The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America

By Kate Haulman | Go to book overview

3
Country Modes
CULTURAL POLITICS AND
POLITICAL RESISTANCE

During the spring of 1766, Robert R. Livingston, a lawyer and member of the prominent Livingston clan of New York, took on the persona of a wife in a piece of satire he likely intended for publication. The “letter,” a missive from a woman in the city to her husband in the country, gave the following “melancholy account” of the social scene in New York in the wake of agreements among local merchants and retailers not to import English goods. Livingston’s female narrator complained that the town’s beaux, “whose brains like their hearts” she regarded as “too much devoted to nothing ever to have suffered any idea … but such as we or their glass inspired,” had become “so infiltrated with politicks” that she scarcely ever heard “a clever thing said (unless indeed by the gentlemen of the army).” The fashionable men of New York engaged only in the “tedious recital of the cabals of the statements in the ministry, the downfall of liberty, and a thousand other such insignificant subjects,” she complained. Furthermore, the “lady” lamented, turning to her own “sex,” the women had become “so infatuated with this modest dulness that many are resolved to resign the charms of dress and let a horrible homespun covering (which can become none but a country wench) take the place of rich brocade.” Although she had repeatedly attempted to convince her cohort that “womans better part is dress and that their empire depends upon it,” she feared she would not be able to prevent the wholesale rejection of imported finery. “Must we in nothing be distinguished from meer country dowdies?” she queried. If her husband visited her in the city, she concluded, he would find her “shrowded in a cloud … of filthy homespun and homeweave cambrick which it is resolved we must wear because forsooth it is of our own manufacture.”1

Appropriating the voice of a woman of fashion, one who was living it up in the city, away from her husband, Livingston pitted high- minded masculinity against mindless, foppish effeminacy, and domestic, “country” womanhood versus urbane, artificial femininity. He did this to serve a political

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