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

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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

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

Roundtable: Cash’s Bundle: Fugitive Slave Advertisements, Clothing, and Self-Care

This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributor Charmaine A. Nelson, professor of art history at McGill University. Her latest book is Slavery, Geography and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica.

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It is a remarkable fact that everywhere that Africans were enslaved in the transatlantic world, they resisted in a myriad of ways. While scholars have frequently examined the more spectacular and violent forms of resistance (like slave revolts and rebellions), a far quieter type of resistance was ubiquitous across the Americas, running away. Where printing presses took hold, broadsheets and newspapers soon followed, crammed with all manner of colonial news. Colonial print culture and slavery were arguably fundamentally linked. More specifically, as Marcus Wood has argued, “The significance of advertising for the print culture of America in the first half of the nineteenth century is difficult to overestimate.”[1] Continue reading

Roundtable: Making American Pompons Great Again

This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributor Ben Marsh, senior lecturer in history at the University of Kent. His current research project is “Unravelling Dreams: Silkworms and the Atlantic World, c. 1500-1840.”

Super Bowl LI

Super Bowl LI

In July 1760, an American correspondent writing to a former neighbor in Surrey, England, graciously thanked them for dispatching a package across to South Carolina, risking the perils of transatlantic post during the Seven Years’ War, to send some cosmopolitan gifts. The gift of a fan was heralded as a “curiosity,” the suit (probably linen, though this descriptor was scored out) was apparently “universally admired,” but the real coup in the package was unquestionably the pompon. Not only was the pompon the prettiest these Americans had apparently ever seen, but the girl it was intended for was delighted “the more so as they are the first of ye fashion that have reach[e]d this part of the world.” Continue reading

Roundtable: Fashioning the 17th Century in Boston: John and Hannah Leverett

This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributor Kimberly Alexander, adjunct professor of history at the University of New Hamphire, Durham. Her forthcoming book is Georgian Shoe Stories from Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and she is currently the Andrew Oliver Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society.* Follow her @SilkDamask.

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John Leverett’s Buff Coat, ca. 1640

For scholars who are deeply interested in the connections between material culture and social history, textiles can be imagined as significant documents. Contextualizing objects through print culture, and exploring print through materials, allows us to texture the past and to weave “fashion stories” that complicate conventional histories. A favorite site for this work is the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), home not only to one of the country’s most significant collections of letters, manuscripts and decorative arts, but also houses an important collection of textiles, clothing, and shoes, spanning the broad sweep of Massachusetts history. As the Andrew Oliver Research Fellow for 2016-2017, I have had the special opportunity to investigate pre-1750s textiles within the Society’s collection. Here, the lure of seeing objects, many of which had not been viewed for over 40 years, is particularly exciting. Continue reading

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. Continue reading