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

Creole Comforts and French Connections: A Case Study in Caribbean Dress

Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Philippe Halbert. Follow him @plbhalbert.

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“Vêtement dit à la creole,” Galerie des modes et costumes français, Charles Emmanuel Patas after Pierre Thomas Leclerc, 1779, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In 1779, a fashion plate depicting a woman’s garment “in the creole style” was published in Paris. Consisting of a lightweight muslin gown with wrist-length sleeves, the dress was “in the style of a chemise,” the basic female undergarment of the period.[1] Worn over a petticoat, the gown was to be pinned at the bust and loosely closed with a sash or belt. In addition to enumerating its various components, which included a separate caraco jacket, the engraving’s caption remarked that the fantastic ensemble was “of the sort worn by our French Ladies in America.” At the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, French colonial possessions in the Americas were largely confined to the Caribbean Basin, a region where interactions between people of indigenous, European, and African descent brought about innovations in everything from architecture to foodways. Although the inhabitants of French-controlled islands like Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, were not beyond the reach of Parisian novelty, the heat and humidity necessitated certain sartorial adaptations. Continue reading

“We Are One”: The Confinement and Consent of Colonial American Busks

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A busk for a woman’s stays, wood, American-made in Canada, 1782. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.


Welcome to #ColonialCouture, our second annual roundtable on fashion in early America and material culture in the Atlantic World, which will run here for the next two weeks.

Today’s post is by Cynthia Chin, a doctoral student at Georgetown University who is researching eighteenth-century material culture, with a particular focus on what Martha Washington’s surviving extant gowns tell us about her, and the world in which she lived. Follow her @cynthiawriter.

Off with that happy busk, which I envy…” John Donne, To His Mistress Going to Bed

While Fashion Week Fall 2018 finds iconic designer John Galliano (ironically, and not so ironically) “liberating men with corsets[1] – the women of eighteenth-century British America were confined and complexly bound by stays and busks. Women during this period wore stays[2], often with a busk inserted inside. A busk is a flat, stiff, oblong object, and in eighteenth-century British America, most frequently carved from wood.[3] Providing additional structure and shaping to a pair of stays, a busk would be slipped inside a vertical channel in the stay’s center-front.[4] The wearing of a busk ensured that a woman achieved the fashionable (and socially prescribed) straight, flat, conical, enlongated torso that dominated the female aesthetic in the long eighteenth century. Continue reading

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

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. Continue reading

Roundtable: Of Records and Rituals: Native Americans and the Textile Trade

Roundtable: Of Records and Rituals: Native Americans and the Textile Trade

This Colonial Couture post is by Laura E. Johnson, associate curator at Historic New England. The exhibition Mementos: Jewelry of Life and Love from Historic New England, which she curated, will open at the Eustis Estate Museum in Milton, Massachusetts, in May 2017.

“Echatillons Etouffes d’angleterre a l’usage des Espagnolesen Europe y en Amerique,” (Samples of English stuffs in use by the Spanish in Europe and America), Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Museum and Library

I’d like to build on Kimberly Alexander’s question from last week, “How can we write history when we do not have the original object?” There are many ways to examine a textile and its context without the physical object, as she demonstrated so ably. Much of my research on Native peoples, identity construction, and the Atlantic textile trade is based by necessity on a combination of archival resources, rare portraits, and archaeological evidence. Trade records, price lists, descriptions of treaty meetings, and other archival sources offer a wide range of evidence about textiles and how Natives consumed them, even in the absence of the pieces themselves.

Textiles were among the most lucrative and desirable of imported objects in the early Atlantic economy.[1] The French, Dutch, and British all relied heavily on textile production for a substantial portion of their national revenue. Woolens and linens raised, spun, woven and finished in these areas drove international commerce from the 13th century.[2] Native Americans presented an enormous potential market for their products as the domestic market became increasingly saturated. As one scholar has stated, it could have been termed the “cloth trade as easily as the deerskin trade.”[3] Continue reading

Roundtable: Ambassador in a Hat: The Sartorial Power of Benjamin Franklin’s Fur Cap

Roundtable: Ambassador in a Hat: The Sartorial Power of Benjamin Franklin’s Fur Cap

This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributor Joanna M. Gohmann, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in 18th– and 19th-Century Art, at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Benjamin Franklin (Augustin de Saint Aubin after Charles Nicholas Cochin, 1777, private collection)

Benjamin Franklin (Augustin de Saint Aubin after Charles Nicholas Cochin, 1777, private collection)

While acting as the American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin wore a fur hat to express his American status. The French enthusiastically accepted Franklin’s use of the topper, seeing it as an embodiment of the ambassador and a symbol of America and the American cause. When he first came to France in 1767, Franklin wore the clothes of a polite, fashionable Frenchman—a fine European suit and powdered wig—as a way to show respect to the French court. When he returned in 1776, he abandoned all the decorum of French dress and instead wore a simple, homespun brown suit, spectacles, and a large fur hat. He cleverly adopted this style as a way to garner attention and appeal to the French for support of the American cause.[1]

Continue reading