednesday is portrayed by a young Christina Ricci and this year’s animated film of the same title.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) follows Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) as she descends into a waking nightmare after her family find themselves entangled in the occult and she is impregnated by the Devil. Director Roman Polanski deliberately wanted the film to appear normal with absolutely no hint of the sinister satanic practices that awaited the audience. Costume designer Anthea Sylbert recalled Polanksi saying, “let’s make ‘em think we’re doing a Doris Day movie.” In response Sylbert designed a pastel wardrobe of frothy chiffons, organzas and lace for Mia Farrow’s character. Heavily inspired by British Youthquake designer Mary Quant, Rosemary Woodhouse was dressed in the latest fashions: thigh-skimming mini skirts, diaphanous trousers suits and yes of course, exaggerated Peter Pan collars. With the ongoing paranoia and horror of Rosemary’s Baby, Woodhouse appears frailer and sicker as the film progresses until finally she is left sunken and pallid dressed in pale blue dressing gown that hangs from her gaunt body. The Peter Pan collar is worn throughout the film as the focal point of several outfits. The child-like silhouettes worn by Rosemary evoke an innocence and fragility of the main character. Along with occult symbols such as the Tannis root amulet given to Rosemary by her (un)friendly next door neighbour devil worshipper, the Peter Pan collar provides a historical link to the oversized collars worn by the Salem witches centuries before.
Finally, one of the latest adaptions of witch pop culture, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has turned Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) into an unlikely feminist style icon. Costume designer Angus Strathie described the fictional town of Greendale where the show is set as being “in eternal autumn.” This translates to Sabrina Spellman and friends wearing a seasonal palette of rich berries, charcoal greys, pumpkin and tobacco throughout the series and opens up a lot of screen time for some seriously good outerwear.
The Netflix production pays homage to number of iconic horror films and, unsurprisingly, there are a lot of Peter Pan collars worn throughout. In particular there is a direct homage to Rosemary’s Baby with the main character wearing a red velvet babydoll dress complete with oversized white Peter Pan lace collar to mimic the 1960s original. Spellman is half witch/half mortal and tends to wear Peter Pan collars when she spends time with her witch and warlock friends at the Academy of Unseen Arts. In fact, Peter Pan collars are part of the velvet babydoll uniform worn by the Weird Sisters, three young witches who show a particular disdain for Sabrina and her mortal friends, preferring the Church of Night’s more traditional Satanic morals. These dresses in particular are incredibly popular, with a number of online fashion retailers and Etsy creating replicas of the Weird Sisters witch dresses.
These bewitched styles are creeping out from beneath the doors of dusty ‘alternative’ apparel shops (the ones filled with PVC corsets, Cradle of Filth hoodies and incense) and onto our highstreets. There seems to be a correlation between the cultural significance of the 1960s shift dress and that of the modern shift — both adorned with a contrasting collar. Much like the radical changes of the decade, the fashion industry acknowledged the youth consumer and designed the shift dress to slash conventions, hike up hemlines and empower women. The recent revival in witchcraft and witch style promotes a more positive image of the witch — she is no longer seen as the disgraced woman, the disfigured crone or the deceitful enchantress. The twentieth century challenged the historical witch’s garb and edited the voluminous, shapeless silhouette into a knee-skimming sartorial statement on the freedoms of modern feminism, the Peter Pan collar acting as a stark visual talisman of the horrors faced by witches centuries ago. Thankfully being a witch is now no longer a punishable offence (fashion or otherwise).
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