Uncovering a Garment's History

By: Emily Bach

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Understanding an artifact’s provenance, or its record of ownership and origin, enables historians to analyze the object within its historical context and trends. Within the museum’s costume collection, most garments have oral records of provenance connecting the costume piece to a specific wearer. Garments are especially fascinating in regards to original owners because we can visualize a person’s appearance and personality based upon the fashion of his or her choice. Provenance acquired via oral histories, however, cannot always be accepted as absolute truth. Three specific costume pieces within the historical society’s costume collection testify to this unreliability of provenance. Each piece reportedly belonged to Charles Carroll the Barrister and were all dated to the 1770s, but upon further observation we noted inconsistencies with the dating and each garment’s construction. As historians, it is our responsibility to challenge certain historical claims to ensure an artifact’s true history is revealed.

 

The first garment is a purple velvet three-piece suit consisting of a coat, waistcoat, and breeches. Its records claim Charles Carroll wore the suit in 1770, but close observations of the suit’s construction and the Barrister’s personal purchases contradict this dating.[1] During the 18th century, it was at times thought fashionable to wear “suits in ditto,” a suit in which all the garments in the ensemble matched in fabric.[2] Charles Carroll favored this specific fashion as indicated by his clothing purchases mentioned in his personal letters. On August 20, 1758, he requested “one suit of peau de soie or other strong fashionable Clo[th], Coat Waistcoat and Breeches of the inclose Colour, Buttons the same, not made in the Extremity of Fashion….” [3] In October of 1766, the Barrister requested “1 Suit Claret Coloured or any Grave Coloured Suit of Cloth…. with 2 pair Breeches to the Suit. The Coat waistcoat and the Breeches the Same...all Lined with the same Colour…”[4] In both requests, the Barrister specified that each piece in the suit ensemble match in fabric. Due to Carroll’s preference to the suit in ditto style, it seemed out of place for him to have worn this purple velvet suit featuring white woolen breeches. In addition, Charles Carroll the Barrister’s request for suits in ditto of high quality fabric reflected his wealth. Men and women used clothing as a signifier of their social rank. Fine quality textiles cost more than the actual production of a garment, so when a man or woman wore such fabrics, the public physically witnessed a person’s wealth and high social standing.[5] The Barrister’s suit of rich peau de soie, which was a luxurious silk, showcased this display of money while wearing a velvet and wool suit ensemble would not. In August of 1768, he also asked his personal tailor, Eccleston, to construct him a waistcoat made from “as much Good Crimson Broad Cloth as will Make me a waistcoat and Good strong narrow Gold Lace with Lining of the same Colour…”[6] The lining of the museum’s suit featured both wool and cotton lining. In the Barrister’s requests, he specified he desired the linings of the suits to all match, an additional reason why the Barrister most likely would not wear the suit, regardless of dating inconsistencies. Besides the clothing requests, we also challenged the provenance and dating by analyzing the garment’s construction.

 

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During the early 18th century, men wore long waistcoats that reached to the knees and as the decades progressed, the skirts of the waistcoats, the fabric below the waist, rose. By the 1770s, the length of the waistcoat shortened to such an extent that the pockets laid just above the hem.[7] Now, let us observe the historical society’s purple velvet vest. The skirt does move away from the center, a common trait during the second half of the 18th century, but the length of the waistcoat does not reflect the 1770s. Rather than resting just above the hem, the pockets are located four inches above.

 

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While past purchases and waistcoat lengths indicated a dating inconsistency, the most indicative feature of this suit that reveals its true year resided in the garment’s breeches.  During the first half of the 18th century, men closed their breeches via a “front fastening in the center with a vertical row of buttons” and a flap, or falls, that would attach to the waistband during the second half of the century.[8] These woolen breeches featured neither fastening. Instead, the breeches had a center front fly closure that fastened with six bone buttons. Front fly fastenings were not introduced until the early 1840s, so it was impossible for the suit to have been worn or constructed in the 18th century.

 

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In addition, the entire suit was hand-stitched. Invented in 1846, the sewing machine was first marketed towards professional tailors and later towards home-dressmakers when the machine’s efficiency became widely recognized. Machine-stitching became prevalent in men’s clothing around the 1850s.[9] Both the breeches and the hand-stitching narrow down a date range to circa 1845-1850.

Although we could easily identify this suit as a man’s fancy dress ensemble, or a costume piece worn to a party, its heavy wool lining and breeches tell us a different story. Rather than a gentleman or middle-class man wearing this suit for a costume ball, a servant or slave most likely owned this suit because it follows certain trends typical in livery. Livery derived from the Old French term livrer, which indicated clothing for servants provided by his or her master.[10] Slaves and servants working in highly visible jobs, such as coachmen, footmen, carriage drivers, or waiters, wore these intricate livery suits to showcase a master’s wealth.

 

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An example of utilizing a slave’s uniform as an exhibition of one’s wealth was livery lace. Livery lace, or elaborate silver or gold gilt braiding, often trimmed the richly colored velvet livery suits.[11] Gold gilt trimmed the coat and vest of the museum’s suit at the cuffs, pockets, and edges. This type of trim was inspired by the 18th century craze over gold and silver metallic lace, an expensive and popular form of trimming for men’s wear.[12]  Liveries also featured contrasting colors, which our suit showcased with its cream woolen breeches, providing a stark contrast against the violet velvet waistcoat and coat. [13]

 

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As previously mentioned, the vest of the suit features woolen lining. Lining, such as this, ensured the wearer remained warm during cold weather, which would be an advantageous aspect during the frigid months. It also meant the suit’s wearer’s job required him to stand or walk outside frequently, such as a greeter at a door. Traditional ball and social season ran from roughly October to March in the nineteenth century, so wool lining was necessary to keep servants and slaves warm.[14] As one can guess, however, wearing wool throughout the humid and hot months would be stifling, a discomfort this suit’s wearer experienced. Splitting has occurred in the coat’s cotton lining, showing evidence of sweat deterioration. In addition, the woolen lining exhibits sweat staining under the arms and overall soiling, as seen in the photographs. The wear and tear apparent on this suit also signified that it would have been worn often, not occasionally for fancy-dress events.

 

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We know for a fact that this livery would be worn by a servant, not a slave, if the suit still traces back to the Carroll family. Slavery ended around 1836 on the Carroll plantation of Mount Clare and it was converted to a boardinghouse during this time, meaning various temporary renters occupied the mansion, none of whom appeared to be slaveholders.[15] Although slavery ended before this livery was constructed, freed slaves often remained on the premises as domestic servants. Currently, I am conducting further research into the tenants of the house post 1840 and their lifestyles. I am excited to see what discoveries I will find while researching further. Accounts referencing the servants working at the plantation, the social events held at the mansion, specific purchases of fabric, tools, and dinnerware requested by tenants, personal letters, and similar finds will all add more depth to the story of the livery and continue to unearth the history of this suit’s wearer.

While searching through Pratt House for more garments to rehouse, we spotted a box labeled “Dressing Robe and Night Caps of Charles Carroll the Barrister, 1770s.” Because the livery was misidentified as belonging to the Barrister, I became extremely curious as to whether these garments were mistakenly attributed to Charles Carroll as well. I immediately pulled it and the investigation quickly began. The robe was originally constructed from a plum silk-satin textile, but it has now faded to a light brown due to excessive displaying of the robe in exhibitions, specifically during the 1970s and the Bicentennial celebrations of the United States.[16]   Its quilted collar could be raised or folded down, depending on the wearer’s preference.

 

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A satin ribbon closed the robe at the natural waist and originally, the robe also closed with four buttons below the waistline, but all of the buttons are unfortunately missing. The buttonholes, as you can see in the accompanying photographs, were sewn into the lining so that the satin fabric covered the buttons from view. When observed up close, one can still see the imprints the buttons left on the fabric, as well as the thread that attached the buttons to the robe. Light quilting lines the hem of the robe, as well as the sleeve cuffs.

 

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Similar to the purple velvet suit, there were characteristics that contradicted the dating and, therefore, the provenance. During the 18th century, men wore informal gowns, or banyans, over their waistcoats and breeches in the privacy of their home. Influenced by Japanese kimonos, banyans were often constructed into a “T-shape.” If you look up at the PowerPoint, I have included a photograph of an 18th century banyan so that everyone can visualize the style and structure of these robes. This oriental influence evident in many banyans reflected the larger preference for exotic fashions, a trend known as “Chinoiserie.”[17]

 

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Contrasting the 18th century trend of loose-fitting house-robes, the museum’s robe reflected a much more tailored look, which resulted in Alexandra and me researching into the varying silhouettes of different eras. We both agreed the robe was likely constructed in the 1820s by analyzing fashion plates of this decade. Gentlemen during this era prided themselves in the tailored fit and elegant simplicity of their clothes. Men’s silhouettes began to parallel the desired hour-glass shape of women with their puffed sleeves, cinched waists, and extra width and height in the collar. As men became more preoccupied with their physical appearance, they gained the name “dandy” and these so-called dandies often even wore corsets to achieve the clean, smooth lines thought fashionable during the decade.[18] Fashion plates of the era showcased this distinctive hourglass silhouette, as well as the museum’s dressing gown. The robe’s waistline is one indicator of the robe belonging to the 1820s. Because this robe would have been worn over a man’s clothes, its waistline would have accommodated the cinched waist, which it does. When closed, the curves are emphasized and an exaggerated small waist compared to the wearer’s chest is physically visible. Both men and women also favored high waistlines in the 1820s, which also shows in the dressing gown. Another distinctive feature of the 1820s that is evident on the museum’s robe is its puffed sleeves. Fashion plates of men’s clothing featured enlarged shoulders that compare to the dressing robe’s shoulders. Although not as defined as the accompanying fashion plate due to the gown’s delicate fabric compared to the jacket’s tailored heavy fabric, the robe’s sleeves mirror man’s everyday wear.

 

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Observing every day fashion via fashion plates assists costume historians in pinpointing an approximate era a costume fell into based upon certain silhouettes and garment construction. Although not dated to the 1770s due to these observations, the robe could still have been worn by the Barrister since he died in 1823, meaning the provenance may still be relevant. Additional research is necessary to confirm the ownership of this robe.
Within the box containing the 1820s dressing gown, two cotton linen caps resided. Very simplistic in design, the caps’ only decoration on either one is a single ruffle at the hem. Embroidered into each cap are two brown-stitched backwards and regular facing “Cs” and the number 12 below these letters. Because of the two C’s, Charles Carroll became the assumed original owner and wearer of the caps, or “night-caps” as described in the catalog cards and exhibition labels. Upon further research, however, we disproved this assumption.

 

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A description of the caps in a Bicentennial costume catalog read “a nightcap afforded comfort which must have been a welcomed relief from the wig… of the day.”[19] Although the label is correct about men wearing caps in the comforts of their home after wearing wigs all day, these caps’ construction do not follow the style of men’s headgear. In the 18th century, men’s undress caps were often fashionable and constructed from woven silks, embroidered silks, and cord-quilted linen. Characteristically close fitting, 18th century undress caps do not share the structure of the museum’s cotton-linen caps, which one can see on the PowerPoint by comparing the photographs of 18th century caps to the museum’s headpieces.[20]

 

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Instead of a man’s undress caps from the 1770s, these caps most likely belonged to a woman in the 1780s-1790s. During this era, simple cotton house bonnets rose in popularity and to add flare to these pieces, women often ornamented their caps with a separate ribbon. Women donned more natural hairstyles during the 1780s to 1790s compared to previous decades and favored wider and flatter coiffures rather than tall hairstyles.[21] Portraits of women wearing such caps demonstrate how they would have styled the caps over their hair and how ribbons elegantly decorated the head-pieces. The shape and ruffle trims of the caps depicted in the paintings resemble the cotton-linen caps donated to the museum.

 

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Every time we open a box from Pratt House, each garment begins as a mystery and we ask ourselves a series of questions: when was the garment constructed, who wore the piece, of what social rank would the original wearer belong, how does it fit into historical and fashion trends? Sometimes, these questions are quickly answered and the mystery of a garment’s history diminishes. Other times, however, it requires in-depth research to scratch just the surface of an artifact’s story.

 

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[1] Maryland Historical Society, “Blue Card for Accession Number 1946.3.3 A-C.”

[2] Mary Doering, “Eighteenth-Century Textiles, Clothing, and Accessories” (presentation, Shippensburg University Fashion Archives and Museum Guest Lecture, Shippensburg, PA, September 3, 2015.

[3] Maryland Historical Society, “Letters of Charles Carroll, Barrister,” Maryland Historical Magazine 32, no. 2 (1937): 187.

[4] Maryland Historical Society, “Letters of Charles Carroll, Barrister,” Maryland Historical Magazine 36, no. 3 (1941): 339.

[5] Mary Doering, “Eighteenth-Century Textiles, Clothing, and Accessories.”

[6] Maryland Historical Society, “Letters of Charles Carroll, Barrister,” Maryland Historical Magazine 38, no. 2 (1943): 190.

[7] Mary Doering, “Eighteenth-Century Textiles, Clothing, and Accessories.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Dr. Karin Bohleke, email message to Dr. Bohleke, August 5, 2016.

[10] Anita Stamper and Jill Condra, Clothing Through American History: the Civil War through the Guilded Age, 1861-1899 (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2011), 375.

[11] Linda Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America (Colonial Williamsburg: Yale University Press, 2002), 128.

[12] Mary Doering, “Eighteenth-Century Textiles, Clothing, and Accessories.”

[13] Linda Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, 128.

[14] Dr. Karin Bohleke, email message to Dr. Bohleke, August 5, 2016.

[15] Teresa S. Moyer, Ancestors of Worthy Life: Plantation Slavery and Black Heritage at Mount Clare (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015), 146-149.

[16] Maryland Historical Society, Donor File of Constance Petre, Items 1951.28.18-19.

[17] Mary Doering, “Eighteenth-Century Textiles, Clothing, and Accessories.”

[18] Smithsonian, Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style (New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2012), 182.

[19] Maryland Historical Society, Donor File of Constance Petre, Items 1951.28.18-19.

[20] Mary Doering, “Eighteenth-Century Textiles, Clothing, and Accessories.”

[21] “The Revolution and the New Republic: 1775-1800,” AmericanRevolution.org, accessed August 1,2016, http://www.americanrevolution.org/clothing/colonial7.php.