What Clothes Reveal
You know the image of our industrious forebears —Embed from Getty Images
After studying textile history for the last 20 years, I had a hazy idea that that image casts our ancestors in a glorified light, but I didn’t know just how far from reality it is, until I read a Colonial Williamsburg book, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America by Linda Baumgarten (2002, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation).
My previous assumption: our self-sufficient colonial ancestors grew all their own fiber and processed it into all the clothing they needed, either themselves or by slave labor.
I never realized: “Colonial dependency on imported textiles began as soon as Englishmen and -women arrived on these shorts. Historian Bernard Bailyn…compare the output of the most prolific weaver of Rowley, Massachusetts, with the yardages of imported textiles. During a nine-year period from 1673 to 1682, the weaver produced less cloth than was imported in a single shipload.” (p. 76)
“In the three-year period ending in January 1772, almost six-and-a-half-million yards of plain linens were exported to the colonies from Britain and Ireland…” (p. 78)
So instead of our lovely lass above, the truth is that our textiles were more likely to be produced like this:
“Many Americans did produce some textiles, yet, except for the period leading up to the Revolution, colonial textile production on a scale large enough to approach self-sufficiency was not economically advantageous…George Washington compared the cost of imported goods with similar items spun and woven on his plantation in 1768. He concluded that the modest savings in homemade textiles were not enough to defray the cost of spinning wheels, of hiring a white woman (probably to oversee the work), and of clothing and feeding five female slaves. Americans could not, and indeed did not want to, escape participation in the worldwide trade of consumer goods and textiles.” (p. 78)
I was especially amazed at the amount of textiles that were imported to clothe slaves, and that, then as now, things were shipped around the world in a less than efficient system. In the chapter Common Dress, Baumgarten writes, “…most of the textiles for slaves’ clothing were imported. Colonists could acquire fabric from Britain, China, India, or Europe, as long as the goods first landed in England, as the law required, before being shipped to the colonies.” (p. 135) She gives the example of a planter who in 1768, ordered from Liverpool “one thousand ells of German osnaburg, three hundred yards of Kendal cotton, one hundred yards of ‘plaiding for negroe Children’ and 60 ready-made ‘fear nothing waistcoats of the cheapest color.'” (p. 135) [Osnaburg was a coarse linen, and Kendal cotton was a fuzzy wool fabric. Plaiding could mean a white twilled fabric and not the multi-colored fabric we think of today.]
Another of my assumptions: Every garment in a museum collection is a perfect and pristine example of a certain style of clothing, one moment captured.
I never realized: Many garments in collections have been worn and even altered, sometimes decades after they were first created. Textile historians can gain a lot of information from these garments as well as ones in mint condition.
“To analyze and catalog a collection of garments from any century requires thorough familiarity with the period and its material culture. The process includes examining unaltered garments…familiarizing oneself with painting and print sources, understanding how people shaped their bodies, knowing what textiles were available, and recognizing period construction styles. But costume historians need to know the same information about the centuries following because so many antique garments were altered when the original wearer changed shape, when styles evolved, or when ownership changed.” (p. 184)
In colonial times, many garments were altered. First of all, there was so much fabric in gowns that there was enough to completely remake a dress. Sometimes the decorative under-petticoat was used to make a whole new bodice. And cloth was so expensive, that it was cost-effective to put in the labor to remake an item. One of my favorite examples shows a man’s silk waistcoat that was remade when fashions changed — the original long front flaps were cut off and turned into a standing collar, and the pocket flaps were also turn to become welt pockets situated higher up on the waistcoat. Many of these altered garments are in the Colonial Williamsburg online exhibit.
Another assumption: Davy Crockett, one of our Texas heroes, was a real frontiersman and wore buckskin.Say it ain’t so: Davy borrowed hunting clothes for his famous portrait, and was described by others as ordinarily wearing conservative and respectable clothing. I guess he was no different of politicians of our day who choose whatever costume (or sometimes, lack thereof ) that will make them appear most manly and interesting. What Clothes Reveal has a whole page about this famous bit of American legend.
These are just a few of the things I learned from this book. It is full of period illustrations and photos of actual garments, both whole garments and interesting details. I also appreciated its emphasis on everyday clothing. Again, almost every garment from the book is online at Colonial Williamsburg at the link above, but the book has so much more information than is available there, that I recommend reading it too if you are interested in historic clothing.
You can also look at 371 individual garments indexed here, and there are also interesting slide shows about different aspects of colonial life, including this one on how flax and hemp were processed. Author Linda Baumgarten is interviewed in a video about costume accessories.
You’re always sharing the best with great and helpful information. Be Blessed because you are, Mtetar
Thank you! Most of the time I can’t believe I haven’t come across these books before now – like with this one, it’s 13 years after it was published! So I just want to help other interested people be aware of them.
And that’s sharing a Blessing especially for those in the field of sewing, textiles, costumes, and designers. Blessings Always, Mtetar
What a fascinating book, thanks for sharing some of it with us.
You are so welcome, I love learning from and sharing these scholarly books! 🙂
You can find documents about slaves’ provisions — wish I could remember where… Household inventories… I’ve read detail about what and how many items of clothing were provided to most adult slaves. Two sets of clothing a year would be typical. Children, both male and female, often had simple shifts. Of course the exact items would differ by owner and region. The harsh conditions and lye washing meant most of those items were completely used up by the time new clothing would be issued. (The notion that slaves could the use the “good” parts to make decorative quilts for themselves is easy to discount when considering this.) The beautiful items shown in the Williamsburg photos look as though they represent wealthy people rather than tradesmen, servants, or slaves.
Thanks for the analysis and all the links. Always fun to troll through research you’ve already viewed.
Yes, the book actually had pages of information, mostly drawn from householders’ inventories and runaway ads. And it talks about how they have to rely on print information because those garments did not survive. Having worked in a historical park here in Texas, which did strive to represent all the people who lived on this particular ranch, I did know something about what slaves wore, but our earliest era to portray was the 1830s. I never thought about very early American colonial slave owners deciding that importing cloth from England was more economical than having some of their slaves work to provide cloth for the others, and I never thought about the huge number of yards they would import. It fits in with so much else I have read about textile specialization and trade from the Minoans until now, but somehow it surprises me every time!
Until the cotton gin in 1783 (?) they couldn’t grow enough cotton in the Americas to meet all that need. NO. I mean they couldn’t process enough. Also there was another innovation about that time that made inland cotton cultivation more possible. Only then did we get the huge increase in cotton production, and only after 1815ish could we mill it with any efficiency. So yes, importing would have been the only feasible way. Always fascinating. Thanks so much for helping me fill in my knowledge. It’s an area of study I’d like to spend more time on, time I don’t have rightnow!
I LOVE the sound of this book–where has it been all my life? Thanks for doing this sort of review–it gives us all kinds of things to think about!
I know! All of a sudden my regional library has had a lot of these semi-scholarly books on textiles, and so I was thinking they were all new books. Then I see the copyright dates are 2002, 2005, etc., and I wonder how I missed them all this time!
Just ordered the book! 🙂
Oh good, I think you will love it! There is such a wealth of information in it.
I promised my husband I wouldn’t buy anymore books, but I just ordered this one. Thanks for this post!
I make that promise all the time!
It could be worse – we could be into expensive sports cars or something! 🙂
A very interesting post – makes one rethink so much. I’m sure there was a vested interest in keeping the colonies dependent on mills in the old countries – it suited the mill owners very well! I have an excellent book called Hands to the Spindle. Texas Women and Home Textile Production 1822 – 1880 by Paula Mitchell Marks, Marks writes about the shortage of materials and production – how very precious literally every scrap of cloth was – either things were worn to complete shreds or ruined by powerful washing agents (as one comment says above). Almost impossible to imagine in our world of abundant clothing, isn’t it?!
Yes, we used that book as a reference at the historical park where I used to work. We pretty much lived like those pioneers, with one outfit that we wore to work every day – you could identify people a mile away from their clothes, and we wore them to shreds. We could actually pull strips off our petticoats like they do in the movies when they have to bandage someone! 🙂
Before I read What Clothes Reveal, I knew in my head that Great Britain forbade its colonies to actually produce anything from their own raw materials, and that people had come over here with smuggled machinery plans, but it just didn’t click with me how much they imported, or that they had to import even the most common fabrics. I figured everybody ignored the laws and did what they pleased. So the information gave me a much better picture of what it was like, and then the photos are fabulous too!
I’ve heard the same said of Australia too. Terrible to think of those poor souls being sent all those miles away, so ill-equipped with information. I’m fascinated to hear that even your clothes shredded, presumably from far less wear than the pioneers.
PS I’ve meaning to say how much I like your newish patchwork banner 🙂
Thanks, it is one of the vintage quilt tops I got at that last sale I went to. I love the mix of fabrics in it.
Thanks for another enlightening article about costume. Yes, it’s surprising to find out that the sewing was often done to make taking a garment apart easy. No couturier work. Another historical clothing book I like covers European fashion – Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail: 1700-1915. I recall it says the real value was in the cloth, which often was reused numerous times and ways.
I live in Lancashire in North West England which made It’s fortune by trading cotton so this article was very interesting to read. Thanks for visiting my website http://countrygardenuk.com/blog/ and thanks very much for follwing my blog too. I’m looking forward to reading more of your articles both here and on Little Wild Streak.
Yes, I have read a very interesting book that is now in the public domain — The Home Life of the Lancashire Factory Folk During the Cotton Famine by Edwin Waugh. I never realized that the American Civil War caused so much economic distress in England, and this book was written to convince people outside the textile industry, that they should be paying for poverty relief for the displaced workers, that they were “worthy poor.” If you haven’t heard of it, here is my short review.
I have also read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and of course watched the mini-series based on it too.
Finding out about textile connections around the world is just fascinating to me!
Now that was very interesting! Am going to send it along to folk who do re enactments.
Have you ever seen the book Keep Me Warm One Night? French who were caught in the French/British war and got deported to Louisiana and their use of fabrics.
I did see it years ago, but I need to read it again. I am sure I would get a lot more out of it this time.