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

Sarah Parker Remond: Black Abolitionist Diplomat

The meaning of the American Civil War has been, and still is, one of the most contentious issues facing the United States today. An aspect of the war that seems to be less spoken about though, was the role of Black women internationally during the Civil War. Wars of the scale of the American Civil War rarely lack an internationalist component. For the already internationalist American abolitionist movement, when the Civil War began in 1861, the abolitionist struggle shifted south with the work of women like Harriet Tubman and Charlotte Forten, but there were still important battles being waged internationally over the war and its meaning.  

The Black woman who took the international abolitionist stage during the Civil War was Salem, Massachusetts’ Sarah Parker Remond. After having been in the British Isles for almost two years prior to the war, Remond’s abolitionist tour expressed a stronger sense of urgency, as the war provided a tangible arena for potential ending of slavery. While doing so, she developed notions of performative citizenship. Performative citizenship was an aspirational basis of struggle for realized citizenship based on Black abolitionist women’s proclamations of African-American identities. Those identities were based on economic and intellectual analyses of the central role their race’s plunder played in American economic growth. Continue reading

Q&A: Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill

Today, we conclude our week-long round table on Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York with an interview with Spufford himself. If you missed our earlier posts on the novel, you can find them here. Continue reading

Golden Hill Roundtable: Retracing Mr. Smith’s Steps Through Eighteenth-Century Manhattan

goldenhill“Had a map been drawn . . . of Mr. Smith’s movements through the streets of New-York. . . a tangled hydra indeed would have been revealed,” begins the second chapter of Francis Spufford’s book Golden Hill (53). As my fellow Junto reviewers have discussed, Spufford’s exhilarating read follows Mr. Smith through the escapades and perils of mid-eighteenth-century New York as he attempts to convince those he encounters of his “credit worthiness.” As he meanders through the tangled web of city streets, Smith’s journey from the island’s southern tip to its northern outposts is filled with adventures and twists at every turn. The reader soon learns that many of the men and women he encounters have secrets to hide. There is much to like about Golden Hill. For this urban historian, one of the most enjoyable aspects is the book’s sense of place. Continue reading

Golden Hill Roundtable: Courage and Cowardice?

This guest post is the third entry in our week-long roundtable on Francis Spufford’s novel, Golden Hill. Its author is Hannah Farber, an assistant professor at Columbia University. Her scholarship has appeared in the New England Quarterly, Early American Studies and the Journal of the Early Republic; she is at work on a monograph on marine insurance, tentatively titled Underwriters of the United States.

goldenhillWhat a pleasure it is to wander around mid-eighteenth-century New York City with Francis Spufford, admiring the city’s homes with their “stepped Dutchwork eaves” (17) and their “blue-gray pediment[s] of Connecticut pine” (11). What a pleasure, too, to join him in pawing through the humbler artifacts of daily life in the colonial city. Pap (1). Milk punch (42). A bog-wig (2). Every page of Golden Hill overflows with weird stuff like this, and it’s just great. Continue reading