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Your Clothes Showed Your Place in Society in 18th-Century America

"Let us imagine ourselves, as so many living Pictures drawn by the most excellent Masters, exquisitely designed to afford the utmost Pleasure to the Beholders."1

Tomlinson succinctly describes the attitude of eighteenth-century persons who cared about their place in society. One of the goals of genteel living was to bring pleasure to those around you. Your clothing created your image as a beautiful picture for others to look at.

By Canot-Le Bas (Paris: 1745)
By Canot-Le Bas (Paris: 1745)

But you would also be expected to treat those you met with appropriate greetings and conversation. So simply making and wearing clothing from authentic patterns and instructions will not ensure that you are accurately re-creating an eighteenth-century person. While available patterns will help with the physical part of the clothing, how you stand and move in the clothes will immediately demonstrate your knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the period. In addition, while most clothing is similar in cut in the 1760s-1770s, decorations, trims, and accessories also revealed the identity of the wearer.

Thus, before the raw materials for a garment are selected, you must select your eighteenth-century identity. You should decide whom you are representing, how old you are, where you live, and your class and financial condition. You should decide what activities you will be performing in the clothing. You would not wear the same outfit to cook over a campfire as you would wear to a hop at the local tavern. An outfit appropriate for the tavern would not be appropriate for the Governor's Palace.

Let us look a little further into the reasons behind the selection of clothing 225 years ago. In the century between 1660 and 1760, as the old court-directed society crumbled and the merchant class gained in size and power, the need to establish a social order that all would recognize became urgent. A heavy burden fell on the obtaining and display of consumer goods to define differences. Domestic architecture, clothing, dining customs and material goods served these functions, and physical demeanor played an increasingly important role. Clothing fashions and instruction in how to move in them, as well as manners and genteel behavior developed to create visible and portable signs of personal and commercial achievement. Where seventeenth-century sumptuary laws had kept newcomers at bay, in the eighteenth century a new code of conduct developed that did not require legislation. The test of a gentleman was whether he had the time to absorb the mounting intricacies of taste, grace, fashion, and elegance. The eighteenth-century aesthetic of austerity and nonchalance was considerably harder to emulate than seventeenth-century opulence and bravado.

Rules of Civility

While American society was not controlled by the presence of a monarch, Royal Governors were the King's deputies and they maintained a strong and visible presence in most colonies. While not classed by birth station, society was divided into ranks by profession, position, land holdings, and wealth. The "Rules of Civility" originated in the late sixteenth century in France and were popularly circulated during George Washington's time. Franklin published a copy in Boston in 1722 and George Washington copied another in Virginia in 1747. This shows how real the layers of American society were. In these rules, every social encounter was assessed, participants ranked each other and acted appropriately. Walking and talking with someone in a building or in the street had an etiquette that, if mishandled, could give insult:

57th In walking up and Down in a House, only with One in Compan[y] if he be Greater than yourself, at first give him the Right hand and Stop not till he does and be not the first that turns, and when you do turn let it be with your face towards him, if he be a Man of Great Quality, walk not with him Cheek by Joul but Somewhat behind him.

The depth of a bow was important.

26th In Pulling off your Hat to Persons of Distinction . . . make a Reverence, bowing more or less according to the Custom of the Better Bred, and Quality of the Person

Life as Theater

Frontier and plantation communities were small and tightly knit. Everyone knew who held the most power and where they stood in relation to them. There was no need to engage in one-ups-man ship and to puff oneself up would result in criticism. It was in larger population areas that clothing came to be used as a badge of membership in a specific level or class in the society.

Like paper money, it was presumed to stand for tangible assets and was generally accepted at face value. The dance floor was the place where a person's command of the attributes and accouterments of gentility were put to the ultimate and most public test. In 1776, John Adams both acknowledged and decried this display as the "exterior and superficial accomplishments of gentlemen upon which the world has foolishly set so high a value."

As Cary Carson points out, taste and gentility were sought after and acquired after diligent application and validated only by open demonstration. Life, in a way, was theater. It needed a setting, props and an audience, and it was full of aspiring imitators. Fashion, rules, and standards helped everyone to distinguish the genuine article from the counterfeit.


This essay was adapted from George Washington: A Biography in Social Dance by Kate Van Winkle Keller and Charles Cyril Hendrickson (Sandy Hook: 1998).


1 The Art of Dancing by Kellom Tomlinson (London: 1735)

"Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour" in The New Help to Discourse by William Winstanley (Boston: 1722, Evans 2408)

Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century by Cary Carson, Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert (Charlottesville, 1994).

See also the essays in An Elegant Art: Fashion & Fantasy in the Eighteenth Century (New York: 1983).

The illustration is by Canot-Le Bas (Paris: 1745), from a print in the author's collection.