Fashion and Nation
In the 1780s, Americans faced dilemmas both sartorial and political. Having won independence from Great Britain in a contest that not only pitted an imperial power against a nascent republic but also set ways of signifying power, legitimacy, and authority against one another, inhabitants of the United States faced the vexing question of how the new nation would appear in the eyes of the world and to itself. Fashion in dress focused the tension of being freed from political dependence on Britain while still economically tethered through commerce, exposing the de facto colonial position of the republican polity.1 Observing that independence had not resulted in a clean break, some argued that political transformation should signal a change in culture, and that an independency of dress was a place to start. Yet independence had been won through the assistance of the acknowledged masters of modes, the French, whose ministers arrived in the United States with all the pomp and circumstance befitting an ancien régime, inspiring a series of balls and fetes in which displays of fashionability were paramount.2 Such was the power of visual and material signifiers of identity, whether national or individual.
In fact, the personal and the political sometimes found themselves at odds. The cultural politics of fashion, through which people created but also challenged hierarchies of gender, status, and empire, acquired a national cast in the 1780s. The issues that sartorial practices had long expressed and highlighted became American republican problems of social order, gendered power, and political economy. In the early years of the republic, Americans balanced traditional expressions of position and authority against new, nationalist prescriptions and proscriptions and attempted to reconcile them by appearing at once appropriately republican and legitimately powerful to various audiences — local, national, and international.3 It was a tall order, one that Americans seemed unable to fulfill, always erring on one side or the other of the parochial/cosmopolitan divide, according to foreign observers.