GUEST CURATOR: Victoria Ostrowski
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Ladies SILKS of the newest Fashion.”
In this advertisement, Thomas Lee sold a variety of goods imported from England. The ones that stood out the most to me were the “Ladies SILKS of the newest Fashion.” I was interested in finding more about silks because I wanted to know more about women’s fashion in the colonial era. I discovered that the materials used to make women’s clothing changed during the eighteenth century. According to the “Fashion History Timeline” from the Fashion Institute of Technology, “The heavy, brocaded, lushly floral silks of the mid-century were superseded by silks that were both lighter in weight and simpler in design, heralding ‘the advent of Neo-Classicism.’ In the first half of the 1770s, motifs shrank significantly and ‘the vertical element of the of the late 1760s proliferated in the early 1770s into clusters of broad and narrow stripes.’ By the middle of the decade, ‘the clustered stripes had all but disappeared and, instead … [they were absolutely regular in width.” Fashions for women seemed to enter a new age of design every couple of years! Thomas Lee advertised “a most elegant Assortment” of “Ladies SILKS,” allowing for colonial women to dress in “the newest Fashions.”
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Along with price and quality, eighteenth-century advertisers frequently made appeals to fashion as they attempted to incite demand for the goods they sold. Merchants and shopkeepers, tailors and milliners all tried to convince prospective customers that they could outfit them in current styles. As Tori notes, Thomas Lee promoted his “Supply of Ladies SILKS of the newest Fashions” in an advertisement that ran in the April 20, 1772, edition of Boston Evening-Post. Elsewhere in the same issue, Cyrus Baldwin advertised a “large and neat Assortment of English and India Goods” that included “LADIES newest-fashioned bonnets” and other items. The proprietors of the Irish Linen Warehouse on King Street informed readers that they stocked a “Variety of the most elegant Copper-Plate printed Muslins for Ladies Summer Wear, much esteemed at present among the most fashionable People in England.” John Barrett and Sons published an extensive catalog of goods available at their shop, underscoring fashion in the first two entries: “New fashion brown, purple, green & blue English Damasks” and “Very fashionable & genteel brocaded & striped, changeable cloth color’d, white, grey and black Mantuas & Lutestrings.”
As these examples make clear, purveyors of textiles, garments, and all sorts of accessories knew that prospective customers did not measure fashion solely in terms of the styles they saw others wearing in the colonies. Instead, consumers looked across the Atlantic for cues, seeking to demonstrate that they shared the sophisticated tastes of genteel men and women who shopped in London and pursued cosmopolitan lifestyles in town and country. Those tastes evolved quickly, as Tori discovered in her research. How quickly they evolved was one of the defining features of the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. On both sides of the Atlantic, consumers updated their wardrobes much more frequently than they did a century earlier, fueled by a preoccupation with fashion and a desire to display their own status and good taste. That gave Lee and other advertisers greater leverage in their interactions with prospective customers, enticing them with “the newest Fashions” to get consumers into their shops.