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“an account of the dress of the ladies”

In 1786, John Adams was representing the United States at the Court of St. James’s. Abigail and their daughter “Nabby” were in London with him. Abigail wrote a letter to her niece, Lucy Cranch, in which she recounted the events she was obliged to attend as the wife of the ambassador, and she described at some length the prevailing fashions.

London, 2 April, 1786To amuse you, then, my dear niece, I will give you an account of the dress of the ladies at the ball of the Comte d’Adh’mar. … They were much more properly clad; silk waists, gauze or white or painted tiffany coats decorated with ribbon, beads or flowers, as fancy directed, were chiefly worn by the young ladies. Hats turned up at the sides with diamond loops and buttons of steel, large bows of ribbons and wreaths of flowers, displayed themselves to much advantage upon the heads of some of the prettiest girls England can boast. The light from the lustres is more favorable to beauty than daylight, and the color acquired by dancing, more becoming than rouge, as fancy dresses are more favorable to youth than the formality of a uniform. There was as great a variety of pretty dresses, borrowed wholly from France, as I have ever seen; and amongst the rest, some with sapphire-blue satin waists, spangled with silver, and laced down the back and seams with silver stripes; white satin petticoats trimmed with black and blue velvet ribbon; an odd kind of headdress, which they term the ” helmet of Minerva.” I did not observe the bird of wisdom*, however, nor do I know whether those who wore the dress had suitable pretensions to it.

“And pray,” say you, “how were my aunt and cousin dressed?” If it will gratify you to know, you shall hear. Your aunt, then, wore a full-dress court cap without the lappets, in which was a wreath of white flowers, and blue sheafs, two black and blue flat feathers (which cost her half a guinea a-piece, but that you need not tell of), three pearl pins, bought for Court, and a pair of pearl earrings, the cost of them no matter what; less than diamonds, however. A sapphire blue demi-saison with a satin stripe, sack and petticoat trimmed with a broad black lace; crape flounce, &c.; leaves made of blue ribbon, and trimmed with white floss; wreaths of black velvet ribbon spotted with steel beads, which are much in fashion, and brought to such perfection as to resemble diamonds; white ribbon also in the Vandyke style, made up of the trimming, which looked very elegant; a full dress handkerchief, and a bouquet of roses. “Full gay, I think, for my aunt.” That is true, Lucy, but nobody is old in Europe. I was seated next the Duchess of Bedford, who had a scarlet satin sack and coat, with a cushion full of diamonds, for hair she has none, and is but seventy-six, neither.

Well, now for your cousin; a small, white Leghorn hat, bound with pink satin ribbon; a steel buckle and band which turned up at the side, and confined a large pink bow; large bow of the same kind of ribbon behind; a wreath of full-blown roses round the crown, and another of buds and roses withinside the hat, which being placed at the back of the hair, brought the roses to the edge; you see it clearly; one red and black feather, with two white ones, completed the headdress. A gown and coat of Chambéri gauze, with a red satin stripe over a pink waist, and coat flounced with crape, trimmed with broad point and pink ribbon; wreaths of roses across the coat; gauze sleeves and ruffles. But the poor girl was so sick with a cold, that she could not enjoy herself, and we retired about one o’clock without waiting supper. …

Thus, my dear girl, you have an account which perhaps may amuse you a little. … I am engaged three days this week,—to a rout at the Baroness de Nolken’s, the Swedish minister’s, to a ball on Thursday evening, and to a dinner on Saturday. Do not fear that your aunt will become dissipated, or in love with European manners; but, as opportunity offers, I wish to see this European world in all its forms that I can with decency. I still moralize with Yorick, or with one more experienced, and say ” Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

*Small bonnets worn by English ladies in the late eighteenth century were patterned after the Helmet of Minerva, who was the Goddess of Wisdom. So odd looking that the French used them in caricatures of English women, they were pronounced “awkward, inelegant … and deservedly-abolished.” The “bird of wisdom” refers to the goddess’ symbol, the owl.

This excerpt is from Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams. with an Introductory Memoir by her Grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Volume II (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, Second Edition, 1849), pages 130-34. The illustration is from The Manual of Elegant Recreations, Exercises and Pursuits—The Young Lady’s Book (London: Vizetelly, Branston, and Co., 1829, page 285. The cream-colored satin shoe is thought to have been worn by Abigail, ca. 1789.

posted May 24th, 2012 by Janet, Comments Off on “an account of the dress of the ladies”, CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail,Americans Abroad,Cranch, Lucy,Fashion,London

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