Museum of the American Revolution: Why what Americans wore during wartime mattered

Philadelphia’s famous artist-brothers James Peale and Charles Willson Peale, reuniting on the banks of the Delaware River in December 1776 in a tableau at the Museum of the American Revolution. Also in this tableau are a woman camp-follower and her child. ED HILLE . Staff Photographer

One day during the early stages of the Revolutionary War, New England soldiers and their Southern counterparts converged in Boston with a single goal: to kick the Brits out.

But first they had a few fashion issues to work out.

The Bostonians, seafarers who fancied roundabout coats and wool caps, thought the Southerners, in their fringed hunting shirts and buckskin hats, appeared savage.

On the flip side, the frontiersmen from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania thought the maritime look was dirty. 

When the two sides met on that afternoon in 1775  in the snow-covered streets, a fight broke out. Gen. George Washington, who the men recognized as their commander-in-chief because of his light-blue, moiré-pattern sash, was summoned to break up the bloody fisticuffs.

This altercation -- an example of how our country’s fashion history has always been about more than style -- is one of five reimagined scenes portrayed at the Museum of the American Revolution, opening Wednesday.

“One of our themes throughout the exhibit is the way clothing and other accoutrements helped Americans shape their idea of the nation,” said Philip Mead, director of curatorial affairs and the museum’s chief historian.

Washington’s blue sash indicated his rank. The soldiers’ clothing communicated their states of origin. And, Mead said, the Southern frontiersmen’s Anglicized versions of Native American garb -- especially the leggings and buck-tailed hats -- were early instances of cultural appropriation.

“They were working the visual language of the new country with their clothing,” Mead said.

Seventeen of the museum’s 32 human resin figures -- and two of its horses -- were dressed by the Randolph, Mass., historian, reenactor, and tailor Henry Cooke, who worked for more than a year with a dozen artisans to create the clothes. Two pairs of trousers in the exhibit are from Cooke's reenactor wardrobe.

“Charles Willson Peale is literally wearing my pants,” Cooke said, referring to a scene depicting James Peale seeing for the first time his brother Charles after the Battle of New York City.

The figures dressed in near-replicas are next to real items -- encased in protective glass -- from that era.

There's a coat that once belonged to Lt. Col. Benjamin Holden of the Massachusetts militia, along with a New Hampshire soldier’s hunting shirt. (Washington eventually adopted the linen shirt as part of the Continental  Army’s uniform because it was considered a sign of good marksmanship.) 

Camera icon david maialetti / Staff Photographer
This hunting shirt worn by a soldier from New Hampshire is part of the Museum of the American Revolution exhibit.

Visitors can also see Washington's authentic blue sash.

“Do you know how rare this is to have a piece of Washington’s uniform?” Mead asked about the 80-inch-long silk sash. He discovered it at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and in 2015,  he published an  8,000-word article proving the sash belonged to Washington.

Perhaps even more relevant than the rank-and-file items is the collection of accessories that show how soldiers, women, and black people in bondage felt about their nation. Consider them the 18th-century equivalent of “Make America Great Again,” “Nasty Woman,” or “Black Lives Matter” paraphernalia.

Those mementos include what's called a busk -- a flat piece of wood that women wore under a corsetlike undergarment to keep them standing straight. Thirteen circles, representative of the colonies, surround the words We are one, a symbol of American unity.

“This woman literally wore her cause close to her heart,” Mead said.

Also on display are a leather cap painted with the words For our Country, and powder horns etched with Liberty and Success to America.

The exhibit attempts to explore how people were enslaved by those fighting for freedom -- child-size manacles and a branding iron are among the artifacts. 

“These 18th-century items were important forms of social and patriotic display,” Mead said. “Ultimately, they helped define what the new republic would be.”

We encourage respectful comments but reserve the right to delete anything that doesn't contribute to an engaging dialogue
Help us moderate this thread by flagging comments that violate our guidelines

Comment policy:

Philly.com comments are intended to be civil, friendly conversations. Please treat other participants with respect and in a way that you would want to be treated. You are responsible for what you say. And please, stay on topic. If you see an objectionable post, please report it to us using the "Report Abuse" option.

Please note that comments are monitored by Philly.com staff. We reserve the right at all times to remove any information or materials that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable. Personal attacks, especially on other participants, are not permitted. We reserve the right to permanently block any user who violates these terms and conditions.

Additionally comments that are long, have multiple paragraph breaks, include code, or include hyperlinks may not be posted.

Load comments
Continue Reading