Alida Schuyler Livingston was a pretty 23-year-old widow when she married Robert Livingston in 1679. Alida was born to a pretty wealthy family, and she was the widow of the Van Rensselaer family (who were extremely wealthy). In spite of English laws and cultural traditions that sought to limit women's roles in public life, Alida proved a valuable partner for her second husband. During his extended periods of absence in New York City and even England, she managed their store in Albany, overseeing purchasing and stock while he tended to other matters of politics and business. Basically, she was a member of a of privileged, wealthy class of Dutch descendants living in newly-English New York.
Even with her good pedigree and high status, Alida was living in Albany, far from the centers of culture and fashion in Europe. The town had been founded three generations before by the Dutch as a trading post and was still a stockaded city, guarded by a fort, and with only a few major streets, as seen in this map showing the city in 1695 (from a history published around the city's bicentennial). With only 500-1000 residents at this time, it wasn't what you might think of as the height of fashion.
The houses were tiny by today's standards, often only one room wide and one or two rooms deep--and they weren't big rooms. Even the wealthy Schuyler family's home, where Alida grew up (seen below in both an 18th century illustration and a 19th century photograph), lacked the grandeur of Georgian architecture that would soon grace the outlying areas of the city.
Nevertheless, as much as you might be tempted to believe otherwise, Albany residents were still doing their best to keep up appearances. They were decorating their homes with art, serving on silver platters, and generally emulating the well-to-do of Europe, with whom they culturally identified. They were certainly not lounging around in the style-less seventeenth-century equivalent of sweatpants.
On the contrary, Alida's letters to her husband Robert around the end of the seventeenth century reveal an Albany upper class that craved exotic fabrics and struggled to keep abreast of European fashions (though how well they succeeded was a matter of debate both then and now). They bought silk damasks and printed cottons and trimmed their clothing with rich furs. Magdalene Douw at left is a Albany resident from some 50 years later, sporting her own grand damask gown. Most of these items had to be imported from afar in the English empire to Boston or New York and then transported up the North River, and Alida and Robert were happily turning a profit doing just that with their yacht and their store.
Alida requested the fie fabric for herself and her children much of the time. She wrote for "as much silk [as needed] for a newfashioned nightshirt" in 1697 and "[daughter] Marghriet would love ... as much handsome silk as for a dress at the
manner [on the Roeliff Jansen Kill]" in April of 1698, though the expense was a concern. She added afterwards "but I don't know if we can afford it."
ell." Lace was another high-end product, almost exclusively worn by the wealthy and still entirely handmade at this time (see right, 1670 Boston by the Freake Limner).
Albany customers were choosey as well. Not just any fabric would do. When Dick Wessels received a shipment of 3 pieces of fabric from another vendor, Alida reported his dissatisfaction to her husband. "He is very discontented about that," she wrote, "it is of
poor color." Although Wessels hoped that Livingstons would exchange the fabric for something of better quality, Alida staunchly refused. Instead, "let him look for the merchant who sent it to
him," she advised.
Cotton was still a fairly exotic product at this time, primarily imported from India. It was available in a range of qualities that made it obtainable even for the working class (check out The Dress of the People for an excellent exploration of cotton on the working class in England) and fine enough to satisfy the social elites. It was a favorite fabric for how well it took dye, allowing for bright colors as well as rich patterns. Alida's Albany neighbors apparently snapped up the fine muslin she carried. "Muslin has done very well also both flowered and striped," she wrote in March 1698. That June she ordered more: "we need white and flowered cotton for 3 guilders." In June of 1698, she complained "we have no white cotton yarn or blue, red and green."
Curiously, she also once references using cotton for men's shirts--which were otherwise almost exclusively made of linen. In a pinch she told Robert in June of 1698, "there is no linnen to be gotten. You will have to take east indian cotton for shirts."
1778 fashion plate at left for an example of fur use). The care with which she selected the gift--and took care to alert the receiver to that effort--helps to underscore the quality of the gesture.
Perhaps my favorite item in the entire inventory of supplies is the most questionable. Two different translations I have read translate the phrase into "silver lining" and "silver fringe," though I am inclined to believe the latter. Long before the days of shiny gold lamé, metallic fabrics depended on real metal threads to generate glitter. Be it fringe or braid or something in between, Robert Livingston was putting it on the sleeves of his jacket, and his daughter Marghriet wanted it for that "handsome" silk dress she was trying to get from her parents.
muff" from Boston. She got her stays enlarged by "one thumbwidth" on both sides in 1698 after the birth of her last daughter--and a new dress made too. There were new dresses for her daughters in the making, and "Susie's jacket," which was likely not a coat as we would think of it, but more likely a short gown-like garment, worn over petticoats. Laces for closing stays and other clothing, stockings, "a white cap" and plenty of call for fine wool flannel diapers as she got close to delivering her baby. There are several mentions of "bonnets," though with translation issues, I wonder if these may also have been the white linen day caps worn by women on a daily basis.
In all, this short collection of reading provided a wealth of description about Albany residents and their clothes, all going back and forth on "the yacht" for the Livingstons. Isolated or not, the well-to-do in Albany still purchased fabrics that would have made them feel connected to the vast English empire. While such expensive displays might seem
unnecessary in a city that was barely more than a trading
outpost, the wealthy were not deterred.
If gentility produced social power, and dress contributed to gentility,
then it followed that the clothes were worth the expense. Alida and her neighbors wanted to look like the European aristocracy whose lifestyle they craved.