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.