Perfect for a 1780 Wedding: a Robe à la Polonaise

No one today knows what Eliza Schuyler wore for her wedding to Alexander Hamilton in December, 1780. Eliza didn't leave a description of it, nor did any of the guests who attended the ceremony. The dress has long since vanished, doubtless remade and reused as Eliza's "best" dress, as was common practice at the time. Given the Schuyler family's social standing, she most likely had two dresses: one for the ceremony at her parents' house during the day, and another for the celebrations in the evening that lasted far into the night. 

As a fiction writer, this is where I get to be inventive. To properly imagine Eliza's wedding dress, I turned for help to my friend Janea Whitacre, mantua-maker and mistress of the trade at Colonial Williamsburg. Janea is a scholar of 18thc colonial fashion as well as being supremely skilled at recreating the newest styles from 1780 London, and I'm sure that all the Schuyler ladies would have loved to have had her time-travel back to Albany to stitch a new gown or two. 

Even in the middle of the war, Eliza's wedding clothes would probably have been both fashionable and costly. Because Eliza's older sister Angelica had eloped without her parents' consent, Eliza's wedding must have taken on extra significance. The multitude of guests came from the Schuylers' extended family as well as New York's social elite, eager to wish the young couple well. By comparison, the groom had no family in attendance, and only one friend: James McHenry, secretary to General Washington. No wonder Alexander was eager to be swept up into the welcoming embrace of Eliza's sprawling family.

Janea and I consulted a 1780 copy of The Lady's Magazine - the Georgian version of Vogue - for what was appropriate for a winter wedding that year. I'm not going to share the description here; even fictional brides deserve to have their wedding "reveal." But I will say that one of Eliza's two dresses was a robe à la Polonaise, much like this one. The overskirt is drawn up inside with cords and loops to create the characteristic "pouf" to the skirts, for stylish volume and the better to display the expensive textile - here a hand-painted silk imported from China. 

One part of Eliza's wedding ensemble does still exist. The wide neckline of a dress such as this one would have been partially covered by a fine linen kerchief, wrapped around the shoulders and tucked or pinned in place. An elaborate cutwork and exquisitely embroidered neckerchief is in the collection of the Rare Books & Manuscript Library at Columbia University in New York City, and Hamilton family tradition maintains that Eliza - a skilled needleworker - made the neckerchief herself to wear at her wedding. I've seen it in person, and it's definitely wedding-worthy. Look for it in a future post!

Above: Robe à la Polonaise, c1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott will be published September 26, 2017, by Kensington Books. Pre-order now.

A c1790 India Chintz Gown that Eliza Hamilton Could Have Worn

There aren't any surviving dresses or gowns that we definitely know were worn by Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, nor, like some women, did she leave descriptions of favorite clothes or record what she wore where. Still, it's possible to guess what might have been in her wardrobe. She was born into a family that wasn't afraid of displaying their wealth in their home, so it's a good guess that Eliza and the other Schuyler daughters were dressed fashionably, and expensively. Alexander Hamilton was considered something of a male peacock who favored brightly colored silks that he had tailored to show off his military bearing, and it's likely that he encouraged Eliza as his wife to dress fashionably, too.

Forget the myth of colonial homespun. Even in the middle of the Revolution, affluent New York ladies dressed every bit as stylishly as their counterparts in London. The newest fashions were only a trans-Atlantic voyage away; a new style could appear one day at Court, and be available in New York shops less than a month later. Even Eliza's older sister Angelica noted in a letter to Eliza that the women of New York were following - and wearing - the latest extravagant trends more closely than the ladies in London.

This two-piece ensemble was worn in Albany (the Schuyler family's hometown) around 1790, and is currently on display in Colonial Williamsburg as part of their "Printed Fashions: Textiles for Clothing and Home Exhibition" exhibition. The fabric is a chintz cotton - a costly luxury fabric in the 18thc - painted and dyed in India for the export market in Europe and America. The ruffled peplum at the back waist of the jacket added a stylish accent that must have fluttered charmingly when the wearer walked. To achieve the fashionable volume in the skirts - less extreme than earlier in the 18thc, but still in evidence - the petticoat would have been worn over a false rump. The cotton jacket is lined with less expensive linen, making the ensemble both cool and comfortable in warmer weather.

And yes, there's even a connection between this dress and Eliza. The ensemble belonged to Anne Van Cortlandt Van Rennselaer (1766-1855), a cousin of Eliza's through her mother, who was also a Van Rennselaer. Anne and Eliza were close in age, and once Anne married Philip Van Rensselaer in 1787 and moved to Albany from Croton, NY, Anne and Philip belonged to the same Dutch church as Eliza's family. They almost certainly met socially. Both women's husbands were involved in politics, too: Anne's husband Philip was the mayor of Albany, while Eliza's husband Alexander served in the New York state legislature, attended the Constitutional Convention, and was the first Secretary of the Treasury in the new federal government.

As for this chintz ensemble - I wouldn't be at all surprised if Eliza had one much like it in her wardrobe, too. Alexander would have approved.

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott will be published September 26, 2017, by Kensington Books. Pre-order now.

From Paris to New York City: Hedgehog Hair, c1785

It's a still-too-popular myth that early Americans were unfashionably plain and self-sufficient, wearing simply braided hair and clothes of homespun fabric. In this unrealistic vision of 18thc life, women not only tended the sheep, but spun the wool, wove the thread into fabric, and then cut and sewed all the clothes for their family.

Well, no. Very little fabric was produced at home, and nearly all of it was imported. People who lived along the coast were eager to follow the fashions of Paris and London, and the latest styles were imported along with fine woolens, silks, cottons, and linen. Even settlers and Native Americans living on the frontier traded for woolen cloth made in England. European visitors were surprised by how fashionable Americans were, and how the ladies in Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York followed the same trends as their sisters abroad.

These two portraits show how swiftly and thoroughly fashion came across the Atlantic. The portrait, left, of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, was painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1785. The queen wears her hair in the latest style, a la hérisson, or the hedgehog, devised by her hairdresser Léonard-Alexis Autié. Monsieur Léonard (as he was known at court) cut the front of the queen's hair shorter, brushed it with a scented "hard" pomade made from beeswax, curled it on narrow rollers or with heated tongs, and frizzed it for extravagant volume. Unlike today, frizz was an 18thc lady's best friend, and the more, the better. Loose falling side curls towards the back soften the effect. Finally the entire hair is dusted with a starchy powder to whiten it. (See herehere, and here for more about 18thc hair powder and pomade.)

The queen not only favored this hairstyle, but found it was a good "support" for the oversized turbans, plumes, and poufs she liked to wear during this period. While white-powdered hair was beginning to fall from fashion - it disappeared for good with the French Revolution - the queen continued to powder her fair hair to an even whiter pallor, the better to show off her complexion in contrast.

Variations on the hedgehog style were popular throughout the 1780s. Many of the ladies in portraits by Thomas Gainsborough sport hedgehog-inspired hair, and the hairdressers of the recent movie The Duchess gave Kiera Knightley wigs with stupendous hedgehogs.

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In 1787, the style was being worn in New York City, too. The second portrait, right, by American artist Ralph Earl, is of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, wife of then-member of the Continental Congress Alexander Hamilton; she's also the heroine of my upcoming book I, ELIZA HAMILTON. The Hamiltons were a fashionable young couple in Federalist New York City and in Philadelphia, attending the theatre, balls, and dinners with equally fashionable friends, and would have been very aware of European styles in hair and dress.

In her portrait, Eliza has clearly followed the royal trend-setter. Some historians (male, and dismissive of fashion history) describe her as wearing a wig, but that's her own hair, frizzed and powdered into an elegant hedgehog. It's a surprisingly close copy of the queen's hair, down to the horizontal falling curls at the back, although Eliza chose a simpler headdress of fine linen or silk gauze instead of Marie-Antoinette's plumed turban.

That snowy white hair must have taken a considerable amount of powder to achieve, too, for beneath it Eliza's natural hair color was described as a very dark brown, almost black - you can see it showing through the powder. So much powder made a statement of affluence as well. Hair powder was considered a luxury good, and while flour could be substituted as a low-cost alternative in a pinch, the best powder was imported, a finely ground mixture of starch, bone, and orris root for scent. It's likely that Eliza wore her hair this heavily powdered only for special occasions, and by the time she sat for another portrait in the 1790s, she'd given it up, and is shown wearing her own dark hair. There is, however, a record of Eliza receiving a gift of hair powder in 1780 from Martha Washington - a thoughtful present from another 18thc lady who enjoyed a good powdering. 

Above left: Marie Antoinette with a Rose by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lower right: Portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Mrs. Alexander Hamilton by Ralph Earl, c1787, Museum of the City of New York.

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott will be published September 26, 2017, by Kensington Books. Pre-order now:

History Mystery: Is This a Forgotten Portrait of Angelica Schuyler Church?

Anyone familiar with the musical Hamilton already knows the name Angelica Schulyer Church (1756-1814). In fact, in most Hamil-fan circles, she's called just Angelica, the Schuyler sister who's famously never satisfied.

Anyone alive in late 18thc London and Paris would have recognized her name, too, for she was certainly the best-known American woman in the fast set of English society. Born into a wealthy Dutch-American family in Albany, NY, she eloped with John Church, a slightly shady Englishman who made his fortune selling arms during the American Revolution. After the war, John took Angelica and their children back to England, where he became a landed gentleman and a member of parliament. Angelica combined  her wit, beauty, and vivacious character with her husband's money to make her drawing room one of THE places to see and be seen in Georgian London.

Angelica was admired by gentlemen as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, the Prince of Wales, the Marquis de Lafayette, Whig party leader Charles James Fox and playwright Richard Brinsely Sheridan. She was a patron of artists Benjamin West, John Trumbull, and Maria Cosway. She may (or may not) have had an affair with Thomas Jefferson, and she may (or may not) have had one with her brother-in-law Alexander Hamilton, too.

To me, she's the older sister of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, the heroine of my new historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton (to be published by Kensington Books in September, 2017.) I've been wallowing deep in my research of the Schuyler and Hamilton families for a good long time now. Characters become very real to me (especially the ones who were real people - I know, weird writer problems) to the point that I half-expect to run into them at the local grocery.

So imagine my surprise when the lovely face, right, turned up in my Instagram feed this morning. Posted by the account of the Philip Mould Gallery in London, this portrait is by the well-known Georgian miniature painter Samuel Shelley (1750-1808). Shelley was famous for painting society beauties of the day, and this one - identified only as a portrait of a lady - is a gorgeous example of his work.

I'm also convinced it's a forgotten portrait of Angelica Schuyler Church.


There are only two other portraits of Angelica known today. One is a portrait of her with her son and servant by the American artist John Trumbull, detail, right, and the other a print after a painting by English artist Richard Cosway. To my eye, the Trumbull and Shelley portraits show the same woman. It's an uncommon face for an 18thc beauty: a long nose (which also turns up in portraits of her father), a small mouth, the dark, slightly close-set eyes. The Shelley miniature also seems to capture both the flirtatious charm and intelligence that Angelica's contemporaries all mention.

From the clothes and hair style, I'd guess that this portrait was painted in the 1780s, the time when Angelica was living in London. The art world in London at the time was a small one; another portraitist, Maria Cosway, was one of Angelica's closest friends, and it's easy to imagine Maria introducing Samuel Shelley to Angelica as a possible patron.

I've written to Emma Rutherford, the consultant specializing in miniatures for Philip Mould with my thoughts. In the meantime, what do you think? Is this Angelica?

Above left: Portrait of a Lady by Samuel Shelley, image via Philip Mould Gallery.
Left: Portrait of Mrs. John Barker Church (Angelica Schuyler), Son Philip, and Servant by John Trumbull, c1785, private collection

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott will be published September 26, 2017, by Kensington Books. Pre-order now: