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Recreated 1787 Eliza Hamilton Gown

How did Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton add a little something extra to her outfits while she lived in Philadelphia, and what accessories go with “Fashioning Eliza: 1787”? This month, we ask Amber Mendenhall Welch about her contribution to styling Eliza within her larger historical costuming work and inspiration. Visitors to Hamilton Was Here are invited to try on similar fashions from the early 1790s and learn how women like Eliza Hamilton would have presented themselves to meet First Lady Martha Washington at the President’s House in Philadelphia.

In conversation with the “Fashioning Eliza: 1777-1787” gown designer Samantha McCarty, we are happy to introduce Amber Mendenhall Welch, a clothing historian and historical seamstress from Mount Vernon, Ohio, who designed, sourced and made four customized items to be worn by Amy, an Educator at the Museum of the American Revolution.

What did you make in this photo? How did you select the materials?
Selecting the materials for recreating historical portraiture is a fun, and sometimes daunting, task! For this portion of the project, I recreated the cap (or headdress), kerchief, false rump, and velvet cuffs seen in Ralph Earl’s portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. The most challenging accessory was the lace on the kerchief. Because surviving 18th-century laces are prohibitively expensive to use and handle today, it took considerable time to source a suitable substitute. In the end, I chose an antique Victorian tambour net lace, which started out as an ecru or tan color. Noticing that the portrait displayed Elizabeth Hamilton wearing a white kerchief, I carefully used chemicals to lighten the lace. This process can sometimes cause the delicate laces to disintegrate, which makes it a very scary task to do! The entire process of cleaning, mending, and attaching the lace took nearly 6 hours. I chose this lace because it evoked the scalloped and vine-like patterns of Mrs. Hamilton's and was in remarkable condition.

For the body of the kerchief and the matching cap, I used a very sheer silk gauze. In 21st-century terms, this is called silk organza. I also considered using cotton and linen, which could easily have been used for recreating such accessories if they held the correct sheerness. However, cotton and linen with this quality is exceedingly hard to find now. Using silk gauze for these two items turned out to be very rewarding: with this material’s stiff crispness, they looked just like the portrait!

What would people be surprised to know about late 1780s women’s styles and fashion in the late 1780s? Is the design for Eliza’s 1787 style “typical” for women? What do you think this style says about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and her world in 1787?
The 1780s were similar to the 1980s when it came to wacky color combinations, big hair, extreme accessorizing... and emphasizing ones' rear end and waist! Underneath the silk gown sewn by Samantha McCarty, and unseen to our eyes, is a large "false rump.” In 1780s fashion, this was essentially two pillows attached to a waistband. I made this item using a course linen fabric and stuffed it with wool. In the 18th-century, some were stuffed with cork! Large rumps like this helped to make a woman’s waist look smaller, which was a welcome side effect for the fashionable lady. 

One surprising fact about fashion during this era is how quickly fads came and went. Millinery, a term that we use strictly for hats today, referred to any readymade accessories during the 18th century. Rather than making or buying a new gown, it was easy to buy a new cap, kerchief, or set of sleeve ruffles to keep up with “fast fashion.” For instance, during the brief period of 1785-1788, having one or more kerchiefs over ones' cap, wearing a long double ruffle at your sleeve hem and then adding yet another over kerchief over the neckline—layers on layers of accessories! – seemed to be the "in thing.” All over the new United State, accessories were where it was at!

Eliza’s 1787 portrait is a wonderful depiction of a sensible but stylish woman during these ever-so-frou-frou fads, 1785-1788. To modern eyes, her accessories are on the larger side, but her choices are not overly extravagant or costly in comparison with the depictions seen in fashion plates or even in other American portraits from the same year. From details in the painting, it seems like Eliza’s choices were a conscious effort to be fashionable but not seen as frivolous.

How did you get interested in historical costuming, and do you have any resources to recommend for newcomers to researching and making 18th-century women’s clothing?
My interest in historical clothing started when I was 13 and poured over library books of art history and costume history for hours upon hours. I enjoyed thinking about how individual lives would have been affected by the clothes or how the clothes were affected by life at the time. I'm also a "maker" to my core, so learning how to make the clothing was a natural next step in trying to understand and contemplate those questions. For those just starting out in the historical clothing world, it can be a little daunting because now there are so many sources to peruse over in books, online collections and at museums. Visiting local museums are a great way to examine pieces in person, volunteer and/or donate to the amazing things they do! And even if a museum is not local to you, there are so many wonderful museums that offer access to online collections with photos and descriptions of so many fascinating pieces. Research, research, research!

About Amber Mendenhall Welch 

Image 121820 Fashioning Eliza Amber Mendenhall Welch Photo 400x600
Amber Mendenhall Welch

Amber Mendenhall Welch is a clothing historian and historical seamstress from Mount Vernon, Ohio. She has a B.S.S. in American History and Historical Costume Construction from Ohio University and interned at the Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop in Colonial Williamsburg. She now owns her own historical clothing business, Virgil's Fine Goods, creating historically accurate accessories for living historians and costume enthusiasts. Her specialties include handsewing 18th century finery, historical hairstyling and millinery/hatmaking. You can follow her at her blog: Lady of the Wilderness or on Instagram @ladyofthewilderness or @virgilsfinegoods.

Costumes made possible by a generous gift from David and Kim Adler.

Next Post: Fashioning Eliza in 1787: A White Silk Dress for a Special Portrait

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Image 121820 Fashioning Eliza Project Dsc 8563
 

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Hamilton Was Here: Rising Up in Revolutionary Philadelphia

October 27, 2018 - March 17, 2019
Hamilton Was Here was a hands-on exhibit revealing the connections between Philadelphia and Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to the nation’s founding.
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I, Eliza Hamilton

Read an excerpt from Susan Holloway Scott's work of historical fiction about Eliza Schuyler, wife of Alexander Hamilton, during the Revolutionary War.
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