Snobbery & Stays: Fashion as Social Marker in Fever 1793

Although the Philadelphia of Laura Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 often reflected ideals (such as equality and independence) that motivated the American Revolution, society was still separated by social class. As such, clothing often revealed one’s place in that hierarchy. Halse Anderson’s protagonist, fifteen-year-old Mattie Cook, gets a crash course in this lesson when attending tea with women from the fashionable Ogilvie family.

First, a little background on what women wore during the Revolutionary era and after. Before this time, people often looked to England for fashion inspiration. Wealthy women might don restricting corsets, voluptuous hoop skirts, excessive fabrics, large hats, powdered hair, and high heels. Around the 1790s, though, dresses began mirroring French styles with more natural empire waists, thinner fabrics, slimmer skirts, and subtler hair styles. In 1793, however, facets of earlier, more extravagant styles still held favor with many elite families ("Historic Threads" and "The Revolution" ).

 

Mrs. Ogilvie and her daughters reflect this continuation and clearly dress to impress; their fashion choices align with the wealthy elite and the earlier, more cumbersome clothing. As Mattie observes, “[Lady Ogilvie]  sailed across the room like a man-of-war, showing the brocade tips of her shoes and layers of lace-trimmed, starched petticoats. Her overpowdered hair left a trail behind her that settled like smoke on the carpet” (47). Not only does such clothing signal the Ogilvies’ wealth, but it subtly references naval skirmishes of the American Revolution. A “man of war” was a large frigate used in battles at sea. Given that English elitism and American egalitarianism were often pitted against each other, Halse Anderson’s word choice reveals continuing class warfare at the heart of American society. It aligns Mrs. Ogilvie with the stuffy elitism that is a holdover of the English class system.

Her daughters’ style also signifies wealth and status. They “swept into the room, dressed in matching pink and yellow bombazine gowns and wearing their curled hair piled on top of their heads” (48). Such rich fabric and elaborate hair mark them as part of the upper crust, and the their behavior in general - openly hostile to having their brother marry into the Cook family and take on their lesser status and “unsuitable” trade - support Mattie’s estimation of them as “snobs” (41).

Mattie and her mother’s clothing situate them as lower in the social pecking order. The everyday tasks of running a busy coffee house demand functional clothing. “We had tea-buying clothes, tea-brewing clothes, and tea-serving clothes,” explains Mattie, “but we had no taking-tea-with-the-Ogilvies clothes” (42). Simply put, they work on the production side of the tea trade rather than the consumer side. Mattie’s mother must “wear her unfashionable ivory-colored gown, last seen at a victory ball after the war,” and Mattie deals with not having “a proper short gown to cover the bodice” of her “church petticoat.”

 

While Halse Anderson spends time describing particular details of the Ogilvies’ wardrobe, she only focuses on the basic elements of the Cooks' wardrobe, such as the bodice, the petticoat, and the outermost gown. And Mattie clearly isn’t comfortable donning the dressier garments that her mother and Eliza force her to wear for tea. “I had to breathe in short puffs as we waited at the front door of the Ogilvie mansion," she explains. "The stays bit into my stomach and my shift was already sweat-soaked. If this was how the upper- class felt all the time, no wonder they were all so cross” (46).

This afternoon tea, then, helps us situate the Cook family within Philadelphia's evolving social scene, and it ties into questions of who might be a suitable husband for Mattie in the future. As her mother tells her that "'it's not too early to search for a suitable man,'" Mattie begins to realize her social status - and the way she presents it to the rest of society - may have a bigger impact on her life than she ever realized (43). 

References: 

"Historic Threads: Three Centuries of Clothing." Colonial Williamsburg Museum Collection. 2017. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Web. 11 June 2017. 

"The Revolution and the New Republic 1775 - 1800." AmericanRevolution.org. 2016. Web. 11 June 2017.