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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
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The story of an enslaved woman's chintz gown speaks volumes about the importance of fashion in early America, as well as fashion’s racialized underpinnings.
While walking down the street in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1786, a white woman spotted a gown that had been stolen from her two years before being worn by an enslaved woman. Her reaction speaks volumes about the importance of fashion in early America, as well as fashion’s racialized underpinnings.
The gown in question was a fashionable one: an “Indian Chintz, white Ground, with Stripes and Figures of different Sorts of red, if not other Colours.”
Indian chintz was a popular textile in 18th-century Europe and America, used for clothing, bed hangings, and upholstery. Indeed, one of the bedchambers at Mount Vernon was known as the “Chintz Room,” likely due to its chintz-inspired wallpaper and textiles.
Chintz gowns could be found throughout early America and several examples still survive.
This particular chintz gown originally belonged to Mrs. MacIver, the wife of an Alexandria ferry owner. Her husband, Charles, wrote to George Washington in June 1786 after piecing together the tale of the dress’s disappearance and rediscovery. The MacIvers claimed that a white seamstress, who Mrs. MacIver gave “a Night’s Quarters” after hearing “a Tale of feigned Distress,” stole the garment, along with two other “elegant, well trimm’d Gowns.”
The seamstress sold the Indian chintz to a “Negro of Dr Stewart’s,” who then “sold it to a Negroe Woman belonging to” George Washington.
It is not surprising that Charlotte wore her best clothes to Alexandria. She was likely there on a Sunday, the day the Washingtons did not command her labor. Days off the plantation were a time to meet friends and to see and be seen.
When she encountered Mrs. MacIver, Charlotte was walking with another enslaved woman, suggesting the sociable nature of her trip. Perhaps the women had just come from the city’s market, where Charlotte might have sold vegetables, providing her with spending money for purchases such as the gown. Even on the secondhand clothing market, such a gown was a large investment.
Her brightly colored chintz gown certainly distinguished Charlotte from the majority of enslaved women, who wore earth-toned coarse linen shifts, skirts, and short gowns such as those Charlotte helped make for the Washingtons’ slaves. Like many enslaved domestics, Charlotte received finer clothing; the Washingtons paid a tailor to mend her petticoat and jacket in 1774.
Yet, her exotic Indian chintz dress was far above such domestic garb. The enslaved seamstress knew intimately which fabrics and forms were popular for elite women’s gowns.
Of course, it was the fashionability of Charlotte’s dress that angered Mrs. MacIver. An enslaved woman wearing such a dress transgressed racially determined norms of appropriate clothing.
In particular, printed cotton fabrics, like chintz, suggested elite status, as these fabrics were commonly worn by merchants and planters who had easier access to imported goods. For Charles MacIver, who occupied a middling social status as a ferry-keeper, clothing was a fundamental means to assert his family’s social distance from the enslaved and their commonality with elite planters. No wonder Mrs. MacIver reacted poorly on seeing an enslaved woman with her gown!
The MacIvers’ social aspirations were not lost on the well-dressed Charlotte. MacIver recounted how, on being confronted, Charlotte “abused my Wife very grossly ... nor would she demean herself so much as to be seen walking with such a Creature as My Wife.”
Charlotte’s Indian chintz gown reminds modern audiences that fashion trends extended well beyond America’s elites. The ability to purchase costume and the knowledge of what was au courante enabled an enslaved woman to rival a white woman sartorially.
More than that, Charlotte’s skills allowed her to adapt costume to fit her own sense of style. Exactly what kind of chintz gown Charlotte wore is a mystery. But Mrs. MacIver denounced the changes Charlotte had made to the gown. As her husband reported to Washington:
My Wife says it is altered for the worse, particularly in the Flouncing which went all round the Tail. The Lining originally overshot the Chintz at the Sleeves, which used to be concealed by Cuffs... I understand the Boarder is turned upside down.
Together, these adaptations forged a new aesthetic, one displeasing to Mrs. MacIver. In their divergence from Anglo-American taste, Charlotte’s alterations suggest the possible influence of African cultural traditions. Many planters and visitors to the plantation South noted that enslaved people dyed their clothes and patched them in bright colors that whites found discordant. Slaves also donned items of clothing with different patterns that observers deemed clashing.
Charlotte’s Indian chintz offered an opportunity to express a personal aesthetic that modified elite costume to accord with a separate dress code.
When she strolled down an Alexandria street, Charlotte’s gown sent a strong and radical message. It affirmed her personal identity in a slave-holding society that denied her right to self.
Seeing Charlotte’s wearing of the dress as an act of resistance fits well with what we know of her at Mount Vernon. While the Washingtons were away, the seamstress had an altercation with the farm manager over a piece of meat that culminated in him whipping her. Charlotte "threaten[ed] ... me very much with informing Lady Washington when she comes home," farm manager Anthony Whiting reported to Washington. Frustrated, Whiting concluded, “I am determined to lower her Spirit or skin her Back.”
Despite her physical vulnerability, Charlotte was not cowed. She asserted her rights and used those tools available to her, including her personal relationship with Martha Washington, to attempt to improve her situation.
Worn on the back of the “impudent” Charlotte, an Indian chintz dress challenged white fashion authority and ultimately proclaimed an enslaved woman’s right to her own style. Charlotte asserted that fashion belonged to everyone.
Jennifer Van Horn is assistant professor of art history and history at the University of Delaware. She specializes in the fields of early American art and material culture, and she is the author of The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America.