The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America

By Kate Haulman | Go to book overview

5
A Contest of Modes in
Revolutionary Philadelphia

From the hoop controversies of the early eighteenth century and the sumptuary restrictions of South Carolina’s 1740 slave code to the homespun campaigns and backlash of the 1760s and early 1770s, the port cities of British North America saw continual contests over fashion in dress. Fueled by a variety of sartorial styles and attempts to define their meanings, these conflicts often concerned the ways in which social order intersected with gendered power in a robust consumer culture. In the midst of a period in which la mode itself was beginning to change, becoming more country (however refined) and less courtly, the imperial crisis magnified the already contested cultural politics of fashion, making fashion a critical site of power struggles social, economic, and now political. Resisters- turnedpatriots combined new social imperatives regarding dress and display with old ideas of hierarchy to support their goals. It comes as no surprise, then, that fashion was the center of political and cultural battles from 1774 to the conclusion of the American War of Independence.

In particular, the city of Philadelphia, cultural center of British North America and eventual capital of the new American republic, served as the site of culture wars that both responded to and helped produce the revolutionary contest.1 Although nonconsumption campaigns of the 1760s had attempted to supply social distinction and romantic conquest with new visual and material markers, they failed to fully undermine European fashion’s appeal. Marked by increasing socioeconomic stratification, by the early 1770s Philadelphia stood as the largest, most refined and fashionable city in the colonies, its position signified in part by the rise of conspicuous consumption and high style the ruffled, heavily powdered “macaroni” mode for men and large, elaborate hairstyles for women. Whereas in Boston, Whigs engaged in “macaroni making,” as one English print cheekily called the practice of tarring and feathering, to make gruesome sport of high- status Tories such as John Malcolm, Philadelphia had not been such

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