I'm sure it's no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog that one of the things I enjoy about writing books set in the past is the clothes. My next book, I, Eliza Hamilton, covers about thirty years, from 1777 to 1804, and what a period for clothes!
As a wealthy young woman and then the wife of a prominent lawyer and statesman (who wasn't above being something of a male peacock himself), my heroine Eliza's wardrobe follows the fashions of the day, from dresses worn over whalebone-stiffened stays and hoops with powdered hair to the airy high-waisted dresses of the early 19thc. It must have been quite an evolution, but it was one that she embraced. As her even-more-fashionable sister Angelica Schuyler Church wrote as the closing of a letter in 1794: "Adieu my dear Sister yours with all my heart. Remember that your waist must be short, your petticoats long, your headdress moderately high, and altogether a la Grec...." Words to live by, indeed.
But not all American women (or statesmen's wives) were so eager to follow the latest trends. In 1800, Abigail Smith Adams was the First Lady, her husband John serving the final year of his term as president in the then-capitol of Philadelphia. Ladies there were quick to follow the latest fashions from Paris, but Abigail was having none of it. She had recently read an article (probably something of a sermon) by a lay preacher who "thinks there are some Ladies in this city, who stand in need of admonition, and I fully agree with him." Does she ever: here's more of her commentary in a letter written to her sister Mary Smith Cranch:
"The Stile of Dress...is really an outrage upon all decency. I will describe it as it has appeared even at the drawing Room - a Sattin petticoat of certainly not more than three breadths gored at the top, nothing beneath but a chimise over this thin coat, of muslin...made so strait before as perfectly to show the whole form, the arms naked almost to the shoulder and without stays or Bodice...and the "rich Luxurience of naturs Charms" without a handkerchief fully displayed...when this Lady has been led up to make her curtzey, which she does most gracefully it is true, every Eye in the Room has been fixed upon her and you might litterally see through her....[Most of the other ladies also] wear their Cloaths too scant upon the body, and too full upon the Bosom for my fancy, not content with the Show which nature bestows, they borrow from art, and litterally look like Nursing Mothers....The Lady described & her Sister, being fine women and in the first Rank, are leaders of the fashion, but they Show more of the [word illegible] than the decent Matron or the modest woman."
In fairness to Abigail, there's probably more going on here than fashion alone. This era marked the beginning of the two-party system in American politics. Her husband John was a Federalist; the opposing party, led by Thomas Jefferson, was the Democratic-Republican Party. One of the issues dividing the two parties was the French Revolution. The Federalists abhorred the violence, chaos, and breakdown of traditional government of the Terror, while the Democratic-Republicans believed the Jacobins were simply following the precedent of the American Revolution, and the bloodshed of the guillotine was unfortunate but necessary. At the time, America was also engaged in an undeclared naval war with France, the aptly-named Quasi-War.
The unstructured, classically inspired fashions from Paris might be the latest style, but to Abigail they likely were also the clothes of the Jacobins and the French Revolution. This was a political fashion statement that she'd no wish to approve, let alone wear herself.
It's also difficult to know exactly how far the American ladies were willing to follow the French. The English fashion plate for April 1800, right, seems modest enough, and so does the portrait, lower left, of Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis (Sally Foster), whose husband was a Federalist congressman. But then there's this portrait, upper left, of a now-unknown French woman dressed in the most extreme (and extremely revealing) version of the style.
Above left: Detail, Portrait of a Young Woman in White by Circle of Jacques-Louis David, c1798, National Gallery of Art. Right: Full Dress for April, 1800, anonymous fashion plate. Lower left: Detail, Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis (Sally Foster) by Gilbert Stuart, c1805, Reynolda House Museum of Art.
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.