The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America

By Miracle, Amanda Lea | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), March 2012 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America


Miracle, Amanda Lea, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The Politics of Fashion in EighteenthCentury America Kate Haulman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Kate Haulman's The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America is an exciting, deeply researched work that examines the intersection of American culture and the changing nature of politics surrounding the American Revolution. Haulman focuses on how "fashion in dress, a form of power and distinction that was conceptually feminized yet pursued by both men and women across ranks, served as a flash point for social, economic, and political conflicts, across the eighteenth century that were, fundamentally, about gender roles and relations" (3). Much of her research is based on fashion within the port cities of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston, metropolitan areas that promoted a broad mix of people, ideas, and opportunity. Trade not only served to support the economies of these cities but the additional transfer of people and ideas helped to shape the emerging culture. By drawing on such a broad cross-section of the new nation, Haulman reveals a "culture war" underway throughout much of the newly formed United States. Organized in three parts, the book progresses chronologically through the eighteenth century and demonstrates that "sartorial struggles, fueled by hierarchies of gender and status, shaped the contests of the revolutionary era, as particular styles mapped uneasily onto increasingly rigid political categories and yet ultimately came to constitute them" (5).

The first section (chapters one and two) examines the culture of fashion prior to the Revolution, and suggests that prior to it both men and women pursued fashion as a necessary way to express gender identity, rank, and to help others to rise on the social ladder. Even as fashion served to note distinctions among social groups and between peers, fashion in dress also "possessed at least the potential to facilitate social as well as geographic mobility" (17). Thus at the same time it helped to establish rank, it could also confound it.

Section two (chapters three and four) investigates the connection between colonial fashion and the political crisis of the 176Os and 70s. These chapters depict "men of means and influence ... [using] the crisis to enforce a vision in which men and women of sense and virtue, not of fashion, comprised colonial society" (83). Colonial resisters opposed imported goods, and turned to homespun cloth and other alternatives borne out of wartime necessity, to promote hierarchies of rank, while at the same time combating the democratizing effect that popular resistance - and their embrace of these measures - had on the social and gender hierarchies.

However, though "prescriptions seemed to promote a meritocracy in which the most virtuous men and women would be accorded due attention and respect, rather than a hierarchy based upon display" (116), consumer demand for fashionable goods persisted. Moreover, the bifurcated response to the social prescription by society mirrored the responses to the enablers of high fashion. …

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