The Crisis of Costuming


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John Potter and family. Overmantle painting ca 1740. Collection of Newport Historical Society.

There has been a lot of good work done recently as people consider the past and our relationship to it. Costumers are increasingly uncomfortable with uncontextualized depictions of historical dress and have had to come to terms with the truths of how the money that bought the pretty dresses was made. Obviously, dressing in trimmed silks and paste jewels is expensive, and in the North American colonies (and many other places) in the 18th and 19th centuries, the money that bought those goods was made on the backs of enslaved people.

Mary and Elizabeth Royall. Oil on Canvas by John Singleton Copley, about 1758. MFA Boston, Julia Knight Fox Fund, 25.49

But there’s an even harder truth waiting for us: even the ordinary clothes and everyday goods were often paid for with money made on the “free” labor of unfree men, women, and children. Not only did more people than we want to admit own other human beings, more people than we credit invested in slave trading voyages. And even if they didn’t directly invest in the voyages, they were often engaged in trade that intersected with the slave trade, or supported the plantations where captive people labored by indirectly feeding and clothing them.

The very hard truth is that it is even possible for tenant farmers in late-18th century Rhode Island to have supported and profited from slavery as the edible crops they grew were sold to feed those enslaved on rice, indigo, and cotton plantations in the south. Dairying– cheese making–was a means of making dairy protein stable and transportable, and vegetables like onions expanded diets.

John Brown’s china ca 1790. The China trade was funded by the earlier slave trade.

Chattel slavery made the world we inhabit–both now and when we put on the clothes of the past–no matter what class level we represent. Some would argue that we should no longer put on those clothes. I sit in a place of privilege as a white woman and one who has never engaged in Civil War living history or costuming, a period that is particularly fraught. But even interpreting a 1910s suffragist means you must confront the demons that are not past: racism, Jim Crow, voter suppression, and the truths of how the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement treated Black women. We are always complicit.

Elizabeth Freeman (“Mumbet”). Miniature portrait, watercolor on ivory by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick, 1811. Massachusetts Historical Society Artwork 03.147

But I think that means we can, and even should, continue to interpret the past through all the clothes. Telling all the stories more fully helps us move forward. All of us must own the truths of how we reached this place in American history. All of us must own who we might or might not have been. We share a history and a culture, even when many are excluded. That exclusion is part of the story. For a time it needs to be the main story, as we as a nation, as interpreters of the past, see the world anew, listen to voices that have gone unheard.

It will be a long time before any of us are able to resume the work we did before, interacting directly with the public, but that gives us a chance to rethink what we do, and how we do it. For some, abandoning the costumes of a problematic past may be the answer. For others, considering more fully the characters we represent may offer a way to carry on.

Alice, d. 1802. Engraved from an original sent from America, by Mackenzie, [London] : Pub. Jan. 1. 1803, by T. Hurst, Paternoster-Row. (1804?) The Library Company of Philadelphia

I have thought a fair bit about the 2019 Occupied Philadelphia event. Once again, I portrayed Elizabeth Weed, the widowed pharmacist with a sickly son who went on to marry Thomas Nevell, architect and builder. Elizabeth owned a business and a house, but did she own people? A visitor to that event asked me, “Did you own slaves?” and I had to think about it. It wasn’t a question I had asked myself before, and that’s a clear failure since I had done research on the nature of labor in mid-18th century Philadelphia as indentures gave way to enslavement. I don’t think Elizabeth Weed owned anyone; I can find no evidence, but I need to look again, and more deeply.

Rebecca Flower Young, though, is another story. By the time she lived in Baltimore with her daughter, who made the Star-Spangled Banner now at the Smithsonian, her daughter had a 13 year old African American or African indentured servant. The young woman’s name is lost to time, but the fact of her existence and the trajectory of Young’s life make me wonder about her time in Philadelphia. As an Army contractor, she had women sewing for her, and she probably sewed herself. The labor of the indentured servant girl in Baltimore allowed Mary Pickersgill to concentrate on working for money. While the Smithsonian may describe the indentured girl as “helping Pickersgill make the flag,” chances are that her housework– tending fires, cooking meals, cleaning the house, permitted Pickersgill, her nieces, and her mother to do the sewing and cutting. Similar work was necessary to support Rebecca Young’s enterprise in 1780s Philadelphia. Who performed it? Were they paid, or unpaid?

If (when) I can once again put on the stays, petticoats, and gowns that allow me to interpret Rebecca and Elizabeth, my work must include a discussion of the labor that supported their work, and who performed that labor. I will have to challenge the public to imagine a more complete history of the United States, one that is both starker and more nuanced. The country was built and flourished on the labor of unwilling captives, which we have concealed behind myths about the founding heroes and heroines. Only when we admit those truths can we truly begin to portray the past, inhabit those clothes, and engage with the public.

About the Images:

This overmantle painting shows a wealthy Rhode Island planter family with their African slave, a rare depiction of the realities of New England life. John Potter was a wealthy South Kingstown, Rhode Island planter, notorious for his counterfeiting activities of 1742. Many of the people enslaved in Rhode Island were forced to work on the large farms in what is now Washington County.

Mary and Elizabeth Royall were daughters of Isaac Royall, who owned the largest number of enslaved people in Massachusetts. The Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, MA (just north of Boston), interprets the lives of the family and those they enslaved.

John Brown‘s dinner set of Chinese export porcelain in emblematic of his wealth, which was derived from many sources, including the slave trade. The China Trade decorated his brick mansion house in Providence, but war profiteering, distilling, and the slave trade built it. He was an unapologetic– indeed, an enthusiastic– defender of the slave trade as a source of revenue for the New Republic.

Elizabeth Freeman (“Mumbet”), born into enslavement in 1742, was the first enslaved African American to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling, in Freeman’s favor, found slavery to be inconsistent with the 1780 Massachusetts State Constitution.

Alice, known variously as Black Alice and Alice of Dunk’s Ferry, was a native of Philadelphia and a slave, born to parents who had come from Barbados. She is said to have been 116 at the time of her death in 1802. In extreme old age Alice received many visitors who enjoyed hearing stories about early Philadelphia and its famous first settlers, including William Penn and Thomas Logan. Alice was also a lifelong worshiper at Christ Church in Philadelphia. “Being a sensible intelligent woman, and having a good memory, which she retained to the last, she would often make judicious remarks on the population and improvements of the city and country; hence her conversation became peculiarly interesting, especially to the immediate descendents of the first settlers, of whose ancestors she often related acceptable anecdotes.” from Thomas, Isaiah. Eccentric biography; or, Memoirs of remarkable female characters, ancient and modern (Worcester, 1804), plate preceding p. vii. and p 9.

Further Reading:
Many of these are available in paperback; check in the university press sites as many are offering discounts right now that make them competitive with Amazon, while supporting them directly. Inter-library Loan is also an excellent and often free option; check with your local library.

Anderson, Jennifer L. Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. Never Caught:The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. New York: Simn and Schuster, 2017.

Clark-Pujara, Christy Mikel. Slavery, emancipation and Black freedom in Rhode Island, 1652-1842. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Iowa, 2009

Clark-Pujara, Christy. Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. New York: NYU Press, 2016

Gagnon, Jeffrey Charles. (Re)creating Social Life Out of Social Death : cross-cultural alliances in the circum- Atlantic, 1760-1815. Ph.D. Thesis, University of California San Diego, 2012.

Gigantino, James G. II. The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Hartigan-O’Connor, Eleanor. The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Lin, Rachel Chernos. “The Rhode Island Slave-Traders: Butchers, Bakers, and Candlestick-Makers.” Slavery and Abolition 23:3, 21-38. (2002)

Rapplye, Charles. Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.

Salinger, Sharon V. “Artisans, Journeymen, and the Transformation of Labor in Late Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1, 62-84. (January 1983)

Smith, Billy G. “Poverty and Economic Marginality in Eighteenth-Century America.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 132, No. 1, 85-118 (March 1988)

Smith, Billy G. “The Family Lives of Laboring Philadelphians during the Late Eighteenth Century.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 133, No. 2, Symposium on the Demographic History of the Philadelphia Region, 1600-1860, 328-332 (June 1989)

The Tracing Center: Resources for Interpreting Slavery.

A Brief Bibliography: Suffrage


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women hold signs

Suffrage Campaign, Pickets, College Day, 1917. NWP Collection 1917.001.020

I was roused from the torpor of this year’s endless existential crisis to imprecate the television screen when we watched The Vote, PBS’s two-part series on how the women’s suffrage movement. In the past nine months, I’ve given myself a crash course in women’s suffrage in order to intelligently perform at my contract position with the National Woman’s Party in Washington, D. C. As their Collections Manager, I can’t catalog, track provenance, and arrange unprocessed materials without knowing what you’re looking at. I’ve also provided researchers and documentarians with hundreds of images, including dozens used in The Vote. As a result, I was really anxious to see the film.

Lafayette Statue Demonstrations, Fall, 1918. NWP Collection , 1918.001.085.01

After viewing it, I thought a bibliography could be helpful for those interested in exploring topics and context in greater detail. The women’s suffrage movement and the passage of the 19th Amendment a century ago may seem unimportant compared to everything happening now, but knowing more about that movement can help us understand some of the divisions we see today.

girl in front of suffrage signs

Congressional Union Headquarters in Atlantic City, 1914. NWP Collection, 1914.001.066

A Brief Bibliography

I was able to get all of these from my local library system or using their ILL services.

Bausum, Ann. With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2004.

Belmont, Alva E. (Mrs. Oliver H. P. Belmont ). “Woman’s Right to Govern Herself.” The North American Review, Vol. 190, No. 648 (November, 1909), pp. 664-674 University of Northern Iowa Stable URL:

Cahill, Bernadette. Alice Paul, the National Woman’s Party and the Vote: The First Civil Rights Struggle of the 20th Century. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2005.

Cassidy, Tina. Mr. President, how long must we wait? Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the Fight for the Right to Vote. New York: 37 Ink/Atria, 2019.

Dumenil, Lynn. The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Graham, Sally Hunter (1983). “Woodrow Wilson, Alice Paul, and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” Political Science Quarterly. 98 (4): 665–679.

Johnson, Joan. Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy and the Women’s Movement, 1870–1967. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Lindsey, Treva B. Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. University of Illinois Press. (2017) Chapter Title: “Performing and Politicizing “Ladyhood”: Black Washington Women and New Negro Suffrage Activism.”

Roberts, Rebecca Boggs. Suffragists in Washington, D.C.: the 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2017.

Walton, Mary. A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Weiss, Elaine. The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 1918. (available as an ebook)

Zahniser, J. D. and Amelia R. Fry. Alice Paul: Claiming Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014 (available as an ebook)

Online exhibits:

Library of Congress: Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote

National Archives: Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote

National Portrait Gallery: Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence 

Online Resouces:
Library of Congress: Women’s Suffrage Teacher’s Guide

Additional Library of Congress resources, including another bibliography

PBS Videos on Women’s History

PBS/Ken Burns on Women’s Suffrage

Women Voters Envoys, December, 1915. Envoys, left to right: Miss Kindberg, Sara Bard Field, Mabel Vernon, and Miss Kindstedt. NWP Collection, 1915.001.228.02

Some things left out are minor. Still, the two Swedish women who drove the American women from the San Francisco Exposition to Washington in 1915 collecting signatures in support of women’s suffrage had names: Maria Kindberg and Ingeborg Kindstedt. Marie owned and drove the car; Ingeborg was the mechanic.

women standing around a desk

Alice Paul (left) and Alva E. Belmont (right, seated) with members of the National Woman’s Party, around the desk that belonged to Susan B. Anthony. NWP Collection, 1920.001.107

Alva Belmont was active in the suffrage movement and funded much of the work of the National Woman’s Party, eventually going the party over $76,000. Belmont, whose first husband was William Vanderbilt, hosted Suffrage Teas at Marble House in Newport, RI. The iconic “Votes for Women” china? That was Alva’s. The NWP would not have been able to function without funding, and Alva (along with other wealthy women) was there to provide it.

Victory. Published on the front cover of The Suffragist, September 1, 1920. Charcoal drawing by Nina Allender. NWP Collection, 1920.003.008

In addition to donations, funding came from subscriptions to The Suffragist. The weekly newspaper was written, edited, and published first by the Congressional Union of NAWSA and then by the NWP. The covers frequently featured drawings and cartoons by Nina Allender, perhaps the most famous suffrage cartoonist.

A Bee in my Bonnet


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Since 2014, I’ve been thinking about whale-bone and caned bonnets, trying the occasional prototype but not making much progress. Not too long ago, a friend and I were kicking around the idea of what the descriptions in ads and inventories actually meant. Becky’s research is always detailed and thorough, and I am grateful for all she shares with me.

We were specifically thinking about “beehive” bonnets, which also appear as “Sattin hives” and “women’s hives.” What on earth could those look like? In Philadelphia, “beehives” were described as being made of straw, which makes sense when you think of bee keeps. But wait, that’s not what the inventories and ads describe. A 1762 ad from South Carolina illustrates the distinction. (Hooper & Swallow advertisement, page 2, South-Carolina Gazette, 10 July 1762).

Searching ads, you start see more of these, especially between 1754 and 1768. They appear from Georgia to Massachusetts, usually called “hives,” but sometimes appearing as “beehives,” or “satin hives.”

Boston Evening Post, June 30, 1755

detail, A Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton in North Carolina. British Museum 2010,7081.3247

But what did they look like? An illustration held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania shows a woman in a poke-like bonnet of a style we might call a sunbonnet. The shape is more in line with how I imagine the “Conestoga bonnet” might look. John Fanning Watson published his Annals of Philadelphia in 1830, and while his drawings are charming and illuminating, one wonders if they are fully accurate, since Watson was born in 1779. The preponderance of “hives” seemed to be in the southern colonies, and at last, while enjoying the British Museum’s colored version of “A Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton in North Carolina,” I thought I had a glimpse of a “sattin hive.”

There is much to love in this print, and I have thought about it for six years since I made the first “whale-safe bonnet.” How would you make that shape? One approach might be to use techniques not unlike those used for calashes: canes in channels.

Over the past few days, I have been playing with shapes and cane, trying to get this right. After three drafts, I’m closing in, so I decided to make one up in the last of some pale grey silk to see how it behaved. Reader, the canes are annoying, and there are changes I need to make, but as Seussical as this headwear may be, I think I’m getting closer to “women’s hives.”

A Ruffled Apron


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Last summer, in the midst of revisiting my vintage obsessions, I bought a pretty vintage apron online. It wasn’t quite large enough for me (some vintage things are, most are not), but it seemed like a pretty easy task to pattern and resize it for myself. Some months later, after working on other patterns and projects, I finally finished this one.

It seemed like the perfect time, now that I am home and wearing an apron much more often than I used to. For one thing, there’s more time to do housework and more need since we are always here; and, for another, I am definitely cooking more now that three of us are eating every meal at home (and one of us is a college boy, so the milk disappears at an alarming rate). I haven’t worn an apron this often since I was in college and Exene Cervenka was my style icon.

I’m pretty pleased with my vintage-not-historic project and have enjoyed wearing it. The fabric (just a hair over a yard) came from Hart’s Fabric, and while I would have preferred black bias tape, I had to use what I had on hand. Another decorative option would be a folded hem edge backed with rick-rack.

I thought about my Aunt Fran a lot making up the apron and drafting the pattern. While she ran a gift shop and tea room with my Uncle Ned in western New York State, they lived on a farm with a decrepit barn and enormous garden and, when I first knew them, a refrigerator some twenty or thirty years behind the times.

It might have been this one

The kitchen seemed cavernous, and I enjoyed helping make salad for the big dinners we had on August evenings, when all the cousins assembled from Colorado, North Dakota, and Illinois. I remember picking vegetables in my uncle’s extensive garden and my grandmother’s aluminum salad bowl more clearly than I remember Aunt Fran’s aprons, but making do, planning ahead, and being prepared were traits she (and the rest of my family) embodied, but with style.

That’s how I think of this apron: practical, but stylish, for when you have to work but also want to have some fun (I am all about finding ways to enjoy work.)

In that spirit, I made up the apron and made a pattern now available for download on Etsy. (I’m still shipping, but the paper version won’t be available for a day or so.) Maybe you’ll enjoy making a quick project that’s practical and pretty.

Got to Get By: Resources for a Quarantine


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How are you going to Get By these days? For some of us, Self-Isolation or Quarantine or Artist-in-Residence or whatever you are calling the past four to six weeks has been not much different from everyday life. We work from home, and while our income may have decreased because people have less disposable income, we still have plenty to do. There are patterns to write, things to make, food to cook, gardens to weed and plant, files to organize. Other folks lack inclination or access: not everyone likes the same thing, some people are always tidy. For most of us, though, reading is a tolerable past time, and one you can indulge in safely

Organizing research files gave me a sense of control and made my workspace nicer.

But what about now, when you’ve read all your library books and the library is closed? If you have a library card, chances are you have access to free ebooks through OverDrive or Libby. You can synch OverDrive to your library account and check out ebooks for free. I don’t love reading on a screen, but needs must. 

The University of Chicago Press offers a free ebook every month, and thanks to that offer, I have been exposed to books I would not have encountered otherwise. (They have also lowered the epub and PDF prices of some of their books this month.) Other publishers (Random House/Penguin, for example) have done the same. 

If you, like me and many others, are missing the luxury and solace of art, the Met can help you. For years they’ve had their publications online, many downloadable as PDFs. There are a *lot* of publications. On the other coast of this continent, the Getty offers their publications online, to, and you can find LACMA catalogs online, too.

Need other distractions? Want to remind those around you to social distance? Frog & Toad of Providence has the shirt for you, based on the RI Governor’s now-famous (ok, in small circles) order to Knock it Off. (I think it’s the perfect Mother’s Day present, but we run to odd.) 

Want to hold a print book in your hand? Your local indie bookstore may well be shipping. I ended up ordering from both Symposium Books and Books on the Square in Providence because they had what I wanted at the price I could afford. 

There are free sewing patterns online, too, at a range of places from Mood Fabrics to if you want a new garment. You can also still get patterns, fabrics, and (some) notions from your local independent fabric stores. In addition to the favorites I use for historical costuming (in the sidebar under “Sutlers”), I buy from Harts in San Jose (really like their pattern and cotton print fabric selection). It’s far away but shipping, service, and selection are all excellent. is still shipping (more slowly) but they have a wide selection, as does Fabric Mart, who helpfully notes shipping delays and news on their website.

Burnley & Trowbridge linen, Assembly Line apron dress.

Notions, like interfacing and thread, are harder to come by than you might think, but I was able to get interfacing and needles from my local shop in Alexandria. Bored with the usual selections? I find new places from the “Stockists” or “Retailers” section of pattern companies I like. This is helpful when the patterns I like are made by Scandinavian companies (I am currently obsessed with The Assembly Line.)