Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 6, 2003
Linda Baumgarten What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with Yale University Press, 2002. 256 pp.; 355 color ills.; 36 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300095805)
DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA, October 26, 2002–October 26, 2003

The mundane word “clothes” in the title of Linda Baumgarten’s new book underscores one of her principal aims: to reconstruct lives from garments that only become “costume” when they enter museums. The longtime curator of textiles and costumes at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Baumgarten mines the institution’s extensive and varied collection of clothing, acquired over the last seven decades, initially to “accessorize the buildings” in the “Williamsburg Restoration” (as the historic site was first called) but eventually to display them as objects of interest in their own right. Through meticulous attention to textile types and sources, manufacture, and alteration or “remodeling,” she attempts an archaeology of clothes. The enterprise thus differs from the analyses of costume in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century paintings that many art historians will associate with Aileen Ribeiro, head of the History of Dress Department at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. While constructing a social history of dress, Ribeiro has remained attentive to conventions of costume in portraiture, which did not always reveal what people actually wore and, in any case, represented only a narrow segment of society. Baumgarten, focusing on actual articles of dress, had little need to probe pictorial sources, used sparingly in this book. With the fine collection at her disposal, along with such critical resources as conservation facilities and personnel, Baumgarten chose to examine the fundamentals. She delights in the mechanics of clothing construction for its own sake. In a talk at the Winterthur Museum’s 2001 conference, “Conversations about Costume and the Visual Arts” (organized with the aim of bringing art historians and costume specialists into closer dialogue), Baumgarten peeled layers of reconstructed eighteenth-century women’s undergarments from a live model as part of her inquiry into “ ‘Real’ Clothing in Copley’s Paintings.” Making such investigations matter to those who are not costume and textile specialists (or historical reenactors) remains a challenge, but What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America demonstrates that historians can hardly ignore the material evidence provided by clothing.

Few will be able to resist the visual attractiveness of this book. It is stunningly produced: beautifully designed and copiously illustrated, with many full-page photographs and illuminating details. One could do worse than simply study the images and read the accompanying explanatory text, if not first exhausted by the captions. These captions identify textiles, dates, manufacturers, and original owners or place worn (when known) as well as donors and museum accession numbers; they run particularly long for photographs of multiple objects or outfits with several component parts, especially if the works have been restyled. In contrast to such specialist precision, the main text often seems directed to generalists, and unsophisticated ones at that (e.g., “Humans may use clothing to carry messages that go beyond the communicative capabilities of spoken language” {56}). In many respects, the volume resembles an introductory textbook, replete with pronounced “masterpieces,” an illustrated time line charting the evolution of basic clothing types from the 1690s to the 1830s, and frequent explanatory sidebars. Some of these sections seem vaguely designed to cultivate potential donors—“Museum Collecting” explains the acquisitions process, including the role of “generous donors,” budgetary considerations, accessioning, and storage issues; and “Becoming a Connoisseur” imagines “Susan, a fictional fan collector”—while others tap current anxieties or popular misconceptions—“Smaller Back Then?”, “Homespun Economy” (the idea that self-reliant Americans made their own clothes), or “The Myth of Scarlett O’Hara” (the notion, here traced to Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel about the antebellum South, that pregnant women were expected to remove themselves from society). Most of the sidebars are actually quite interesting and informative, but they cater to (and produce) a distracted reader. Prose that is slow at best further discourages continuous reading of the text.

Persistent readers will find many rewards in this book. Clothing, without doubt, offers a compelling glimpse into the progressively Anglicized culture of colonial British America (non-English styles are largely absent) and then of a new republic in the process of defining itself. Once certain preliminaries are dispensed with—an introduction on “Collecting Costumes at Colonial Williamsburg” and chapters on “Costume: Old and New Connoisseurship” and “The Myths and Meanings of Clothing” include some tedious didactic passages—Baumgarten homes in on her subject with an expertise and zeal that yields fascinating insights and very nearly animates the clothes represented (displayed flat or on torso forms—mannequins that omit body parts that are not covered by costume). Successive chapters consider “Homespun and Silk: American Clothing,” “Common Dress: Clothing for Daily Life,” “Cradle to Coffin: Life Passages Reflected in Clothing,” and “Tailoring Meaning: Alterations in Eighteenth-Century Clothing.” Contrary to what we may expect to see in museum costume displays (this book accompanied a year-long exhibition at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg), Baumgarten does not limit herself to high-style ladies’ gowns, though many sumptuous examples are represented here. The rare survival of an eighteenth-century maternity dress, made from cotton bed quilting, occasions a revealing look at clothing for pregnancy and nursing that is full of lively details from women’s correspondence and diaries of the period. Refreshingly, men receive attention roughly equal to women, with appearances by some famous figures, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (in one section, descriptively stripped to his underwear), and Davy Crockett.

Even better, as befits an institution committed to representing a variety of eighteenth-century lives, Baumgarten gives substantial consideration to working men and women, including servants and slaves. This effort involved distinct challenges. As demonstrated by The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, a popular exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2002, people of limited means recycled the merest fragments of worn clothing. During the eighteenth century, when the textiles for a garment often cost more than the labor to make it, this practice was common at all levels of society. Individuals frequently willed clothing to heirs, sometimes with the expectation that it would be restyled or even used for upholstery, a directive ignored in the case of a fine Spitalfields silk gown in the Williamsburg collection. Slave clothes, conversely, were sometimes cut from worn-out bed sheets or blankets. Since working clothes survive in relatively small number, Baumgarten turns to other kinds of material evidence (which are trickier to use than she acknowledges), including a tobacco label, cotton printed with scenes of everyday life, and a wooden doll of an African American in livery, labeled with a handwritten tag sewn to the back: “Scipio. Carved by David Catheal dressed by his Mother 1812.” (Baumgarten limits her commentary to the costume, but this curious artifact begs for more.) Other fruitful sources of information about slave and working dress—albeit from the master’s perspective—include plantation records, indentures, diaries, instruction books, and newspaper advertisements for runaway servants. The latter constitute a particularly rich source and clearly demonstrate eighteenth-century attentiveness to dress, generally detailed with more precision and conviction than the physical characteristics of fugitives. Researchers using period texts that mention cloth or clothing encounter a bewildering lexicon, a vastly more varied vocabulary—terms such as osnabrug, shalloon, calimanco, robbin, or spaterdash—than we use now. Familiar words, on the other hand, don’t always have the expected meaning: cotton sometimes indicated an inexpensive napped woolen cloth, plaid could be unpatterned, a night gown referred to informal daytime attire for men or women, and a bed gown was a working woman’s loose-fitting, jacketlike garment that was tied around the waist. Assessing actual pieces of clothing and fabrics can be equally perplexing. What conclusions, for example, should be drawn from the conspicuous creases in “glazed” wool (a shiny fabric like silk, but warmer, more durable, and less expensive) or from the uneven, almost messy application of blue (but not other) coloring on block-printed cotton? One must make sense of these phenomena if eighteenth-century clothes are to speak, and Baumgarten’s book proves quite helpful in this respect—though a glossary (not inconsistent with the book’s pedagogical apparatus) would have been a practical addition.

In 1772, the title of a book published in Philadelphia proclaimed The Miraculous Power of Clothes…an Essay on the Words, Clothes Makes Men. Baumgarten offers substantial insight into what clothes reveal about the aspirations of men, women, and children during American colonial and federal periods, and about the realities of their lives, as reconstructed from surviving articles of dress—a partial record, to be sure. Still, What Clothes Reveal is as comprehensive a study of the subject as we now have (footnotes and bibliography point to additional sources). Baumgarten’s book should prove indispensable for the further material study of American dress and for our understanding of daily life in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.

Susan Rather
Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin