Roundtable: Crafting Protest, Fashioning Politics: DIY Lessons from the American Revolution

This Colonial Couture post is by Zara Anishanslin, assistant professor of history and art history at the University of Delaware. Her latest book is Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016). Follow her @ZaraAnishanslin.

Homespun, Thomas Eakins, 1881, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Homespun, Thomas Eakins, 1881, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Please, sisters, back away from the pink.”

So women planning to attend the January 2017 Women’s Marches were urged by the writer of an opinion piece in The Washington Post. “Sorry knitters,” she continued, but making and wearing things like pink pussycat hats “undercuts the message that the march is trying to send….We need to be remembered for our passion and purpose, not our pink pussycat hats.”  To back up her point, the author opined that “bra burning” dominated—and thus damaged—popular (mis)conceptions of women’s rights protests in the 1960s. Please, ladies, she exhorted, don’t repeat the mistakes we made in the ‘60s by bringing fashion into politics.

Poor pussycat hats! Did they deserve this attack? Were they, as the author claimed, foolish accessories that distracted attention from policy issues? Isn’t it amusing, to think that someone who knits as a political act can really be taken seriously? Does using fashion to announce politics—particularly by women—diminish the political message?

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Women’s March, January 2017 (Photo Credit: Zara Anishanslin)

The short answer to these questions is “no.” Mass public protest is as much theater as it is politics; a performance that benefits from using an easily recognized associated symbol to make a memorable visual statement. Seas of pink pussycat hats across the United States accomplished this mission. And if we consider them within the context of early American history, we see that far from being silly gimmicks, things like pink pussycat hats—as well as the act of knitting them—embody the revolutionary tradition of making and wearing politically-charged clothing to foment protest and wage war.

It will hardly be news to most (if not all) reading this, of course, that making and wearing homespun cloth symbolized American defiance of British imperial taxation policies in the revolutionary era. To sum up the familiar tale: in tandem with women and men alike boycotting British goods like textiles while laws like the Stamp Act of 1765 were in effect, patriot women showed devotion to the cause with production of homespun fabric, like the large open air “spinning bees” held by Daughters of Liberty. And men and women alike wore homespun to events like Harvard’s commencement and a Virginia ball, united in public sartorial statements from North to South.

Given the popularity of making and wearing fashion as a political statement in the eighteenth century, and our common knowledge of its use in the Revolution, it’s curious that some people today fail to see how powerful a political tool making and using fashion can be. Why is there persistent bemusement that Teen Vogue can be one of our wokest, smartest political outlets? How can a Tucker Carlson think that the best possible smackdown of a woman journalist’s political credentials is to disdain her previous analysis of thigh-high boots?

Part of the explanation for this curiousness lies in the fact that, as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has written in The Age of Homsepun, the collective memory of revolutionary homespun production was sanitized and feminized in the nineteenth century. The homespun movement was equated with austere republican simplicity, and associated firmly with women. Homespun’s fashionable qualities, as well as its masculine and violent histories, were largely effaced from collective celebration of the Revolution. Deglamorized, feminized, and tamed, revolutionary fashion lost much of its political power.

Part of this erasure stemmed from misconceptions about what “homespun” was in revolutionary-era America. It is important to remember that, in contrast to its use in England, in America, the word “homespun” did not necessarily mean cloth that was coarse or rather unrefined. In America “homespun” might mean simply that a cloth was made at home, or of domestic production (and “domestic” in this era might simply meant what we think of today as “made in America”). In other words, homespun did not have to be ugly, coarse, brown cloth.  It could—and it was—sometimes fashionable, too.  In fact, during the Revolution, Americans produced clothing and accessories that were not only fashionable, but even luxurious. Patriot women made silk and decorative fringe trim, as well as sturdy wool and linen, to make political statements.

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Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris), John Singleton Copley, 1773, Philadelphia Museum of Art

John Singleton Copley’s 1773 double portrait of Quaker couple Thomas and Sarah Mifflin illustrates how Americans produced homespun luxury to express patriotic politics. The Mifflins were ardent Whigs, and Sarah’s use of a handloom was a deliberate nod to their support of colonial boycotts of British imports and support of homemade goods. But the homespun she weaves is fringe, a purely decorative trim for upholstery or clothing. The product of her loom embodies how American homespun could be refined yet still express republican fervor.

Like Sarah Mifflin, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter Sally Franklin Bache also used finery to express her republican politics.  After the British occupation of Philadelphia ended, Bache wrote to her father in France, asking him to send her some lace and “other little Wants,” to wear to patriotic social events celebrating the British retreat. Her father curtly admonished her to cease asking him for fripperies and to concentrate on her spinning instead. Bache’s response was to ask, “how could my dear Papa give me so severe a reprimand for wishing for a little finery” and to send her father a clever reply to his admonishment that she spin. Her rejoinder was a material one—twenty-two yards of Pennsylvania silk for one of the most fashionable women in the world, French queen Marie Antoinette.

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Mrs. Richard Bache (Sarah Franklin), John Hoppner, 1793, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Upon receiving the silk, Franklin chided his daughter, asking how, “having yourself scarce Shoes to your Feet, it should come into your Head to give Cloathes to a Queen.” But Bache’s 1779 gift for Marie Antoinette made a great deal of political sense. Bache’s gift was part of a historical pattern of symbolic gift giving of American silk to a European queen. Eight years earlier, Benjamin Franklin had presented Pennsylvania silk to George III’s queen, Charlotte.  By replicating her father’s earlier act of presenting silk to a queen, but offering it to the French—rather than the British—queen, Bache used homespun to materially celebrate the Franco-American Alliance. Her gift of homespun silk made it clear that American allegiance had shifted away from the English crown.

Sally Franklin Bache’s gift of American homespun silk to the French Queen had a certain witty subtleness to it.  Other revolutionary era homespun was more heavy-handed.

In March 1775, famously, Patrick Henry ended a rousing speech to the Second Virginia Convention with the memorable call to “give me liberty, or give me death!” Much as we have seen with the recent proliferation of “Nevertheless, She Persisted” t-shirts, Henry’s words became memorialized in fashion. The Virginia “Culpeper Minutemen” wore “strong brown linen hunting-shirts, dyed with leaves, and the words “Liberty or Death” worked in large white letters on the breast.”

Countering their slogan was that worn by Lord Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment,” troops of enslaved men bold enough to take their own freedom from American slaveholders and fight for the British. The Ethiopian Regiment, it was reported in The Virginia Gazette, wore sashes that read “Liberty to Slaves.” Both the Ethiopian Regiment and Culpeper Minutemen used clothing to embody their visions of liberty. These slogans emblazoned across hundreds of men’s chests (some, no doubt, needlework done by women) would have been a memorable sight, particularly when the two groups faced each other at the Battle of Great Bridge. Soldiers like these wore their ideology into battle across their chests, declaring their politics with needle, fabric, and thread.

A more violent use of homespun fashion to announce revolutionary ideology is found in Sullivan’s Campaign to decimate Iroquoia. Among the soldiers specifically requested by General Sullivan for the campaign were Riflemen, Patriot soldiers renowned for fighting in an “Indian styel” and wearing Native American-inspired clothing and weaponry, including deerskin or “Indian” leggings and scalping knives. As they recounted in their diaries, officers in the campaign sent men out to look for “dead Indians.” The purpose of such expeditions? To skin the bodies “from their hips down for boot legs” and to “drest [sic] them for leggings.” Such leggings—made and worn by soldiers on a campaign against the people whose flayed bodies formed their material; people, moreover, from whom they had borrowed this clothing style—was homespun fashion that embodied violent politics.

When we put what is too readily sanitized as a deliberately unfashionable, feminized act of protest—making and wearing homespun—into its larger context of luxurious adornment and military history, we see that Americans fighting on both sides of the war used fashion to announce politics. At times, obviously, as with homespun leggings in Sullivan’s Campaign, we must abhor the use to which fashion was put. But, admire or abhor its uses, we cannot deny fashion’s history of successfully embodying political power. Revolution relies upon repetition, upon mobilizing a critical mass of individual people to react in the same way and at the same time. As we consider how revolutionary-era Americans built common causes, we benefit from understanding that revolutionary fashion made serious—at times deadly serious—political statements.

So please, sisters and brothers, knit away, and feel free to wear those pink pussycat hats. And while you’re at it, maybe pick up a copy of Teen Vogue.

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2 comments on “Roundtable: Crafting Protest, Fashioning Politics: DIY Lessons from the American Revolution

  1. Rosemarie Zagarri says:

    Great article connecting the material culture of protest, then and now

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