Early American Women Unmasked

A special edition of #ColonialCouture, a Junto roundtable on fashion as history in early American life. 

Protective face coverings have emerged as a potent, multifaceted metaphor for the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite inconsistent examples set by elected leaders and conflicting recommendations made by public health officials, unisex masks have steadily assumed a greater role in social distancing measures and become mandatory in certain settings outside the home. Options range from standard blue and white surgical masks to creative DIY improvisations and “Corona Couture.” Some museums are looking to add homemade masks to their collections as a way to document the crisis. Worn for slightly different reasons and more implicitly gendered, the masks owned by early American women and even children were no less symbolic in terms of practical use, commodification, or controversy.

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Guest Post: Fashion from Japan and France: Nightgowns in Colonial Brazil

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Jean-Baptiste Debret, “Les dèlassemens d’une aprés diner,” from Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Brésil, vol. 2 (Paris: Firmin Didot Frerès, 1835)

Today’s guest post comes from Rachel Zimmerman (Ph.D., University of Delaware), Assistant Professor of Art History at Colorado State University-Pueblo. She has been studying the art and architecture of the Brazilian town of Minas Gerais since her first trip to the region in 2006. She began examining consumption in colonial Brazil for her dissertation, “Global Luxuries at Home: The Material Possessions of an Elite Family in Eighteenth-Century Minas Gerais, Brazil,” and is continuing research for a book project on elite material culture in the city of Mariana. Follow her work here.

According to the early nineteenth-century English merchant John Luccock, it was customary for Brazilian men to discard stiff outer layers when at home and wear only a cotton shirt, often unbuttoned, knee-length breeches, and clogs.[1] Brazilian standards of decorum permitted informal dress in domestic settings, even when receiving guests. Examination of colonial-era probate inventories from Minas Gerais, the gold mining district, reveals that a small number of educated elite men transformed their state of undress from ordinary to stylish with the addition of a nightgown. Continue reading

Fragmented Stories: Cloth from the Colonies in a 19th-Century Dress Diary

 

KS DiaryDear Junto readers, Thank you for joining us for two weeks of all-new scholarship tracing the historical patterns of #ColonialCouture! Read the whole roundtable here.

Today’s #ColonialCouture finale post is by Kate Strasdin, senior lecturer in cultural studies at the Fashion & Textiles Institute, Falmouth University, whose research focus is on 19th- and 20th-century female dress and haute couture. Follow her @kateStrasdin.

A small industrial town in the North West of England in the middle of the 19th century might seem an unlikely place to start with a narrative concerning dress and the colonies. On September 20 1838, Anne Burton married Adam Sykes in Tyldesley, Lancashire. A small piece of their wedding day is captured on the very first page of a volume that Anne was to keep for almost forty years – a fragment of her wedding dress and the figured silk waistcoat worn by her groom carefully pasted into what was to become her dress diary. Continue reading

Luxurious Tipping Points in Early Massachusetts

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Architectural tile, tin-glazed earthenware. Cross Street Back Lot site, Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Ben Marsh, senior lecturer in history at the University of Kent and author of Georgia’s Frontier Women: Female Fortunes in a Southern Colony (University of Georgia Press, 2012). His current research project is “Silk and the Atlantic World, c. 1500-1840.” Follow him @MarshBen1.

You can find the strangest things in toilets. When Katherine Wheelwright Nanny Naylor (1630-1716) and her remaining two children filled in a brick-lined privy at the back of their yard in Ann Street, perhaps downsizing in the 1690s after having once run her own business from a fine waterfront lot on the north side of Boston Harbour, they inadvertently left a message preserved in the marine clay. When the site was excavated in the 1990s (at the point of being built over by the city’s Central Artery), it flushed up over a hundred fragments of different textiles.[i] This is tipping point three. Continue reading

Priscilla Mullins Alden and the Search for a Dress in Pieces

Priscilla And John Alden

John and Priscilla Alden
Colored Postcard with a Colonial Revival view of the couple

Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Kimberly Alexander, professor of museum studies and material culture at the University of New Hampshire and author of Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). She is currently guest curator of “Fashioning the New England Family,” opening at the Massachusetts Historical Society on 5 October 2018. Follow her @SilkDamask.

Bradfords, Brewsters, Aldens, Winslows, Cottons, Winthrops.  Throughout the K-12 experience, these names filled the classes and textbooks of the students who now sit before us in college classrooms, crowding out other names, names like Weetamoo and Rondriquez and Tubman.  But, through the process of mythologizing that distills and filters facts, the men and women of the Mayflower have come to be somewhat flat and lifeless characters, rather than people who inhabited real bodies in a real space.  Consequently, this where even the smallest and seemingly insignificant fragment of material culture can add dimensions that revisit the past as a place of hopes and dreams, struggle and disappointment.[1] Continue reading

On Wednesdays We Wear Prints: Fashion Rules in the African Atlantic

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Stella McCartney Spring/Summer 2018 ready-to-wear fashion collection, Paris, Oct. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Bronwen Everill, lecturer in history at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge University, and author of Abolition and Empire in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Cambridge Series in Imperial and Post-colonial Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Follow her @BronwenEverill.

In 2017, Stella McCartney ran into trouble during Paris fashion week. Her faux pas was cultural appropriation: using Nigerian Ankara fabrics, reportedly pretending to have “discovered” them, and dressing her almost exclusively white group of models in the fabric.

In 1791, British traveller Anna Maria Falconbridge complained of the failure of her own attempt to promote cultural appropriation of European fashions, while describing her visit to the Temne, in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Spending time with Clara, the wife of the royal secretary, “I endeavoured to persuade her to dress in the European way, but to no purpose; she would tear the clothes off her back immediately after I put them on. Finding no credit could be gained by trying to new fashion this Ethiopian Princess, I got rid of her as soon as possible.”[1] Now, maybe it’s just me, but I always think Anna Maria would have given Gretchen Wieners a run for her money as Regina George’s BFF. Her book, Two Voyages in Sierra Leone, is full of snarky comments about fashion in Sierra Leone, but it comes across as so much posturing. Continue reading

Yuchi Fashion Week, 1736

 

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Figure 1: Von Reck, Indian King and Queen Uchi, Senkaitschi, 1736. Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark

Welcome back to week two  of our #ColonialCouture roundtable! Today’s post is by Jessica Yirush Stern, associate professor of history at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of The Lives in Objects: Native Americans, British Colonists, and Cultures of Labor and Exchange in the Southeast (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). 

 

How desperately I wanted to get inside. Historians are like fleas, on ride-alongs with the authors of their sources. My hosts were all males (white traders, agents, travellers), and none of them crossed the threshold of eighteenth-century Southeastern Indian homes or workplaces, with pens in hand, set to record women as they fashioned clothes. Sure, I have access to many of the purchases that preceded those moments of artistry. I have a few drawings of women and men donning the final products of these efforts.[i] But left to my imagination is how Southeastern Indians envisioned themselves as designers. Continue reading

Following the Fashions: A Basic American Pastime

AJ1Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Amy Sopcak-Joseph, a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Connecticut. She is working on her dissertation, “Fashioning American Women: Godey’s Lady’s Book, Female Consumers, and Periodical Publishing in the Nineteenth Century.” Follow her @AmySopcakJoseph.

It’s that time of year again: time to stash away all of your white pants and head to the nearest Starbucks for a PSL. Love it or hate it, that sugary “Pumpkin Spice Latte” is more than just a drink that allows us to ingest autumn. The PSL reached cultural-icon status when it became the trendy accessory of someone “basic”–a term encompassing a larger set of consumer choices linked to appearance, food, and leisure activities that signal an uncritical devotion to trends. Calling someone “basic” became a kind of epithet against people who like things that are mainstream or, as some writers have suggested, feminine.[1] Some women have taken ownership of “basic,” embracing it as an identity (see social media posts enthusiastically tagged #basic).

Is being “basic” really that bad? Is someone superior–morally or intellectually–for not liking things that are mainstream? Judging other people’s consumer choices and assigning them political or cultural meaning is as American as apple (or pumpkin?) pie. In the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, when the United States was transitioning from an agrarian economy to a capitalist one, considerable anxiety emerged about the consumer choices of the burgeoning middle class. Not unlike the criticisms of 21st-century women whose tastes and identity might be called “basic,” some found women’s purchases and self-fashioning to be particularly alarming. Ministers and reformers argued that these choices demonstrated women’s uncritical adherence to the “tyranny” or “evils” of fashion, a devotion that could negatively shape the future of the republic. Continue reading

In Touch with the Dutch, or, Fashioning Colonial New York’s Merchant Elite

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Man’s Gown. English. ca. 1700-1720. Gold silk damask (likely Chinese; ca. 1690-1720); lining: red brocaded silk (likely Persian; ca. 1700-1720); collar and cuffs: red silk damask (English; ca. 1700-1720); wool padding. Cora Ginsburg LLC.

Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Cynthia Kok, a doctoral student in art history at Yale University. She is interested in trade and craftsmanship under European colonial governance and imitative material practices inspired by encounters with foreign cultures.

“I like my money right where I can see it…hanging in my closet.” –Carrie Bradshaw

Centuries before New York became known as a fashion capital— and Carrie Bradshaw emerged as a style icon— the city’s colonial-era merchants anticipated the words of Sex and the City’s lead character by investing newly earned wealth in clothing made from luxurious fabrics. And, like today’s Rich Kids of Instagram, they documented their exclusive material success through portraiture. Painted at the turn of the eighteenth century, that of Isaac de Peyster (1662-1728), the son of an affluent Dutch-American mercantile family, presented both his physical features and a luxurious silk robe patterned with rocks and spindly vegetation. The artist captured the soft, luminous sheen of the gold silk and hinted at the robe’s lining with a flash of red along an upturned sleeve. Continue reading

An Indian Chintz Gown: Slavery and Fashion

Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Jennifer Van Horn, assistant professor of art history and history at the University of Delaware. She specializes in the fields of early American art and material culture, and she is the author of   The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America.

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Figure 1. Woman’s Jacket and Petticoat worn by Ann Van Rensselaer, c. 1790. Albany, NY. Textile: India. Cotton chintz, mordant painted and dyed; tabby linen bodice and sleeve linings. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Gift of Mrs. Cora Ginsburg.
Acc. No. 1990-10,1.

Walking down the street in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1786, a white woman spotted a gown that had been stolen from her two years before on the body of an enslaved woman. The gown was a fashionable one: an “Indian Chintz, white Ground, with Stripes and Figures of different Sorts of red, if not other Colours.” It might have resembled the chintz jacket and petticoat worn by Ann Van Rensselaer in New York about 1790 (fig 1), or the more delicately-patterned robe à l’anglaise donned by an unknown American woman around the same time (fig 2). Indian chintz—a light-weight cotton fabric painted or dyed with intricate organic designs and manufactured in India—was popular throughout the Atlantic world for clothing, bed hangings, and upholstery.[1]

The chintz gown’s original owner, Mrs. MacIver, was the wife of an Alexandria ferry owner. She claimed that a white seamstress, to whom she gave “a Night’s Quarters” after hearing “a Tale of feigned Distress,” stole the garment along with two other “elegant, well trimm’d Gowns.” The seamstress sold the Indian chintz to a “Negro of Dr Stewart’s,” who then “sold it to a Negroe Woman belonging to” George Washington. Mrs. MacIver discovered which enslaved woman—Charlotte—when she saw her strolling in Alexandria. Charlotte, then in her early to mid-twenties, was a seamstress for Martha Washington at Mount Vernon.[2] Continue reading