SARAH (SALLY) MCKEAN (1777-1841), the daughter of lawyer and politician Thomas McKean and his second wife Sarah Armitage, grew up in Philadelphia. As a young woman she was a welcome addition to that city’s social scene where she was acknowledged to be a “great beauty.” Sally wrote humorous, gossipy letters to her friends; in this one to Anna Payne Cutts, the younger sister of Dolley Payne who married James Madison, she described the fashions in 1796.
Philadelphia, June 10, 1796. . . . And now, my dear Anna, we will have done with judges and juries, courts, both martial and partial, and we will speak a little about Philadelphia and the fashions, the beaux, Congress, and the weather. Do I not make a fine jumble of them? . . . ha, ha, mind you laugh here with me. Philadelphia never was known to be so lively at this season as at present; for an accurate account of the amusements, I refer you to my letter to your sister Mary. I went yesterday to see a doll, which has come from England, dressed to show us the fashions, and I saw besides a great quantity of millinery. Very long trains are worn, and they are festooned up with loops of bobbin, and small covered buttons, the same as the dress : you are not confined to any number of festoons, but put them according to your fancy, and you cannot conceive what a beautiful effect it has. There is also a robe which is plaited very far back, open and ruffled down the sides, without a train, being even with the petticoat. The hats are quite a different shape from what they used to be: they have no slope in the crown, scarce any rim, and are turned up at each side, and worn very much on the side of the head. Several of them are made of chipped wood, commonly known as cane hats; they are all lined: one that has come for Mrs. Bingham [Ann Willing Bingham] is lined with white, and trimmed with broad purple ribbon, put round in large puffs, with a bow on the left side. The bonnets are all open on the top, through which the hair is passed, either up or down as you fancy, but latterly they wear it more up than down; it is quite out of fashion to frizz or curl the hair, as it is worn perfectly straight. Earrings, too, are very fashionable. The waists are worn two inches longer than they used to be, and there is no such thing as long sleeves. They are worn half way above the elbow, either drawn or plaited in various ways, according to fancy ; they do not wear ruffles at all, and as for elbows, Anna, ours would be alabaster, compared to some of the ladies who follow the fashion; black or a colored ribbon is pinned round the bare arm, between the elbow and the sleeve. There have come some new-fashioned slippers for ladies, made of various colored kid or morocco, with small silver clasps sewed on; they are very hand some, and make the feet look remarkably small and neat. Everybody thinks the millinery last received the most tasty seen for a long time.
All our beaux are well; the amiable Chevalier is perfectly recovered, and handsomer than ever. I mentioned to him last evening that I had received a letter from you, and that you desired to be remembered to him; he seemed much pleased at your attention, and desired that I should give his best love to you when I wrote . . . so you see, my dear Anna, I do keep my promise, tho you scold me so much. Mind that you write me a long answer to this, and that very soon.
Your sincere and affectionate friend,
Letter from Sally McKean d’Yrujo to Anna Payne Cutts, June 10, 1796, in Memoirs and Letters of Dolly [sic] Madison, Wife of James Madison, President of the United States, Cutts, Lucia B.. (Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1886, pp. 210. The portrait is from The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Marchioness D’Yrujo, (Sally McKean),” a stipple engraving after a Gilbert Stuart painting from The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Examples of hats come from this SITE.