Thursday, November 2, 2017

Patriotism, French Fashion, and Mrs. Morris's Pouf, c1782

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Susan reporting,

One of those history-myths that refuses to die states that, during the years of the American Revolution, women of every class wore "homespun" to be patriotic. According to this myth - made popular in the 19thc as later generations looked fondly (and imaginatively) backwards to their ancestors - these women were paragons of colonial self-sufficiency. They not only herded and sheared sheep, processed, spun, dyed, and wove the wool and likewise process flax into linen cloth, but cut and stitched every garment worn by their equally patriotic family.

Well, no. Even if there were enough hours in the day, few women possessed the training to achieve all this. Most of the steps in 18thc clothing production were performed by highly skilled professional tradespeople, and most of the fabric - whether linen, wool, silk, or cotton - worn by Americans, rich or poor, had been produced elsewhere, and imported.

This didn't change with the Revolution. While restrictions to trade limited new imports, there was still plenty of pre-war stock in warehouses and shops. Wartime deprivations might have made the cost of new fabric prohibitive to many families, but that meant refashioning and refurbishing, patching and mending what was already owned. Fabric was valued, and there was no disgrace in making a new gown in 1778 from 1750 fabric.

For a wealthy woman like Mary White Morris (c1749-1827), left, the Revolution likely had little impact on her wardrobe, and she wasn't wearing homespun, either. Married to entrepreneur and banker Robert Morris, Mary was known as a lady who "ruled the world of fashion with unrivaled sway" - at least that part of the fashionable world centered by Philadelphia. This portrait of her by Charles Willson Peale was painted towards the very end of the Revolution, around 1782, yet she is shown in casually luxurious splendor. She is wearing fanciful, Turkish-inspired clothing that was the height of French fashion - a lace-trimmed silk sultana, a gown edged with fur, a silk sash - and her silk headdress, or pouf, is an elaborate concoction of silk, strands of glass pearls, feathers, and paste-jewel ornaments in the shape of stars and a crescent moon, with a trailing veil or scarf.

Yet by following the French fashion for dramatic hair, poufs, and turquerie, Mary Morris was not only following the lead of that international trendsetter Queen Marie Antoinette, but she was making a political statement of her own as well. The French were America's allies, and without French military assistance, the American cause would not have been successful. Mary's husband was much involved in both the war and creating the new country's government, and among their closest friends was the Marquis de Lafayette. Dressing like a Parisian for a portrait was patriotic.

But patriotic fashion reached back from Philadelphia to Paris, too. The French rejoiced along with the Americans in their victory over the British, and French women celebrated by wearing clothing inspired by the new country (or at least named for it.) This detail, left, from a French fashion journal shows  one of the latest styles for 1783: Chapeau à la Pensilvaine (Hat in the Style of Pennsylvania).

Thanks to Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell for her assistance and inspiration for this post, and for peering at Mrs. Morris's portrait with me last week at the Second Bank Portrait Gallery. For more 18thc French fashion, check out Kimberly's splendid fashion history, Fashion Victims (Yale University Press.)

Above: Mary White Morris by Charles Willson Peale, c1782, National Park Service Museums.
Below: Detail, Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français. 39e Cahier des Costumes Français, 10e Suite des Coeffures à la mode en 1783. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Ann Marie said...

Awesome post! The irony that the French support of the new United States was a factor in the fall of the French aristocracy is tragic and reflects how close that world's countries were with one another. Please show other posts that reflect the changes in fashion between the two countries that were allies.

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