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Fashion in 18th-Century America

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Politics of Fashion
Photo of Kate Haulman by Josh Halpren

Where others just see fabric and color, history professor Kate Haulman sees a story. Whether it is a story of class, gender, race, or revolution, Haulman understands that what was worn, by whom, and how says a great deal about the time in which they wore it. She investigates the relationship between fashion and eighteenth-century politics in her newly published book, The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America. “Fashion illuminates the intersection of cultural politics and more conventional politics,” says Haulman. “It provides a certain proclamation of group membership and distinction.”

In eighteenth-century America, society was increasingly stratified. Group identifications were crucial to maintaining the societal distinctions and separations of the day. Distinctions were often expressed by dress among both men and women, and the most elegant, high-class fashions were based on what was worn by British nobility. “The cloth trade was as much a staple of the British Empire’s economy as was the slave trade,” says Haulman. “The richest colonists would go to great lengths just to import British fabric and fashions.”

But even before the colonies declared independence from Britain, colonial dress was unique from that of the rest of the British Empire. In addition to the time lag often causing new fashions to reach American shores after they were already passé in Britain, colonists also had access to materials that some other British subjects did not. One of these materials was calico, a cotton-based, brightly dyed fabric that had been banned in Britain. “Calico was manufactured in India and was very exotic to the British who had never seen colors or materials like that before,” says Haulman. “It was so popular that it began to undermine the British wool industry, which eventually caused Parliament to ban it in Britain.” The colonies still imported calico, though, since the East India Company needed a market for the cloth, and it came to be a major material in colonial dress.

Many Americans, including Benjamin Franklin, began to embrace a “rustic” look that contrasted sharply with European styles. Haulman refers to Franklin’s wearing of a fur cap to the court of Versailles: “Even though Franklin was not from the frontier,” says Haulman, “he wanted to portray this view of the colonies as separate from Europe.” 

“High” fashions oftentimes originated in cities, but quickly spread into the American countryside. “Historians are always surprised to find luxury goods in the rural areas of the colonies as well as the cities,” says Haulman. “This widespread distribution shows just how large the scope of the fabric trade truly was.”

As  calls for independence began to reverberate across the colonies in the 1760s and 1770s with events such as the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, colonists began to look for ways beyond formal politics to express their desire for independence. “Both men and women were talking about an independence of dress,” says Haulman. “They began to practice a policy of non-importation or boycott, and some colonists tried to create a uniquely American elegance.”

Despite colonists’ political beliefs, both men and women had a difficult time giving up their British clothing. “Many colonists weren’t willing to give up the way they dressed, even if they were anti-British, because of the status, power, and class distinction British fashion gave them,” says Haulman. Many men did not want to give up their British style of dress because it made it easier to blur class lines. “How can you tell the gentleman from the artisan who dresses like one?”

According to Haulman, fashion can play defining roles in social movements and can also demonstrate a great deal about the cultural politics of an era. She specifically mentions the homespun movement in British-occupied India as citizens under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi practiced a policy of non-cooperation in their successful attempt to boycott British textiles. She also notes the movement of 1990s hip-hop styles from urban areas to the suburbs. “Fashion flows in multiple directions,” says Haulman. “A style begins to dominate in one group and is picked up by another, is modified, and moves thorough society.” 

Haulman’s book was published in July 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press and is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.