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II. Contemporary Descriptions

The result is that we find more references to dress in the eighteenth century than in the previous one. The colonists had become more prosperous, a little more worldly, and certainly far less afraid of the wrath of God and the judges. As travel to Europe became safer and more common, visitors brought new fashions, and provincialism in manner, style, and costume became much less apparent. Madame Knight, who wrote an account of her journey from Boston to New York in 1704, has left some record of dress in the different colonies. Of the country women in Connecticut she says: "They are very plain in their dress, throughout all the colony, as I saw, and follow one another in their modes; that you may know where they belong, especially the women, meet them where you will." And see her description of the dress of the Dutch women of New York: "The English go very fashionable in their dress. But the Dutch, especially the middling sort, differ from our women in their habit, go loose, wear French muches, which are like a cap and a head band in one, leaving their ears bare, which are set out with jewels of a large size, and many in number; and their fingers hooked with rings, some with large stones in them of many colors, as were their pendants in their ears, which you should see very old women wear as well as young."

As Mrs. Knight was so observant of how others dressed, let us take a look at her own costume, as described in Brooks' _Dames and Daughters of Colonial Days_: "Debby looked with curious admiring eyes at the new comer's costume, the scarlet cloak and little round cap of Lincoln green, the puffed and ruffled sleeves, the petticoat of green-drugget cloth, the high heeled leather shoes, with their green ribbon bows, and the riding mask of black velvet which Debby remembered to have heard, only ladies of the highest gentility wore."[129]

The most famous or most dignified of colonial gentlemen were not above commenting upon woman's dress. Old Judge Sewall mingled with his accounts of courts, weddings, and funerals such items as: "Apr. 5, 1722. My Wife wore her new Gown of sprig'd Persian." Again, we note the philosopher-statesman, Franklin, discoursing rather fluently to his wife about dress, and, from what we glean, he seems to have been pretty well informed on matters of style. Thus in 1766 he wrote: "As the Stamp Act is at length repeal'd, I am willing you should have a new Gown, which you may suppose I did not send sooner, as I knew you would not like to be finer than your neighbours, unless in a Gown of your own spinning. Had the trade between the two Countries totally ceas'd, it was a Comfort to me to recollect, that I had once been cloth'd from Head to Foot in Woolen and Linnen of my Wife's Manufacture, that I never was prouder of any Dress in my Life, and that she and her Daughter might do it again if it was necessary.... Joking apart, I have sent you a fine Piece of Pompadore Sattin, 14 Yards, cost 11 shillings a Yard; a silk Negligee and Petticoat of brocaded Lutestring for my dear Sally, with two dozen Gloves...."[130]

A letter dated from London, 1758, reads: ... "I send also 7 yards of printed Cotton, blue Ground, to make you a Gown. I bought it by Candle-Light, and lik'd it then, but not so well afterwards. If you do not fancy it, send it as a present from me to sister Jenny. There is a better Gown for you, of flower'd Tissue, 16 yards, of Mrs. Stevenson's Fancy, cost 9 Guineas and I think it a great Beauty. There was no more of the sort or you should have had enough for a Negligee or Suit."[131]

And again: "Had I been well, I intended to have gone round among the shops and bought some pretty things for you and my dear, good Sally (whose little hands you say eased your headache) to send by this ship, but I must now defer it to the next, having only got a crimson satin cloak for you, the newest fashion, and the black silk for Sally; but Billy sends her a scarlet feather, muff, and tippet, and a box of fashionable linen for her dress...."[132]

He sends her also in 1758 "a newest fashion'd white Hat and Cloak and sundery little things, which I hope will get safe to hand. I send a pair of Buckles, made of French Paste Stones, which are next in Lustre to Diamonds...."[133]

Abigail Adams also has left us rather detailed descriptions of her dresses prepared for various special occasins. Thus, after being presented at the English Court, she wrote home: "Your Aunt then wore a full dress court cap without the lappets, in which was a wreath of white flowers, and blue sheafs, two black and blue flat feathers, pins, bought for Court, and a pair of pearl earings, the cost of them--no matter what--less than diamonds, however. A sapphire blue demi-saison with a satin stripe, sack and petticoat trimmed with a broad black lace; crape flounce, & leave made of blue ribbon, and trimmed with white floss; wreaths of black velvet ribbon spotted with steel beads, which are much in fashion, and brought to such perfection as to resemble diamonds; white ribbon also in the van dyke style, made up of the trimming, which looked very elegant, a full dress handkerchief, and a bouquet of roses.... Now for your cousin: A small, white leghorn hat, bound with pink satin ribbon; a steel buckle and band which turned up at the side, and confined a large pink bow; large bow of the same kind of ribbon behind; a wreath of full-blown roses round the crown, and another of buds and roses within side the hat, which being placed at the back of the hair brought the roses to the edge; you see it clearly; one red and black feather, with two white ones, compleated the head-dress. A gown and coat of chamberi gauze with a red satin stripe over a pink waist, and coat flounced with crape, trimmed with broad point and pink ribbon; wreaths of roses across the coat; gauze sleeves and ruffles."[134]

Although it is absolutely impossible for a man to form the picture, this sounds as though it were elegant. Again she writes: "Cousin's dress is white, ... like your aunts, only differently trimmed and ornamented; her train being wholly of white crape, and trimmed with white ribbon; the petticoat, which is the most showy part of the dress, covered and drawn up in what are called festoons, with light wreaths of beautiful flowers; the sleeves white crape, drawn over silk, with a row of lace round the sleeve near the shoulder, another half way down the arm, and a third upon the top of the ruffle, a little flower stuck between; a kind of hat-cap, with three large feathers, and a bunch of flowers; a wreath of flowers upon the hair."[135]

It is apparent that no large amount of Puritanical scruples about fine array had passed over into eighteenth century America. Whether in New England, the Middle Colonies, or the South, the natural longing of woman for ornamentation and beautiful adornment had gained supremacy, and from the records we may judge that some ladies of those days expended an amount on clothing not greatly out of proportion with the amount spent to-day by the well-to-do classes. For instance, in Philadelphia, we find a Miss Chambers adorned as follows: "On this evening, my dress was white brocade silk, trimmed with silver, and white silk high-heeled shoes, embroidered with silver, and a light-blue sash with silver and tassel, tied at the left side. My watch was suspended at the right, and my hair was in its natural curls. Surmounting all was a small white hat and white ostrich feather, confined by brilliant band and buckle."[136]