“a doll . . . dressed to show us the fashions”

ANNA PAYNE, Dolley Payne Todd Madison’s youngest sister, lived with Dolley until she married in 1804. Sarah “Sally” McKean, the daughter of a Pennsylvania politician, was one of a number of “belles” of Philadelphia and a friend of Dolley’s. She also befriended Anna. Sally’s letter to Anna which follows describes the fashions of the day in considerable detail. Note her mention of the “doll” sent from England dressed in the latest fashions. Wealthy women could have local dressmakers copy the styles in fabrics of their choice.

Philadelphia, June 10, 1796And now, my dear Anna . . . 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? . . . 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. [Anne 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 handsome, and make the feet look remarkably small and neat. Everybody thinks the millinery last received the most tasty seen for a long time. . . .
Mind that you write me a long answer to this, and that very soon.
Your sincere and affectionate friend,
Sally McKean.

Sally McKean married the Spanish minister plenipotentiary to the United States, Carlos Martínez de Irujo, in 1798. After the birth of her third child she moved with her husband to Spain in 1808 from which she never returned. Anna Payne married Richard Cutts, a Massachusetts congressman in 1804. James Madison served as President Jefferson’s Secretary of State, was elected president in 1808 and served two terms. Dolley played a much more active role in public life than did her predecessors. She often served as Jefferson’s hostess and as the ‘first lady,” wearing her trademark turban, presided over grand dinners and entertainments in the redecorated public rooms in the presidential mansion.

See more information about Dolley Madison HERE. Sally McKean’s letter to Anna Cutts can be found HERE, pages 18-21.


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