The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America

By Kate Haulman | Go to book overview

2
Fops and Coquettes
GENDER, SEXUALITY, AND STATUS

Stopping in Staten Island along his journey from Maryland to Boston in 1744, Dr. Alexander Hamilton observed, almost without irony, that the gray moss that hung heavily from the trees might “if handsomely oild and powdered and tyed behind with a bag or ribbon make a tollerable beau- periwig.” Ever casting a keen eye toward things genteel (or just as often ungenteel), Hamilton knew a thing or two about the styling of wigs, preeminent markers of status and masculine identity for men in eighteenth- century British America. Yet he did not limit his observations to the adornment of trees, always having much to say about the physical appearances of the people he encountered. Hamilton was unsparing in his critiques, his journal a veritable compendium of mid- eighteenth- century fashion dos and don’ts.1

In particular, the doctor clearly considered himself to be a connoisseur of women, seldom missing a chance to comment on their looks and taking particular notice of their dress. For instance, he found the ladies of Albany “ugly” and the Dutch women he encountered there clad in a “comicall headdress” and “short petticoats.” By contrast, the pretty, well- dressed women he observed in the cities of Philadelphia, Newport, New York, and Boston looked more to his liking. There was the lady of “masculine make” who was dressed à la mode, which would have meant wide skirts supported by panniers, or side hoops intended to display sumptuous fabric. Hamilton juxtaposed this woman’s physiology and perhaps demeanor against the modish feminine fashion. He identified a “coquette” by way of her “gay tawdry dishabille” consisting of a “robe de chambre of cherry coloured silk laced with silver round the sleeves and skirts.”2 Hamilton’s description of a flirtatious young lady sporting a fashionable red chamber robe (or bed gown) adorned with sparkly trim and worn without a hoop or stays presents the very picture of a loose woman. From Hamilton’s elite Anglo- American male perspective, clothes made the woman or rather, various types of women, as he utilized a gendered social taxonomy defined by modes of dress.

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