Sunday, March 3, 2013

Book Review: What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America

My father is a historian and history teacher so we spent all of our childhood vacations in museums or touring historic houses and forts throughout upstate New York, where I grew up. One of our few vacations out of state was to Colonial Williamsburg. I loved everything about that vacation, from the beautiful buildings, to the women dressed in Colonial dresses, to the red earth of Virginia. The summer humidity gave me migraines, but walking through Williamsburg was the equivalent for us of an enchanted amusement park. So when I saw this book written by one of the costuming curator's at Colonial Williamsburg, I had to get it. And I wasn't disappointed.

What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America by Linda Baumgarten is a beautifully organized and illustrated text book and great reference book for anyone interested not only in the clothing, but in the lives of men and women in 17th through 19th century America. The book is well researched and answers questions that anyone who has delved into either historical literature or first person historical accounts may have—questions such as “what is stuff?” (answer: a tightly woven wool, often with a glazed surface, usually used to make dresses for working class women), “what did slaves wear?”, and “did pregnant women really confine themselves for 9 months?” are all answered by this book with reference to clothing orders, books, letters, journals, advertisements, and the clothes themselves. What is best about this book is both how it explains the possibilities and limits of using clothing to understand past lives.

One of my favorite discussions was how curators at Colonial Williamsburg unraveled the mystery of this early maternity dress.


Most useful, are the interspersed discussions about fabrics—their names, patterns, dates, origins, and uses. Fabric names have changed over the years—so "cotton" may be made of wool and "checked hose" don’t have checks on them. This is information is extremely useful for beginning researchers. Also, the photographs are plentiful and detailed. They clearly illustrate the points made in the text.

Photos are lavish and explain points in the text very well.


I found the Introduction, chapter 1 and chapter 6, which discussed the Williamsburg clothing collection, collecting in general, and the use of alerted clothing, to be more textbook-like than the rest of the book, but I learned things in each of these chapters, so they are worth reading even if you are not so academically inclined. The rest of the chapters were pure magic, transporting the reader into the past in a very intimate way. It is a book I will return to, both for its beauty and its information.

Shorty after reading about men's banyans (Colonial housecoats) and caps I came across a 17th century example at the Rhode Island School of Design.


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