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

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

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

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

Making the Personal Historical: Reflections on Pregnancy and Birth

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“A Lady & Children,” 1780 mezzotint, the British Museum.

Human reproduction is simultaneously unchanged and radically different over time and across cultures. This paradox has preoccupied me for over a year as I carried and gave birth to my first child one year ago today, and as I watched my sister follow the same path soon after. Throughout my pregnancy, delivery, and now early motherhood, I’ve found myself thinking often long-dead women and pondering how vastly different our experiences of the same condition must be.

Pregnancy and birth generate intense  feelings. Most parents experience joy, hope, and fear. As a historian, I regularly identify with the women I encounter in the archive. The empathy born of our shared biological and emotional experiences generated two additional emotions that most new parents may not: gratitude, on the one hand, and anger on the other. 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