Wednesday, September 24, 2014

High Fashion in Colonial America, c1760

Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Isabella reporting,

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. 


Anna said...

Love this! In the present day we just don't even realize how true the saying "clothes make the man" (or woman) was in the 18th century. How they looked advertised everything about them and they were so conscious of that. Out where I am in the French Illinois country, which is about as "frontier" as you can get, there are a number of inventory results 1730-50 for full 3-piece men's suits being made in rich colors, striped silk gowns being re-sold, entries of chintz gowns, embroidered shoes, silk stockings; and notes sent down to Louisiana to please send small fripperies like silk ribbon for the ladies. For such a small colony struggling to get established on the edge of the unknown in America, they were fixated on bettering themselves through beautiful clothing.

AuntieNan said...

One thing that hasn't changed since then is the ratio of the amount spent on the garment to the amount the worker who made it was actually paid. I'm not a math whiz, but it's plain to see that that mantua maker wasn't making a fortune, any more than a sweatshop stitcher today is! Although since the industrial revolution we can purchase ready to wear clothes much more cheaply.

Amanda said...

Thank you for this post! This perception of "everyone in colonial times wore plain homespuns" is one of my absolute top peeves. Especially in the Philadelphia area...I was at an event at the Whitall House in NJ one time, and the well-meaning lady behind my friend and I told us that we looked like we were dressed for a ball!

Friend was wearing a chintz cotton gown and quilted petticoat; I was wearing a striped jacket and brown linen petticoat. I blinked at her, and tried to explain...but she was pretty convinced we were dressed for a ball! LOL.

Cherry said...

No, No, not a "shilling and a half" - it rubs this old Brit up the wrong way altogether. Common usage would be "one-and-sixpence", written 1/6d.
12 pennies (pence) in a shilling, so sixpence was indeed half. It was an important price point generally, and had its own coin. My first pocket money in the mid 1950s was sixpence a week, enough for a coloring book or a couple of candy bars.
The "d" denoting pence came from the Latin denarius, a small Roman coin. (not sure of my spelling there)

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