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IV. Extravagance in Dress

To all appearances it was less safe in colonial days for mere man to comment on female attire than at present; for the typical gentlemen before 1800 probably wore as many velvets, brocades, satins, laces, and wigs as any woman of the day or since. Each sex, however, wasted more than enough of both time and money on the matter. Grieve, the translator of Chastellux, the Frenchman who made rather extensive observations in America at the close of the Revolution, says in a footnote to Chastellux's _Travels_: "The rage for dress amongst the women in America, in the very height of the miseries of the war, was beyond all bounds; nor was it confined to the great towns; it prevailed equally on the sea coasts and in the woods and solitudes of the vast extent of country from Florida to New Hampshire. In travelling into the interior parts of Virginia I spent a delicious day at an inn, at the ferry of the Shenandoah, or the Catacton Mountains, with the most engaging, accomplished and voluptuous girls, the daughters of the landlord, a native of Boston transplanted thither, who with all the gifts of nature possessed the arts of dress not unworthy of Parisian milliners, and went regularly three times a week to the distance of seven miles, to attend the lessons of one DeGrace, a French dancing master, who was making a fortune in the country."[141]

Such a statement must not, of course, be taken too seriously; for, as we have seen, many women, such as Mrs. Washington, Abigail Adams, and Eliza Pinckney, were almost parsimonious in dress during the great strife. Doubtless there were many, however, particularly in the cities, who could not or would not restrain their love of finery, especially when so many handsome and gaily uniformed British officers were at hand. But long before and after the Revolution there seems to have been no lack of fashionable clothing. The old diaries and account books tell the tale. Thus, Washington has left us an account of articles ordered from London for his wife. Among these were "a salmon-colored tabby velvet of the enclosed pattern, with satin flowers, to be made in a sack and coat, ruffles to be made of Brussels lace or Point, proper to be worn with the above _negligee_, to cost £20; 2 pairs of white silk hose; 1 pair of white satin shoes of the smallest fives; 1 fashionable hat or bonnet; 6 pairs woman's best kid gloves; 6 pairs mitts; 1 dozen breast-knots; 1 dozen most fashionable cambric pocket handkerchiefs; 6 pounds perfumed powder; a puckered petticoat of fashionable color; a silver tabby velvet petticoat; handsome breast flowers;..." For little Miss Custis was ordered "a coat made of fashionable silk, 6 pairs of white kid gloves, handsome egrettes of different sorts, and one pair of pack thread stays...."[142]

These may seem indeed rather strange gifts for a mere girl; but we should remember that children of that day wore dresses similar to those of their mothers, and such items as high-heeled shoes, heavy stays, and enormous hoop petticoats were not at all unusual. Many things unknown to the modern child were commonly used by the daughters of the wealthier parents, such as long-armed gloves and complexion masks, made of linen or velvet, and sun-bonnets sewed through the hair and under the neck--all this to ward off every ray of the sun, and thus preserve the delicate complexion of childhood.

That we may judge of the quality and quantity of a girl's apparel in those fastidious days, examine this list of clothes sent by Colonel John Lewis of Virginia in 1727 to be used by his ward, in an English school:

  "A cap ruffle and tucker, the lace 5 shillings per yard, 1 pair White Stays, 8 pair White Kid gloves, 2 pair coloured kid gloves, 2 pair worsted hose, 3 pair thread hose, 1 pair silk shoes laced, 1 pair morocco shoes, 1 Hoop Coat, 1 Hat, 4 pair plain Spanish shoes, 2 pair calf shoes, 1 mask, 1 fan, 1 necklace, 1 Girdle and buckle, 1 piece fashionable calico, 4 yards ribbon for knots, 1-1/2 yd. Cambric, 1 mantua and coat of lute-string."[143]

One New England miss, sent to a finishing school at Boston, had twelve silk gowns, but her teacher "wrote home that she must have another gown of a 'recently imported rich fabric,' which was at once bought for her because it was suitable for her rank and station."[144] Even the frugal Ben Franklin saw to it that his wife and daughter dressed as well as the best of them in rich gowns of silk. In the _Pennsylvania Gazette_ of 1750 there appeared the following advertisement: "Whereas on Saturday night last the house of Benjamin Franklin of this city, Printer, was broken open, and the following things feloniously taken away, viz., a double necklace of gold beads, a woman's long scarlet cloak almost new, with a double cape, a woman's gown, of printed cotton of the sort called brocade print, very remarkable, the ground dark, with large red roses, and other large and yellow flowers, with blue in some of the flowers, with many green leaves; a pair of women's stays covered with white tabby before, and dove colour'd tabby behind...."

It seems that in richness of dress Philadelphia led the colonial world, even outrivaling the expenditure of the wealthy Virginia planters for this item. While Philadelphia was the political and social center of the day this extravagance was especially noticeable; but when New York became the capital the Quaker city was almost over-shadowed by the gaiety displayed in dress by the Dutch city. "You will find here the English fashions," says St. John de Crevecoeur. "In the dress of the women you will see the most brilliant silks, gauzes, hats and borrowed hair.... If there is a town on the American continent where English luxury displayed its follies it was in New York."[145]

All the blame, however, must not be placed upon the shoulders of colonial dames. What else could the women do? They felt compelled to make an appearance at least equal to that of the men, and probably Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these men. Even the conservative Washington appeared on state occasions in "black velvet, a silver or steel hilted small sword at his left side, pearl satin waistcoat, fine linen and lace, hair full powdered, black silk hose, and bag."[146] Such finery was not limited to the ruling classes of the land; a Boston printer of the days immediately following the Revolution appeared in a costume that surpassed the most startling that Boston of our times could display. "He wore a pea-green coat, white vest, nankeen small clothes, white silk stockings, and pumps fastened with silver buckles which covered at least half the foot, from instep to toe. His small clothes were tied at the knees with ribbon of the same color in double bows, the ends reaching down to the ankles. His hair in front was well loaded with pomatum, frizzled or craped and powdered. Behind, his natural hair was augmented by the addition of a large queue called vulgarly a false tail, which, enrolled in some yards of black ribbon, hung half way down his back."[147]

Surely this is enough of the men; let us return to the women. See the future Dolly Madison at her first meeting with the "great, little Mr. Madison." She had lived a Quaker during her girlhood, but she grew bravely over it. "Her gown of mulberry satin, with tulle kerchief folded over the bosom, set off to the best advantage the pearly white and delicate rose tints of that complexion which constituted the chief beauty of Dolly Todd."[148] The ladies of the Tory class evidently tried to outshine those of the patriot party, and when there was a British function of any sort,--as was often the case at Philadelphia--the scene was indeed gay, with richly gowned matrons and maids on the arms of English officers, brave with gold lace and gold buttons. One great fête or festival known as the "Meschianza," given at Philadelphia, was so gorgeous a pageant that years afterwards society of the capital talked about it. Picture the costume of Miss Franks of Philadelphia on that occasion: "The dress is more ridiculous and pretty than anything I ever saw--great quantity of different colored feathers on the head at a time besides a thousand other things. The Hair dress'd very high in the shape Miss Vining's was the night we returned from Smiths--the Hat we found in your Mother's Closet wou'd be of a proper size. I have an afternoon cap with one wing--tho' I assure you I go less in the fashion than most of the Ladies--none being dress'd without a hoop...."[149]

And, again, perhaps the modern woman can appreciate the following description of a costume seen at the inaugural ball of 1789: "It was a plain celestial blue satin gown, with a white satin petticoat. On the neck was worn a very large Italian gauze handkerchief, with border stripes of satin. The head-dress was a pouf of satin in the form of a globe, the creneaux or head-piece which was composed of white satin, having a double wing in large pleats and trimmed with a wreath of artificial roses. The hair was dressed all over in detached curls, four of which in two ranks, fell on each side of the neck and were relieved behind by a floating chignon."[150]

Unlike the other first ladies of the day, Martha Washington made little effort toward ostentation, and her plain manner of dress was sometimes the occasion of astonishment and comment on the part of wives of foreign representatives. Says Miss Chambers concerning this contrast between European women and Mrs. Washington, as shown at a birthday ball tendered the President in 1795: "She was dressed in a rich silk, but entirely without ornament, except the animation her amiable heart gives to her countenance. Next her were seated the wives of the foreign ambassadors, glittering from the floor to the summit of their head-dress. One of the ladies wore three large ostrich feathers, her brow encircled by a sparkling fillet of diamonds; her neck and arms were almost covered with jewels, and two watches were suspended from her girdle, and all reflecting the light from a hundred directions."[151]

Nor was this richness of dress among foreign visitors confined to the women. Sally McKean, who became the wife of the Spanish minister to America, wore at one state function, "a blue satin dress, trimmed with white crape and flowers, and petticoat of white crape richly embroidered and across the front a festoon of rose color, caught up with flowers"; but her future husband had "his hair powdered like a snow ball; with dark striped silk coat lined with satin, black silk breeches, white silk stockings, shoes and buckles. He had by his side an elegant hilted small-sword, and his chapeau tipped with white feathers, under his arm."[152]

There were, of course, no fashion plates in that day, nor were there any "living models" to strut back and forth before keen-eyed customers; but fully dressed dolls were imported from France and England, and sent from town to town as examples of properly attired ladies. Eliza Southgate Bowne, after seeing the dolls in her shopping expeditions, wrote to a friend: "Caroline and I went a-shopping yesterday, and 'tis a fact that the little white satin Quaker bonnets, cap-crowns, are the most fashionable that are worn--lined with pink or blue or white--but I'll not have one, for if any of my old acquaintance should meet me in the street they would laugh.... Large sheer-muslin shawls, put on as Sally Weeks wears hers, are much worn; they show the form through and look pretty. Silk nabobs, plaided, colored and white are much worn--very short waists--hair very plain."

Of course, the men of the day, found a good deal of pleasure in poking fun at woman's use of dress and ornaments as bait for entrapping lovers, and many a squib expressing this theory appeared in the newspapers. These cynical notes no more represented the general opinion of the people than do similar satires in the comic sheets of to-day; but they are interesting at least, as showing a long prevailing weakness among men. The following sarcastic advertisement, for instance, was written by John Trumbull:

     "To Be Sold at Public Vendue, The Whole Estate of Isabella Sprightly, Toast and Coquette, (Now retiring from Business)

     "Imprimis, all the tools and utensils necessary for carrying on the trade, viz.: several bundles of darts and arrows well pointed and capable of doing great execution. A considerable quantity of patches, paint, brushes and cosmetics for plastering, painting, and white-washing the face; a complete set of caps, "a la mode a Paris," of all sizes, from five to fifteen inches in height; with several dozens of cupids, very proper to be stationed on a ruby lip, a diamond eye, or a roseate cheek.

     "Item, as she proposes by certain ceremonies to transform one of her humble servants into a husband and keep him for her own use, she offers for sale, Florio, Daphnis, Cynthio, and Cleanthes, with several others whom she won by a constant attendance on business during the space of four years. She can prove her indisputable right thus to dispose of them by certain deeds of gifts, bills of sale, and attestation, vulgarly called love letters, under their own hands and seals. They will be offered very cheap, for they are all of them broken-hearted, consumptive, or in a dying condition. Nay, some of them have been dead this half year, as they declare and testify in the above mentioned writing.

     "N.B. Their hearts will be sold separately."

When all the above implements and wiles failed to entrap a lover, and the coquette was left as a "wall-flower," as the Germans express it, the men of the day satirized the unfortunate one just as mercilessly. Read, for example, a few lines from the _Progress of Dullness_, thought to be a very humorous poem in its time:

    "Poor Harriett now hath had her day; No more the beaux confess her sway; New beauties push her from the stage; She trembles at the approach of age, And starts to view the altered face That wrinkles at her in her glass.

           *       *       *       *       *

    "Despised by all and doomed to meet Her lovers at her rivals' feet, She flies assemblies, shuns the ball, And cries out vanity, on all;

           *       *       *       *       *

    "Now careless grown of airs polite Her noon-day night-cap meets the sight; Her hair uncombed collects together With ornaments of many a feather.

           *       *       *       *       *

    "She spends her breath as years prevail At this sad wicked world to rail, To slander all her sex impromptu, And wonder what the times will come to."

During the earlier years of the seventeenth century, as we have noted, this deprecatory opinion by men concerning woman's garb was not confined to ridicule in journals and books, but was even incorporated into the laws of several towns and colonies. Women were compelled to dress in a certain manner and within fixed financial limits, or suffered the penalties of the courts. Many were the "presentations," as such cases were called, of our colonial ancestors. As material wealth increased, however, dress became more and more elaborate until in the era shortly before and after the Revolution fashions were almost extravagant. Costly satins, silks, velvets, and brocades were among the common items of dress purchased by even the moderately well-to-do city and planter folk. If space permitted, many quotations by travellers from abroad, accustomed to the splendor of European courts, could be presented to show the surprising quality and good taste displayed in the garments of the better classes of the New World. To their honor, however, it may be remembered that these same American women in the days of tribulation when their husbands were battling for a new nation were willing to cast aside such indications of wealth and pride, and don the humble homespun garments made by their own hands.