By Sue Robinson
New York Fashion Week is in full swing. The hit cable TV show “Project Runway” wraps up its 13th season in October. On newsstands now, fat fashion mags brim with fall trends. Back-to-school retail advertisements suggest students’ success hinges at least in part on just the right cool clothes. Pinterest allows everyone to curate to their heart’s content. Designers reveal new looks on You Tube and their own websites. Anyone can watch runway shows on high-fashion websites.
Never more so than in today’s digital world can fashionistas learn what to wear on the streets, to offices and parties.
But how did 18th century Williamsburg women know what to wear for a stroll on Duke of Gloucester street? Or to call on friends or dress to impress at a Governor’s Palace ball?
They talked to each other and read letters from friends. They read newspapers that carried social reports of what fashionable women were wearing. They studied prints and descriptions in fashion magazines from England. And they visited their local milliner-mantua-maker who imported textiles and accessories directly from London.
Following European Trends
The nascent colonial fashion industry hinged on ideas, fabrics and goods from England.
“American colonists tended to follow British fashions, since most of their trade and communications were with that country,” says Linda Baumgarten, Colonial Williamsburg’s Curator of Textiles and Costumes. “In the immediate lead-up to the Revolution, Americans tried to wean themselves from fashionable imports and took up wearing ‘homespun’ as a political statement.
“After the Revolution, some opened greater communications with the French and followed some of the French trends. In general, however, there was little difference in wearing apparel between afashionable, gentry-level colonial woman in Virginia and her counterpart in Britain,” she says.
The names of today’s designers are familiar worldwide: Armani, Lauren, Dolce, Valentino, Von Furstenberg, Kors, Burch, Versace, Cardin, Klein, Karen, Hilfiger, Givenchy, Space, and Wang. They work in a world that wasn’t imagined until the mid-1800s when Englishman Charles Frederick Worth–considered the father of haute couture–opened a Paris shop and launched the age of named designs.
In London and Paris, dressmakers worked for palaces and aristocrats. Colonial America had no such big-name designers.
“In Williamsburg, most customers knew only their local milliner-mantua-maker. Although everything was handmade, not everything was custom-made in the 18th century,” Baumgarten says. “Some garments such as cloaks, stays, quilted petticoats, shoes, fans, gloves and many other accessories were handmade by professionals and sold as finished goods to a larger market, including for export to America.
“Many women made their own shifts and their husband’s shirts in the home. Garments that required careful fitting and fashionable cut were more likely to be made by the local mantua-maker or tailor,” she says.
Trends — Yesterday and Today
Then, a style might be in vogue for 10 or 20 years or more. Men’s breeches were knee-length for a century. Throughout the colonial period, women donned long, full gowns.
Changes of style are subtle to modern eyes: a dip of neckline, a change in bodice style or sleeve length, a softening of the silhouette, the addition of a sash or apron or a kerchief or a ruffle. And an expensive gown of many valuable yards of fabric might be altered to update to a new style.
The speed of changes may be different, along with the media that shares trends and ideas, but the arts of fabric, thread and embellishment are a universal and lasting human experience.
Clothes communicate. They reveal much about a person’s income, status, work and role.
According to Baumgarten: “Humans have long used clothing and body modifications to reveal things about themselves. Today is no different.”
Clothes can signal our activity, from going to a party to office work to working in the garden. They can show wealth with designer logos as opposed to mass-produced clothing. The Amish and Mennonites convey their belief system through their apparel, and we need only compare a mom’s jeans to her daughter’s to get an idea of the person’s age. A chef’s jacket or apron, a firefighter’s gear , a doctor’s scrubs and a stockbroker’s power suit all convey occupation. So does a rapper’s body modifications, such as tattoos.
Common threads from then to now do exist. Reminiscent of Colonial dress, full-skirted ballgowns are popular for proms, weddings, balls and awards red carpet photo shoots. Modern designers appreciate the fine construction techniques of some 18th century clothing and adapt old techniques such as stamping, pinking and slashing to modern interpretation.
As with many things in life, the details matter and everything new has ties to the old.
“I especially look for the use of how accessories finish the ‘look’ and in much modern apparel, I can observe hints of the past,” Baumgarten says.
In honor of Fashion Week in New York, which began September 4 and continues this week, we’ll look at what influenced colonial fashion — and the 18th-century imprint we still see in designs today.
Tuesday: Today’s Cape is Yesterday’s Cloak
Wednesday: The Apron: It’s Not Just For Work Anymore
Thursday: Getting Carried Away: A Stash For Stuff