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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 Lin-
coln 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." 2

The most famous or most dignified of colonial gentle-

2 Page 76.



Colonial Woman and Dress 155

men 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 repeaPd, 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. . . ." 3

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." 4

» Smyth: Writings of B. Franklin, Vol. IV, p. 449.
*Ibid: Vol. III. p. 431.



156 Woman's Life in Colonial Days

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. . . ." 5

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 Dia-
monds. . . ." 6

Abigail Adams also has left us rather detailed descrip-
tions of her dresses prepared for various special occa-
sions. 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 c&st 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

« Ibid: Vol. III. p. 419.
« Ibid: Vol. Ill, p. 438.



Colonial Woman and Dress 157

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 an-
other 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." 7

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." 8

It is apparent that no large amount of Puritanical
scruples about fine array had passed over into eighteenth

7 Letters of A. Adams, p. 282.

8 Letters of A. Adams, p. 250.



158 Woman's Life in Colonial Days

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 cloth-
ing 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." 9

III. Raillery and Scolding

Of course, the colonial man found woman's dress a
subject for jest; what man has not? Certainly in
America the custom is of long standing. Old Nathaniel
Ward, writing in 1647 in his Simple Cobbler of Aggawam,
declares: " It is a more common than convenient say-
ing that nine tailors make a man; it were well if nine-
teen could make a woman to her mind. If tailors were
men indeed well furnished, but with more moral princi-
ples, they would disdain to be led about like apes by
such mimic marmosets. It is a most unworthy thing
for men that have bones in them to spend their lives in
making fiddle-cases for futilous women's fancies; which
are the very pettitoes of infirmity, the giblets of per-
quisquilian toys. ... It is no little labor to be continu-

* Wharton: Martha Washington, p. 227.



Colonial Woman and Dress 159

ally putting up English women into outlandish casks;
who if they be not shifted anew once in a few months
grow too sour for their husbands. . . . He that makes
coats for the moon had need take measure every noon,
and he that makes for women, as often to keep them
from lunacy."

Indeed Ward becomes genuinely excited over the
matter, and says some really bitter things: " I shall
make bold for this once to borrow a little of their long-
waisted but short-skirted patience. ... It is beyond
the ken of my understanding to conceive, how those
women should have any true grace, or valuable virtue,
that have so little wit as to disfigure themselves with such
exotic garbes, as not only dismantle their native lovely
lustre, but transclouts them into gant-bar-geese, ill
shapen-shotten-shell-fish, Egyptian Hyeroglyphics, or at
the best French flirts of the pastery, which a proper
English woman should scorn with her heels. ..."

The raillery became more frequent and certainly much
more good-natured in the eighteenth century. Philip
Fithian, a Virginia tutor, writing in 1773, said in his
Diary: " Almost every Lady wears a red Cloak; and
when they ride out they tye a red handkerchief over
their Head and face, so that when I first came into
Virginia, I was distressed whenever I saw a Lady, for 1
thought she had the toothache.

In fact, the subject sometimes inspired the men to
poetry, as may be seen from the following specimen :

" Young ladies, in town, and those that live 'round,
Let a friend at this season advise you;
Since money's so scarce, and times growing worse,
Strange things may soon hap and surprise you.



160 Woman's Life in Colonial Days

" First, then, throw aside your topknots of pride,
Wear none but your own country linen,
Of Economy boast, let your pride be the most,
To show clothes of your own make and spinning.

" What if home-spun, they say, is not quite so gay,
As brocades, yet be not in a passion,
For when once it is known, this is much worn in town,
One and all will cry out — ' 'Tis the fashion.'

" Throw aside your Bohea and your Green Hyson tea,
And all things with a new-fashion duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Laborador
For there'll soon be enough here to suit you.

" These do without fear, and to all you'll appear
Fair, charming, true, lovely, and clever,
Tho' the times remain darkish, young men may be sparkish,
And love you much stronger than ever." 10

A perusal of extracts from newspapers of those days
makes it clear that a good many men were of the opinion
that more simplicity in dress would indeed make women
" fair, charming, true, lovely, and clever." The Essex
Journal of Massachusetts of the late eighteenth century,
commenting upon the follies common to " females "
— vanity, affectation, talkativeness, etc., — adds the
following remarks on dress: "Too great delight in
dress and finery by the expense of time and money which
they occasion in some instances to a degree beyond all
bounds of decency and common sense, tends naturally
to sink a woman to the lowest pitch of contempt amongst
all those of either sex who have capacity enough to put
two thoughts together. A creature who spends its

10 Buckingham: Reminiscences, Vol. I, p. 34.



Colonial Woman and Dress 161

whole time in dressing, prating, gaming, and gadding,
is a being — originally indeed of the rational make,
but who has sunk itself beneath its rank, and is to be
considered at present as nearly on a level with the
monkey species. . . ."

Even pamphlets and small books were written on the
subject by ireful male citizens, and the publisher of the
Boston News Letter braved the wrath of womankind by
inserting the following advertisement in his paper:
" Just published and Sold by the Printer hereof, HOOP
PETTICOATS, Arraigned and condemned by the Light
of Nature and Law of God." 11 Many a scribbler hiding
behind some Latin pen name, such as Publicus, poured
forth in those earry papers his spleen concerning woman's
costume. Thus in 1726 the New England Weekly
Journal published a series of essays on the vanities of
females, and the writer evidently found much relief in
delivering himself on those same hoop skirts: " I shall
not busy myself with the ladies' shoes and stockings at
all, but I can't so easily pass over the Hoop when 'tis
in my way, and therefore I must beg pardon of my fair
readers if I begin my attack here. 'Tis now some years
since this remarkable fashion made a figure in the world
and from its first beginning divided the public opinion
as to its convenience and beauty. For my part I was
always willing to indulge it under some restrictions:
that is to say if 'tis not a rival to the dome of St. Paul's
to incumber the way, or a tub for the residence of a new
Diogenes. If it does not eclipse too much beauty
above or discover too much below. In short, I am for
living in peace, and I am afraid a fine lady with too much

11 Buckingham, Vol. I, p. 88.



162 Woman's Life in Colonial Days

liberty in this particular would render my own imagina-
tion an enemy to my repose."

Perhaps, however, in this particular instance, men had
some excuse for their tirade; it may have come as a
matter of self-preservation. We can more readily
understand their feelings when we learn the size of the
cause of it. In October, 1774, after Margaret Hutchin-
son had been presented at the Court of St. James, she
wrote her sister: " We called for Mrs. Keene, but found
that one coach would not contain more than two such
mighty hoops; and papa and Mr. K. were obliged to go
in another coach."

But hoops and bonnets and other extravagant forms
of dress were not the only phases of woman's adorn-
ment that startled the men and fretted their souls.
The very manner in which the ladies wore their hair
caused their lords and masters to run to the news-
paper with a fresh outburst of contempt. In 1731 some
Massachusetts citizen with more wrath than caution
expressed himself thus: "I come now to the Head
Dress — the very highest point of female eloquence,
and here I find such a variety of modes, such a medley
of decoration, that 'tis hard to know where to fix, lace
and cambrick, gauze and fringe, feathers and ribbands,
create such a confusion, occasion such frequent changes
that it defies art, judgement, or taste to recommend
them to any standard, or reduce them to any order.
That ornament of the hair which is styled the Horns,
and has been in vogue so long, was certainly first calcu-
lated by some good-natured lady to keep her spouse in
countenance." 12

« Buckingham, Vol. I, p. 115.



Colonial Woman and Dress 163

This last statement proved too much; it was the
straw that broke the camel's back; even the meek colo-
nial women could not suffer this to go unanswered. In
the next number of the same paper appeared the follow-
ing, written probably by some high-spirited dame:
" You seem to blame us for our innovations and fleeting
fancy in dress which you are most notoriously guilty of,
who esteem yourselves the mighty, wise, and head of
the species. Therefore, I think it highly necessary that
you show us the example first, and begin the reformation
among yourselves, if you intend your observations shall
have any with us. I leave the world to judge whether
our petticoat resembles the dome of St. Paul's nearer
than you in your long coats do the Monument. You
complain of our masculine appearance in our riding
habits, and indeed we think it is but reasonable that we
should make reprisals upon you for the invasion of our
dress and figure, and the advances you make in effemi-
nency, and your degeneracy from the figure of man.
Can there be a more ridiculous appearance than to see a
smart fellow within the compass of five feet immersed in
a huge long coat to his heels with cuffs to the arm pits,
the shoulders and breast fenced against the inclemencies
of the weather by a monstrous cape, or rather short
cloak, shoe toes, pointed to the heavens in imitation of
the Lap-landers, with buckles of a harnass size? I confess
the beaux with their toupee wigs make us extremely
merry, and frequently put me in mind of my favorite
monkey both in figure and apishness, and were it not for
a reverse of circumstances, I should be apt to mistake
it for Pug, and treat him with the same familiarity." 13

"Ibid.



164 Woman's Life in Colonial Days

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 Chastel-
lux'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." 14

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, particu-

" Vol. II, p. 115.



Colonial Woman and Dress 165

larly 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, Washing-
ton 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, hand-
some egrettes of different sorts, and one pair of pack
thread stays. . ." 15

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 enor-
mous 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

"Wharton: Martha Washington, p. 59.



166 Woman's Life in Colonial Days

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, 4 pair plain Spanish shoes,
8 pair White Kid gloves, 2 pair calf shoes,

2 pair coloured kid gloves, 1 mask,

2 pair worsted hose, 1 fan,

3 pair thread hose, 1 necklace,

1 pair silk shoes laced, 1 Girdle and buckle,

1 pair morocco shoes, 1 piece fashionable calico,

1 Hoop Coat, 4 yards ribbon for knots,

1 Hat, If yd. Cambric,

1 mantua and coat of lute-string." 18

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." 17
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

u Quoted in Earle: Home Life in Colonial Days, p. 290.
l 'Earle: Home Life in Colonial Days, p. 291.



Colonial Woman and Dress 167

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 Phila-
delphia 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." 18

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 occa-
sions 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." 19
Such finery was not limited to the ruling classes of the
land; a Boston printer of the days immediately follow-
ing the Revolution appeared in a costume that surpassed

18 Wharton: Through Colonial Doorways, p. 89.
>» Wharton: M. Washington, p. 225.



168 Woman's Life in Colonial Days

the most startling that Boston of our times could dis-
play. " 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." 20

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 advan-
tage the pearly white and delicate rose tints of that
complexion which constituted the chief beauty of
Dolly Todd." 21 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 fete or festival known as the " Meschianza,"


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