Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Alida's Closet: Clothing in Albany 1692-1700

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.


I for one, was a little surprised by the frequency with which Alida mentioned silk in her letters.  As I pictured the pounded-dirt streets of Albany in the mud and muck of a northern spring, I didn't expect to see Alida's April 1692 request that Robert "buy 2 more yards of that silk for Susie's jacket..." let alone "a piece white satin" in the same note (satin, like damask or taffeta, is a way to weave the silk fibers).  Out of the 48 pieces of clothing or cloth that were mentioned in the 30 letters that I have seen translated, 10 of those were silk--comprising about a fifth of everything mentioned.

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."

At other times, Alida needed silk to be sold in the store.  "Our store is now empty of cloth and damask and satin.  All together not 3 pieces in the store," she wrote in March of 1698 (punctuation mine--Alida did not use any punctuation.  But she also wrote in Dutch so keep in mind that these are translated anyway).  After months of the river having been frozen shut, it is little wonder that stock was running low since the yacht would have been unable to make the journey north.  Without these fine fabrics however, Alida was hesitant to risk the wrath of dissatisfied shoppers.  "I don't dare to open it anymore," she wrote her husband.  Perhaps her other Albany neighbors had daughters hungering for shiny new satin dresses or fine silk nightshirts.  Four days later she wrote again, urging him to send the fabric soon and adding "an ounce of orange silk" to the list.  It is likely that this small quantity was a silk thread for use in sewing or embroidery.  At any rate, it's a colorful image to brighten those muddy Albany streets.

Alida and Robert carried far more fabrics than just silk in their store.  In 1698, she wanted her husband to find lace that could be resold "for 3 and 4 guilders" as well as a higher quality lace that could go for "5 and 6 guilders the 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."

Linen was another product that Alida and her fellow Albany residents encountered in a variety of qualities.  "Rough linnen," could be used for linings and interlinings, as well as servants' and slaves clothing.  Other linen could be fine enough to cost more than lace trim, as much as "8 or 9 guilders" per ell and still other linen was intended just for shirts.  Some linen was so finely woven, it could be nearly transparent, as seen above at left.  All together, my little pack of letters had only four mentions of linen.  Given our current understanding of the large role it played in clothing of the time, it is interesting to read Alida's complaints of scarcity.

In August of 1698, Alida sent a luxurious gift of  "6 of the very best marten for milady Bellemont, which I honor her with. They cost 3 pieces of eight. They have been selected from among a hundred." This rich sable-colored fur had been a luxury product for centuries and could have been used to trim a cloak, or even a gown, and was also used in muffs and hats (see the later 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.

Beyond fabrics, Alida describes the Livingston wardrobes full of different items required to meet the European standards of decency and fashion.  White linen (and apparently sometimes cotton) "shirts" were worn by the men of the family to maintain hygiene and demonstrate their quality.  Alida sent Robert "2 wigs" and "a cane" (all fashionable items) in April 1698.  "Nightshirts" were used for sleeping by both the men and the women.  Alida once ordered "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.

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