The Many Faces of Fashion
in the Early Eighteenth Century
When Mary Alexander, a merchant who operated a business with her husband, James, in New York, placed a large order for fabric with her English suppliers in 1726, she included three pages of samples: a sheet filled with ribbon pieces, another displaying fifty- eight mixed fabric swatches, and a third containing thirty strips of calico and chintz. The sheets and their contents remain preserved as beautiful artifacts, bright and textured collages in which the materials have retained their brilliance after nearly three hundred years. A viewer is struck not only by the quantity of fabric Alexander ordered but the variety of colors, patterns, textures and qualities — including black and white crapes, camblets of deep fuchsia and aqua, blue and red striped calicos, and gold and silver laces. Yet whatever the sheets’ aesthetic appeal, they served a clear commercial purpose: to communicate to Alexander’s suppliers with exacting precision what she desired for her market. They were a visual guidebook of sorts, one in which she sometimes scrawled notes alongside a fabric she wanted in a tone “less blewish” or to have “a wider stripe.”1 The specificity of Alexander’s requests suggests the particular demands of her market.
Yet no matter what merchants such as Alexander ordered or received, they promoted the fabrics in the public prints as the latest and most fashionable styles from abroad — one of the many contradictions that characterized the sartorial culture of the port cities.2 Alongside newspaper advertisements that featured the language of fashion appeared other notices seeking the capture of self- emancipated servants and slaves who had taken or were wearing clothes of the same sorts of fabrics Alexander ordered, or garments “made fashionable.” Such descriptions expressed an assumption that people knew what the phrase meant and thus what such a coat or gown looked like — a style that was, on the one hand, exclusive and cosmopolitan and yet, ironically, made its wearer legible as a “lower sort.” These linguistic juxtapositions, which helped to create material distinctions, had the power to influence the very meaning of “fashion,” which possessed many and var-