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We Were What We Wore
Fashion once expressed America’s class distinctions. But it doesn’t any more.
December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
A Chicago judge ruled in 1908 that a nightgown was a luxury, not a necessity, and thereupon issued a restraining order forbidding an eighteen-year-old girl from buying one against her father’s wishes. “The only possible use of a nightgown,” the judge explained, “is to keep off flies and mosquitoes, and the bedclothes will do just as well.” The father testified: “She never wore a nightgown in her life, and neither did her parents. She’s been associating with nifty people, that’s the trouble with her.” Clearly, as recently as this century, all Americans did not enjoy freedom of dress.
By the 1920s, however, production and distribution of ready-to-wear clothing had reached a stage that enabled most men and women to dress stylishly at moderate cost. As a Midwestern businessman observed, "1 used to be able to tell something about the background of a girl applying for a job as a stenographer by her clothes, but today I often have to wait till she speaks, shows a gold tooth or otherwise gives me a second clew.” This egalitarian confusion of class distinctions would seem to reflect the ideals of the early Republic, but in fact, it had evolved only gradually. For much of our history, according to Claudia Kidwell, the head curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Costume Division, “Clothing’s most pervading function has been to declare status.” From the beginning Americans have loved fine clothes. In 1676 Hannah Lyman and thirty-five other young women of Northampton, Massachusetts, were arrested for overdressing—specifically for wearing hoods. A defiant Hannah appeared in court in the offending garment and was censured and fined on the spot for “wearing silk in a fflonting manner, in an offensive way. . . .” Along with their style of dress, the colonists had brought from England laws like the 1621 Virginia resolution to “supress excess in cloaths” and to prevent anyone but high government officials from wearing “gold in their cloaths.”
Declaring its “utter detestation and dislike” of men and women of “mean condition, education and calling” who would wear the “garb of gentlemen,” the Massachusetts General Court in 1639 particularly prohibited Puritans of low estate from wearing “immoderate great breeches, knots of riban, silk roses, double ruffles and capes.” Women of low rank were forbidden silk hoods and scarves, as well as short sleeves “whereby the nakedness of the arms may be discovered"— the daring new fashion popular among the upper classes.
Washington loved fine clothes and felt the dignity of a new nation depended to a degree on the appearance of its leaders.
Such legislation hardly seems to have been necessary for the somber Puritans of popular imagery. Yet rich, elegant, and stylish clothing was as important to New England merchants as it was to Virginia cavaliers or to the good dames of New Amsterdam. Although the Puritan Church did in fact preach simplicity of dress, it was widely ignored by a flock that counted fine clothing as an outward sign of God’s favor. Eventually the laws attempting to dictate dress in the American colonies proved unenforceable and were abandoned.
This meant that for New Englanders of means, plain and dull-colored dress was not among the hardships of the New World. Bills and inventories record “pinck hose,” “green sleeves,” “a Scarlet petticoat with Silver Lace.” One Massachusetts governor was noted for the gold-fringed gloves he wore, and another ordered several dozen scarlet coats to be sent to him from England.
Shipping lists, portraits, advertisements, court records, and tailors’ bills give evidence of the fashion ties that bound prosperous American colonists to their counterparts overseas. Norwich garters—decorative ornaments worn by Sir Walter Raleigh—came over on the Mayflower, and a Madame Padishal of Plymouth, Massachusetts, posed for her portrait in a low-necked black velvet gown with a lace whisk to cover her bare neck, the latest court fashion in France.
Class distinctions had not been left on Old World shores, and fashion was clear evidence of social standing. Affluent American settlers eagerly sought news of style changes in Europe.
Margaret Winthrop, the wife of the governor of Massachusetts, insisted on “the civilest fashion now in use” when she ordered gowns from John Smith, the family tailor in London. But at that distance even personal tailoring could not guarantee good fit, as Smith made clear in a letter accompanying a coat for the governor: “Good Mr. Winthrop, I have, by Mr. Downing’s directions sent you a coat. . . . For the fittness I am a little vncerteyne, but if it be too bigg or too little it is esie to amend, vnder the arme to take in or let out the lyning; the outside may be let out in the gathering or taken in also without any prejudice.”
Not all clothing in colonial America, however, was made by a tailor. Elegantly dressed ladies or gentlemen in silks and brocades from London were outnumbered by craftsmen in leather aprons, female servants in simple petticoats and jackets and the men in livery, seamen and farmers coming to market in homespun trousers, and, in the South, slaves in hand-me-downs. A person’s clothing indelibly marked an eighteenth-century man or woman.