Too often the perception of fashion in colonial America is skewed by patriotic myth, of no-nonsense people wearing plain, sturdy clothes they'd made themselves from cloth that were also spun and woven at home.
In truth the latest London fashions were only a few weeks away by ship, and fashion was important not only for self-expression, but also as a matter of status. (Fashion supported many trades; see this post for just how many craftspeople were involved.) Because of British trade regulations, the majority of clothing for every class was made of imported textiles, sewn and fitted by skilled mantua-makers and tailors, and even the most humble apprentice could tie his neckerchief in a stylish knot, and housewives wore gowns of printed cotton chintz to mimic the silks of grand ladies.
A colonial lady with money to spend dressed much like her London counterpart. This gown from Winterthur belonged to a lady from the Montgomery family of Haverford, PA, which would have been about a day's ride from the international port of Philadelphia in 1760. The shimmering blue and silver silk was imported from London, and made up by a local mantua-maker. The softly flowing pleats of the gown's sack back, the waving flounces at the elbows, and the wide skirts to accommodate hoops are all in the latest fashion.
But it's the silk itself that must have made the real fashion statement. A gown like this required about 12-1/2 yards of silk that was only 19" wide. Silk of this quality could have cost as much as five shillings a yard for a rough total of That may not sound like much, but when you consider (as we have here before) that the seamstress who stitched that silk likely earned only a shilling and a half for her entire twelve-hour workday, then this gown truly does become a costly fashion statement.
Above: Gown and petticoat, silk, made in America of English fabric, c.1755-75. Winterthur Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.