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Fashion as a political statement in the American Republic

Authored by Abigail Field
Published on 24th March, 2021 16 min read

Fashion as a political statement in the American Republic

Fashion as a political statement is a concept one generally associated with the  20th and 21st centuries, despite the practical knowledge that this could not possibly be true. Dressing deliberately for the sake of politics has far reaching roots, in fact, Plutarch wrote that Cato the Younger wore black explicitly to be contrarian as he saw his beloved republic devolving under emperors. Culture has never, and shall never, exist in a vacuum; changes in social structure, the economy, technology, and so on affect the material culture of wherever these changes touch. One of the most conspicuous examples of material culture, and that which most strikingly displays these changes, is clothing. Clothing has been used as a means through which a person’s place in society might be denoted; it indicated nationality, religion, rank, class, and gender. It served, and still does serve, to aid in one of the most basic of human goals – reproduction – by enhancing the wearer’s sexuality. It should come as no surprise then that the subject of what people, specifically women, wear has been a topic of great and heated debate throughout history.

One should distinguish between “fashion” as a very separate pursuit, compared simply to what people wear on their person. Fashion, more often than not, reflects the changes a society experiences; it is what is “on trend”, innovative, and a symbol of status. Fashion is just downwind of culture, philosophy, and economics. One can observe, track, and analyze changes throughout history as reflected in the fashionable dress. Fashion, then, was a very urban pursuit throughout much of history, and in a sense, can still be said to be so today. In late 18th century America, the period in which the bulk of this article shall pertain, there was of course no railroad, and therefore ideas – be they fashion, philosophy, technology, or otherwise – were disseminated far more slowly. Therefore, women in rural areas received word about different trends at a far slower rate than their urban counterparts. Furthermore, wealth generally was concentrated in cities where commerce was strongest. With this concentration of commerce came the concentration of the availability of goods and services, and thusly, the concentration of fashionable dress. In the case of late 18th century America, it was Philadelphia, with its excellent hinterlands, easy access to waterways, and vast potential for urban growth, that was an ideal center of commerce, and hence, fashion. The seat of the burgeoning American Republic, 18th century Philadelphia was the focal point of immense cultural change, political turmoil, and proto-class struggle which was heavily reflected in the fashion. Revolutionary fervor and relatively easy access to goods would establish it as a fashion capital for the early American Republic, both during the Revolution and in its aftermath. 

The reader should note that as previously stated, the fashion change did not happen without at least some influence from the textiles themselves. Take, for example, these two gowns from the 1760s: one from the MET Museum (right) and the other from the National Museum of Scotland (left).

These gowns are cut on the same lines; they both have sleeves cut and set the same way (albeit, the yellow one has the extra flounces at the cuffs), are both cut as open front gowns with bodices that fit tightly over a pair of stays, and both have skirts that are cut separately from the bodice and sewn to the waistband with pleats. Yet, clearly, beyond the ornamentation and color, they are very different gowns. The printed dress has a more relaxed look to it whereas the yellow gown is far more structured. This is due in large part to the fibers themselves. Cotton fibers are much softer and twist around themselves, whereas silk fibers lend themselves more to structure as they are flatter and twist less. This certainly aided in the change in popular dress since cotton gained in popularity alongside the shift in cultural mores. 

A congressman, Arthur Lee, of Virginia lamented in 1783 that Philadelphia had broken “suddenly loose from the simplicity of Quaker manners, dress and fashion”, adding woefully that the Philadelphians were affected by “the vanity and nonsense… of French parade.” [1] Incidentally, this Virginian Congressman was somewhat behind the times. By the early 1770s, Philadelphia had already established itself as the largest, and most refined, fashionable city in the American colonies. The stratification between socioeconomic groups had become increasingly wide, and it was the most prominent of the colonial cities by way of the conspicuous consumption and high style of those people living within its bounds. Philadelphia’s dual identity both as a cultural and political center resulted in it serving as the battleground for many “cultural wars that responded to and produced the revolutionary contest.” [2] The fact that the city was such a locus of ideological conflict and cultural change, coupled with its geographical convenience, meant that its place as the location for the seat of the Continental Congress of 1774, and later the new Republic, was relatively unsurprising. 

More unsurprising still was the fair amount of conflict swirling around the topic of dress in the city. On the one hand, it was the center for republican thought, but on the other, it was also where wealth, and by extension, loyalty to the Crown, was centered. This duality was evident in the way its inhabitants dressed; fashion lay at the direct center of the debate between “tireless logic of signs of power, brilliant symbols of domination and social difference”, and republican simplicity.[3] The Tories who supported the rule of the English King deliberately wore French and Italian-influenced fashion of lavish silk, trims, and high-roll hairstyles, and this choice was not based in mere frivolity. Colonial Philadelphian fashion “could not only visually establish, but also undermine social hierarchy”, and the clothing should therefore be evaluated as such.

In late 18th century Philadelphia, there was a fixation and hearty disgust for Tory men’s fashion by Whig men. It was deemed “too feminine”, but the real issue lay in what it represented. Its immorality lay not in its similarity to women’s fashion – as this similarity had been a centuries-old tradition – but rathein its ties to British colonialism. By deeming it “too feminine”, Whig men were able to re-contextualize an obvious, yet accepted, moral flaw. It served a dual purpose by insulting the Tory men themselves as well as the British empire. Tory men’s fashion could be argued to represent the “masculine” British international power of colonial commerce and control, as the goods needed to create such elaborate garments required a strong British empire and commercial fleet, as well as control over the production of materials like silk. However, Tory men were presented as feminine by Whigs with the aim of undermining British power and influence in the global sphere. Fashion as a concept thusly was placed into the “province of women”, since it was associated with stereotypically “feminine” qualities like unpredictability and fickleness, regardless of the fact that it was pursued by both men and women.[4]

But Whigs nonetheless succeeded in their quest to convince others of the Tory men’s lack of masculinity. It was these men, they claimed, who projected the questionable aspects of fashion, such as vanity, appetite, fickleness, and unpredictability. By extension, the Tories, and the king to whom they were loyal, were also morally questionable. Fashionable male dress did not display enough of a distinction between men and woman, according to Whigs. Fashionable male dress, as imported from Europe, was indeed comprised of the same elements as women’s: bright colors, feminine motifs (like florals), fine fabric, and lace and ruffles. It starkly contrasted with the Whig men who, upon the outbreak of armed conflict, had quickly adopted a far more militaristic fashion that was at once recognizable as masculine, patriotic, and impressive; it managed to fulfill both the outward displays of republican virtue and served as an antithesis to the “foppish” Tory men.[5] 

In contrast, a fashionable Tory woman’s focus was on silhouette. By the 1770s, large pocket hoops had fallen out of fashion, albeit later in America than across the pond. The skirts’ volume instead became focused in the rear via the use of padding, and a rounded pigeon bust became the mode, which was achieved through the use of boned stays and starched fichus. Even so, the supreme feature of a fashionable Tory woman was not what she wore on her body, but how she styled her hair. The hair was done elaborately and very tall by a hairdresser in a process that often took hours. Many Whigs joked that Tory women’s heads were “now in the middle of (their) body” due to the sheer height of the hair.[6] The styles would hold for weeks, but had to be dusted daily with flour. This caused an immense amount of tension between the wealthy and common people. At a time when crops were failing and people were going hungry, at least in Europe, the idea of the rich dusting their hair with a source of food surely must have seemed like callous indifference, and perhaps it was. Though America had successful hinterlands better suited at keeping her populace fed, the people in the colonies were far more socially connected to Europe than Americans are today. With so many emigrating to America to escape the problems of Europe, only to be met with American elites dusting their hair with flour in the same way the elites back home had done, must have seemed absurd, regardless of the availability of food. Therefore, these high, powdered hairstyles were associated with privileged loyalists.

The perception, however, that only the super-rich Tories wore the highroll style, as in Europe, was not necessarily true. Every Tory woman was not wealthy; her status as a Tory was based only on her belief in the monarchy. Additionally, every Tory woman did not wear a highroll. While the hairstyle was complex, expensive, and took a long time to achieve, this was far more true at English courts. Lower prices resulting from the glut of goods in America, particularly Philadelphia, meant far more women could afford the style. Fashionable clothing and hair had to compete with a number of sought-after items, including everything from fabric to tea, and styles became far more elaborate in conjunction.[7] Regardless, the American highroll became synonymous with immense wealth.                          

© The Trustees of the British Museum

In the etching above, an over-sexualized woman with massive hair sits provocatively as a flamboyantly dressed man, presumably her lover, leans over her, gazing at her bust. This is a satirical plate from 1775 that looks at the popular coiffures of the wealthy women of the period. This particular etching shows a Frenchwoman at her toilette sporting a huge hair arrangement that looks vaguely yonic in nature. On her dressing table, a second style is being arranged by one of her two maids. The discomfort about women’s sexual agency at a time when most hair dressers were men, with whom they would spend long periods of time alone, is reflected in this work. While it is French etching, it mirrors the feelings many had toward Tory women in the American colonies. They often had their virtues called into question because of these long hours with their hairdressers. Obviously wealthy French women, who would suffer in the Revolution just a few years later, and from whom wealthy Tory women drew their inspiration, also were  ridiculed for their highrolls. At a time where women’s agency, especially that of wealthy women, was reduced in large part, save for a lucky few, to conspicuous consumption, it is unsurprising that that is where many men chose to draw satirical inspiration from. Not even women from the past were safe from ridicule. 

These styles were in stark contrast with republican ideals as they pertained to fashion. For every brightly and elaborately dressed Tory, there was a practically and “patriotically” dressed Whig. Good republicans espoused the goal of dressing only in American-produced clothing in a much more austere fashion, and made an effort to boycott fabrics shipped in by British fleets. As early as the late 17th century, American colonists had been eager to successfully produce their own cloth and clothing with an aim of reducing their dependency on British manufactured goods.[8] Naturally, British authorities had aimed at curtailing any development, since a colonial economy is based entirely upon importation to the needy colonists and exportation of their raw materials – an economy that must be predatory in order to survive. In 1705, a British aristocrat had expressed his concern over the colonists’ attempts at self-sufficiency in textile production. He wrote, “If once they see that they can clothe themselves, not only comfortably, but handsomely too, without the help of England, they, who are already not very fond of submitting to government, would soon think of putting in execution designs they had long harbourd (sic) in their breasts.”[9]

In the mezzotint above, two women, one from the time of the illustration and the other from the Elizabethan period, are satirized for their fashion choices. The woman on the left represents fashionable late 18th century women, while the woman on the right represents fashionable Elizabethan women. It is inscribed "LADY TIME PRESENT & LADY TIME PAST | The Wits of Fine Ladies are ne'er at a Fault | If they lose it in meal they get it in malt". By mentioning “malt” the artist is alluding to drunkenness, and perhaps, by extension, loose morals in being “drunk” on frivolity. This print was made by a British artist, who obviously at the time was part of the Empire to whom Tory women were faithful. It is clear that in Britain, even loyal subjects poked at wealthy women’s fashion, yet in the colonies, and specifically Philadelphia, it became a point of loyalty to support wealthy women’s fashion, and one of dissent to ridicule it. 

Revolutionaries championed non-consumption movements and aimed at a self-sufficient textile industry on American soil, yet this proved overall unsuccessful in the attempts at discrediting goods and styles. For the Whigs, this issue arose from the conspicuous consumption of the Tories, and it was Tory women who received the brunt of their ire, despite the fact that the men dressed just as flamboyantly. They were seen as having undermined the Whig boycott, which embarrassed them. It became an issue of the display of disloyalty to the American cause in the very capital of the new nation.[10]

Yet, the American fight was still won, and the Republic gained its independence. Many wealthy Tories who were able fled overseas, like the infamous Margaret Shippen Arnold. The mode in fashionable American cities gained more homogeneity. Whig women had quickly realized that homespun clothing was neither practical nor attractive enough, and remaining Tory women, as well as Whig women, embraced the new, exciting Parisian style that praised the natural figure in a very Grecian manner that complimented the ideals at the foundation of the new Republic. Philadelphian fashion in the first decades of the new nation began to no longer be driven by internal conflict, but instead by global trade, events, philosophy, and industrial progress. 

Bibliography

Cremers-van der Does, Eline Canter. The Agony of Fashion. Translated by Leo Van Witsen. Dorset: Blandford Press, 1980.

Dickerson, Kitty G. Textiles and Apparel in the Global Economy. Third Edition. New Jersey: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Haulman, Kate. “Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia”. The William and Mary Quarterly 62, no. 4 (2005): 625-662.

Footnotes 

[1] Kate Haulman, “Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia”, The William and Mary Quarterly 62, no. 4 (2005), 625. 

[2] Haulman, “Fashion and Culture Wars”, 625. 

[3] Haulman, “Fashion and Culture Wars”, 626. 

[4] Haulman, “Fashion and Culture Wars”, 627. 

[5] Haulman, “Fashion and Culture Wars”, 628. 

[6] Eline Canter Cremers-van der Does, The Agony of Fashion translated by Leo van Witsen (Dorset: Blandford Press, 1980), 61. 

[7] Haulman, “Fashion and Culture Wars”, 637-638. 

[8] Kitty G. Dickerson, Textiles and Apparel in the Global Economy (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999), 29. 

[9] Dickerson, Textiles and Apparel, 33-34. 

[10] Haulman, “Fashion and Culture Wars”, 628.

Image sources

Canary Yellow Silk Dress, Dress (Ca. 1760), 1996.364a-c, Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/79220?searchField=All&sortBy=relevance&ft=1760+yellow&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=8 

Woman’s Indian Cotton Printed Dress Dress, (Ca. 1740-1760), A.1979.111, Fashion and Textiles, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/collection-search-results/?item_id=351133

La Brillante Toilette de la Déesse du Gout, 1775, etching on paper, 28x18.9 cm, The British Museum, London. From: The British Museum http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1335360&partId=1&people=126186&peoA=126186-3-17&page=1 

Adams, Francis E. Lady Time Present and Lady Time Past. 1773. Mezzotint on paper, 33.5x25.3 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven. From: Yale Digital Collections, https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3623564 


Authored by Abigail Field

Abigail Field

Abigail has a degree in history focusing on material culture. She has assisted in the curation and management of the historical societies in both Mattapoisett and Marion Massachusetts, and has conducted research at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. In her day to day life she works at an antique auction company and learns about every object she works with.


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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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