Roundtable: New York’s Original Fashion Industry

Roundtable: New York’s Original Fashion Industry

This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributor William Howard Carter, assistant professor of history at The College of New Jersey. He is currently revising his book manuscript, “The Hideous and the Beautiful: The Power of Bodily Decorations in Iroquoia, 1550-1850.” 

The Treaty of Penn with the Indians (Benjamin West, 1771-72)

The Treaty of Penn with the Indians (Benjamin West, 1771-72)

When was the fashion industry established in New York? With its eye towards the future and its accolades bestowed on the visionaries that best imagine the trends to come, it is hard for us to think of the fashion industry as anything but modern. Fashion tantalizes us with glimpses of the future that are not yet real but could, through the power of fashion, soon be made so. Yet those visions of possible futures are rooted in history. In Manhattan, that history stretches back over 400 years, before the supposed purchase of the island of Manhattan by Dutch colonists.

I say “supposed” because the view that the Dutch did actually “purchase” the island and that the exchange was a “real-estate transaction,” as it is still often described, captures only a Euro-American perspective. The people whose ancestors had lived in the area for thousands of years did not understand the transaction that way. They had no concept of “owning” land as property, or of the idea that “property” could be “fairly” exchanged in a market transaction. Land was an inalienable possession, a term coined by Annette Weiner, an anthropologist of the South Pacific, to describe tangible things that belonged to the group as a whole, including the ancestors and those yet to come.

While the transaction depicted here is William Penn’s purchase of lands for his colony, the exchange of fashionable goods for land remains the same. The central focal point of the painting is a bolt of woolen cloth, and the Lenapes in the painting have made creative use of woolen cloth, glass beads, vermilion, metal jewelry, and other items to decorate their bodies. Particularly striking is the young mother in the foreground, whose dark blue woolens are beautifully embroidered with beads.

Enough about the Manhattan real estate scam; our interest today is in the $24 worth of costume jewelry that the Natives are supposed to have received in exchange. Once again, I say “supposed” because that perspective on those objects is a Euro-American one, too, and one that has been thoroughly debunked. Historians have repeatedly pointed out that the price recorded was 60 guilders and that the kind of goods exchanged was not specified. Yet those factual corrections, as important as they are, do not address what I consider to be the most interesting question. As another anthropologist of the South Pacific, Nicholas Thomas, once put it: “What was the value of what they received?”

An oral tradition about the first appearance of the Dutch reveals that Native peoples valued the objects they received as bodily decorations and that they admired the cloth that decorated the bodies of the Dutch. The Dutch captain “appeared altogether red” and the Natives were, supposedly, soon “lost in admiration, both as to the color of the skin of these whites as also to their manner of dress, yet most as to the habit of him who wore the red clothes, which shone with something they could not account for.” This was probably gold or silver lace, which was often applied to red woolen coats. The man in red proceeded to hand out gifts of beads, axes, hoes, stockings, and so forth.

When the Dutch returned the following year, the Dutch allegedly found some of the Natives wearing axe and hoe blades around their necks as ornaments, while others turned the stockings into tobacco pouches. The story concludes with the Dutch request for just a little bit of land to plant crops on so they could feed themselves. Fashionable goods and land sales, it seems safe to say, were inextricably linked in both Native and Euro-American myths about the founding of New Amsterdam.


The brave old Hendrick the great Sachem or Chief of the Mohawk Indians…      c. 1740

Hendrick here wears a red woolen coat with embroidered gold lace while holding a tomahawk in one hand and beads in the other. Note, too, his tattoos—a more permanent kind of bodily decoration. The so-called “fur trade” flourished in the colony of New Netherland, but, again, that way of describing it highlights only the furs that Europeans valued, not the items Natives received in exchange. It could just as accurately be called the “fashion trade.” The pelts of North American beavers traveled down the Hudson and were sent to Europe where they were made into highly-fashionable hats, while the wool of European sheep traveled in the opposite direction in the form of vividly-colored woolen cloth, along with glass beads, vermilion from China (which was used as body paint), copper and brass kettles, iron tools, and firearms.

While firearms were expensive and of critical importance to Native Americans, Native peoples spent more on woolen cloth than any other type of good. If the cost of the vermilion, mirrors, beads, needles, thread, thimbles, and other items used to fashion clothing and decorate the body is added to the cost of the cloth, then fashion and bodily decoration dwarfed expenditures on goods put to other uses. Natives’ consumer demands made the European colonization of North America possible. Desire for new things transformed ways that Native Americans related to animals, to land, to each other, and even to themselves and their own bodies. Tenuous early footholds in America were purchased with cloth, metal, and glass in their many manifestations.

At first, Native peoples consented to allow small European outposts on their lands because they offered relatively steady and secure sources of goods. Native peoples used those goods in all sorts of creative ways to enhance their bodily appearance, such as breaking apart copper kettles to create pendants, bracelets, earrings, and more. Mirrors revolutionized bodily decoration and were soon everywhere, for they allowed a person to paint and decorate themselves instead of relying on others. A mere twenty years after the founding of New Amsterdam, a Dutch missionary observed that the Native peoples “look at themselves constantly and think that they are very fine.”

By the eighteenth century, it was necessary for both Natives and Euro-Americans to “dress for success”—as the historian Timothy Shannon put it—if they hoped to have influence in their dealings with each other, resulting in hybrid fashions that were shared by leaders and diplomats from both Native and colonial communities. Even after the devastating destruction of dozens of Native communities in New York during the Revolutionary War, a missionary noted that the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois), “by studying dress and ornament more than any other Indian nation, are allowed to dictate the fashion to the rest.”

Then as now, mastery of fashion was a crucial form of power and influence. The Dutch colony of New Netherland depended for its very existence on the fashion trade, which fueled the growth of New Amerstdam and, after the English conquest, of New York City, which owed its existence to not only that first lot of fashionable goods but also the continual supply of those goods that secured their alliances with Native peoples.

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