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Image Virginia Dress Ways: Cavalier Ideas of Clothing and Rank

This culture was also highly distinctive in its habits of dress. “These Virginians are a very gentle, well-dressed people, and look perhaps more at a man’s outside than his inside,” a writer observed in the year 1737. From the beginning, Chesapeake elites tended to dress more opulently than did the builders of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The tone was set by the gentry of southern England, whose costume was designed to display their riches and refinement, their freedom from manual labor, and their dominion over others.1

The costume of this elite was made of fragile fabrics, perishable colors, and some of the more impractical designs that human ingenuity has been able to invent. An example was the wardrobe of Sir Walter Raleigh, who walked, or rather teetered, through a world of filth and woe in a costume that consisted of red high heels, white silk hose, a white satin doublet embroidered with pearls, a necklace of great pearls, a starched white ruff, and lace cuffs so broad as to bury his hands in fluffy clouds of extravagant finery. His outfit was completed by a jaunty plume of ostrich feathers that bobbed above his beaver hat, and precious stones in high profusion. The jewels that Raleigh wore on one occasion were said to be worth £30,000—more than the capital assets of some American colonies.

High fashions of this sort were never static. The “traditional” world of the seventeenth century was as changeable in that respect as our “modern” society would be. Fashions whirled constantly from one generation to another—even from one season to the next. In the reign of James I, when political conditions were dangerously unstable throughout Europe, gentlemen wore quilted doublets and breeches for protection against a dagger’s thrust. This cloth armor was encrusted with precious stones, and trimmed with ribbons, and interwoven with gold and silver thread.2

During the reign of Charles I, fashions changed again. Opulence was increasingly displayed in many layers of dress. Outer coats were cut and slashed to expose intricate underwear that had consumed many hours in the making. Contempt for labor was expressed in a fad for gossamer gloves so fragile that the slightest effort would ruin them. Wealth was displayed by necklaces, brooches and even earrings for men. Charles I went to the scaffold in 1649 with a huge tear-shaped pearl in his ear.

The costume of country laborers was very different—an expression of poverty, dependency and incessant toil. Farm workers


Slashed sleeves were merely one of many methods of conspicuous display in the dress ways of Stuart England and seventeenth-century Virginia. Slashes were designed to reveal undergarments of extravagant beauty, and to make a show of wealth and rank. The Puritan founders of New England did not approve of them. The General Court of Massachusetts forbade men and women of all conditions to “make or buy any slashed clothes, other than one slash in each sleeve and another in the back.” Further, the magistrates also ordered that heavily slashed garments acquired before the prohibition should be discarded. They insisted that “men and women shall have liberty to wear out such apparel as they now are provided of except the immoderate great sleeves and slashed apparel.” Attitudes were very different in Virginia. Excess was prohibited in the poor, and the first assembly assessed people according to apparel. But elaborate costumes were thought to honor their wearers, and were encouraged in the elite, who followed the latest London fashions with close attention.

dressed in worn and tattered garments which had been patched in the parti-colored cloth that harlequins and clowns took as their inspiration; the word “clown” was a synonym for a rustic laborer in the seventeenth century. Other workers dressed in rough leather garments, crudely stitched together with rawhide thongs. Many wore long frocks and loose baggy trousers of coarse cloth. Some had nothing to wear but filthy rags; there are descriptions of laborers who were unable to attend church because they lacked clothing to cover their nakedness.

Still another sort of dependency appeared in the costume of servants and apprentices. In the seventeenth century, English servants and apprentices commonly wore blue. “Blue cloaks in winter, blue coats in summer,” wrote Alice Morse Earle, “Blue was not precisely a livery; it was their color, the badge of their condition of life, as black is now a parson’s.”3

Virginians copied most of these customs, but introduced some important differences. Extremes of dress became rather more muted in the New World. No gentleman of Virginia ever contrived to be quite as elegant as Sir Walter Raleigh. At the other extreme, many planters insisted that their slaves were better clothed than the laboring poor of England.

But distinctions of dress by rank and condition were carefully preserved in Virginia. The elite copied the styles of the southern gentry as best they could. Thomas Warner, a mechant who died in Virginia circa 1630, left “a pair of silk stockings, a pair of black hose, a pair of red slippers, a sea green scarf edged with gold lace, a felt hat, a black beaver, a doublet of black camlet, a gold belt and sword.” This was not the sort of outfit which commonly appeared in New England. Wills and inventories tell us that the first gentlemen of Virginia strutted through the muddy streets of Jamestown and Williamsburg in gaudy costumes which for opulence and display much exceeded those in Massachusetts.

The servants and “commons” of Virginia, on the other hand, tended to dress in doublets of canvas and frieze rather than the leather and kerseys of New England. Black slaves were dressed not in African costumes—which were actively suppressed and even forbidden outright—but in the ordinary costume of country laborers throughout the south and west of England.

Costume thus covered a broader range in Virginia than in Massachusetts. But by comparison with England both colonies showed a middling tendency. From an early date, Virginia gentlemen often complained that social distinctions of dress were not sufficiently respected in the colony. John Pory wrote home of a cowkeeper in Jamestown who went to church in “fresh flaming silk,” and a collier’s wife who wore a “rough beaver hat with fair pearl hatband, and a silken suit.”

To deal with this problem, Virginia enacted sumptuary laws which had a different purpose from the dress codes of New England. Their primary object was not to restrain display, but to support a spirit of social inequality. In the eighteenth century, these sumptuary laws were not actively enforced by the courts of Virginia. But sumptuary customs played a stronger role in regulating patterns of dress according to rank. Ladies, for example, wore cloaks of red camlet, a fine strong cloth of silk and camel’s hair. The color, cut and fabric of this garment was reserved for people of high estate. Philip Fithian in 1773 wrote, “ … almost every lady wears a red cloak, and when they ride out they tie a white handkerchief over their head and face, so that when I first came to Virginia I was distressed whenever I saw a lady, for I thought she had the toothache!” Ladies also wore riding masks when abroad, as if in purdah.4

In the early eighteenth century the social distinction between gentlemen and “simple men” expressed itself in almost every imaginable article of apparel: hats versus caps, coats versus jackets, breeches versus trousers, silk stockings versus worsted, red heels versus black heels. In chilly weather, high-born Virginia gentlemen carried great fur muffs which demonstrated their freedom from manual labor. They continued to pierce their ears for pearls or elegant black earstrings, and adorned their persons with silver buckles, snakeskin garters, gold buttons, lace cross clothes, and silver hatbands. Men of lower orders wore none of these things.5

The gentry also displayed their standing by wearing swords—a custom which continued among Virginians into the late eighteenth century.6 As late as 1733, gentlemen of Virginia were said to be “naked” when they went in public without their swords.7

They appear not to have gone naked in this sense very often. Some owned special black or purple sword belts to be worn in mourning.8

Horses were used not only for transportation but also as part of costume by an elite which thought of itself as an equestrian order. Hugh Jones wrote, “I have known some to spend the morning in ranging several miles in the woods to find and catch their horses, only to ride two or three miles to church, or to the court house, or to a horse race, where they generally appoint to meet on business.”9

Gentlemen also made much display of coats of arms. Planters made major efforts to obtain the sanction of the College of Heralds in London, and displayed their arms on silver, books, buildings, furniture, and rings. The Fitzhughs trained one of their slaves to work as a silver engraver.10 Gentlemen also had family colors, which were displayed with much ceremony. When they could afford to do so, they dressed their house slaves in livery. George Washington’s slaves were gorgeous in the family livery of white coats, scarlet facings, scarlet waistcoats and cheap trimmings called “livery lace”—the same colors as the Washington arms. Well into the nineteenth century, the Tylers kept a barge crew of black slaves dressed in dashing blue uniforms of the family color, their broad collars embroidered with their master’s initials.

In all of these many ways, the costume of Virginia closely resembled that of southwestern England, both in style and social function. Elites in the Chesapeake attended carefully to changing fashions in the mother country. A visitor in 1732 observed that the great planters “dressed mostly as in England and affected London dress.”11 A few grudging concessions were made to the American climate. In the summer, gentlemen of Virginia dressed in white holland, and ladies wore “thin silk or linen.”12 But English tastes remained strong in the Chesapeake, just as they had done in New England in very different ways. Despite many attempts at historical revision, the old images of the Roundhead and cavalier had a solid foundation in sartorial fact—complete even to the legendary “gauntlet and glove.”

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