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.