Dress and Appearance in Florida  – What People Looked Like in 1821 – by Rachel Laue


The McIntoshes
Twin miniatures of John Houston McIntosh (1772-1836) and Eliza Bayard McIntosh (1769-1847) show a well-to-do couple of the early 1800s who lived in both Florida and Georgia.  Eliza wears the high Empire style and lace cap of a young married woman.  John Houston wears the tailcoat, waistcoat, and neckcloth characteristic of Regency style for his social class.  (From the miniatures owned by Katherine Bayard Heyward).   Edith Duncan Johnson, The Houstouns of Georgia (Georgia University Press, 1950).


The transfer of Florida occurred towards the end of the Regency Period in American and European history, when dress and fashion were universal markers of a person’s status in society.  Following the French Revolution in 1789 new fashion trends characterized both the emerging bourgeoise and the proletariat. Americans copied modes of dress in Europe even as they tried to develop a unique national identity or aesthetic.

Tea Gown
Regency style costume for a middle class woman, early 1800s.  Cotton tea gown made by Dress Art Mystery, Kiev, Ukraine.  Bonnet from Historical Emporium, San Jose, Calif.   Photo by Bridget Bihm-Manuel.

Styles of dress also reflected a restructuring of the social order brought about by the American and French Revolutions and by the Napoleonic era in France.  The growth of the middle classes as both a vital economic and political force democratized many aspects of society, including wardrobe.  This was partly due to the impact of the French Revolution, which created a general disdain for the rigid formalities of the ancient regime.

Rather than adhering to the absurd rules of a royal court, clothing was remade for practicality, to suit the life of more robust and energetic societies in the midst of an industrial revolution.  Upper and middle classes both eschewed forms of dress reminiscent of former aristocracy but still favored clothing that set them apart as the leaders of society. Members of the lower classes also followed current fashion, although in cheaper fabrics.

The Regency era – from about 1790 into the 1820s – was therefore a time in which clothing evoked a new value system.  Fashions tended to show-off the body, emphasizing the contours of the male and female figure.  The fit of daily dress contrasted sharply with the elaborate multilayered drapery of earlier times, as well as with the concealing, almost funereal-like clothing introduced in the subsequent Victorian period, with its emphasis on social conformity, modesty, and domestic values.

The reproduction of a Regency-era gown displayed in this exhibit demonstrates the silhouette and decoration of the early 1800s – less ostentatious than the clothing of the mid-1700s, although with no turn toward modesty.  This was a standard form of attire for middle class women.  Their dresses mimicked the flowing elegant lines of classical Greek and Roman art. Because the high Empire cut of 1820s gowns de-emphasized the waist, soft, un-boned, or lightly boned corsets, worn over a cotton shift, took the place of the more rigid, highly structured corsets of the eighteenth century. Stays were fitted to emphasize the décolletage rather than to reduce the size of the waist.

Gowns were typically constructed out of cotton, muslin, wool, or silk. Though everyday wear made use of heavier fabrics, evening attire, particularly that of the fashion conscious, was sometimes thin to the point of transparency, and worn with silk undergarments designed to make the dress cling closely to the body. During the day, women wore rounded bonnets, while at night they decorated their hair with a variety of items, most popularly, flowers and dyed ostrich feathers. Married women always wore a white ruffled lace cap over their hair, but still indulged in decorations.


Pair in Case
Regency style clothing of a middle class man, early 1800s.   Tailcoat, waistcoat, and neckcloth from Historical Emporium, San Jose, Calif.  Breeches from Townsends, Pierceton, Ind.  Photo by Bridget Bihm-Manuel.

Men’s clothing in this period was characterized by broad shouldered tailcoats with short, cinched waists, colorful waistcoats, high collared shirts bound in elaborate neckcloths, and tightly-fitted breeches or trousers.

Careful tailoring was the hallmark of sophisticated dress. Naturally, the finest tailoring was expensive, and therefore, ill-fitting clothes could reveal that the wearer originated from a lower social class or was in dire financial straits. The cravat, a large piece of muslin fabric, intricately tied, went around the neck. Overall, the silhouette evoked the athleticism of the military man and the colonial conqueror with raised jaw, broad shoulders and well-defined legs.

Men also decorated their clothing with jeweled pins tucked into the cravat, watch chains draped into pockets, and finely carved canes in hand. The top hat came into vogue in this period and was always worn alongside tall leather boots suitable for horse riding during the day. The 1820s also saw the first use of rubber in shoes, as the material began to be introduced throughout Europe and the Americas. This allowed a more delicate, slipper-like footwear to gain popularity among both men and women, particularly paired with the finer fabrics of evening attire.


Dress of Enslaved
Typical garb of an enslaved black field hand – a cotton work shirt, trousers, and a straw hat.  Men assigned jobs like lumber-cutting, fence-raising, or cattle-tending may have had some additional gear, including shoes – but common laborers, whether male or female, probably had little beyond basic cover for the long hours out in the fields.   Shirt from Historical Emporium, San Jose, Calif.  Photo by James Cusick.

Most upwardly-mobile settlers in Florida, regardless of background, would have followed the dress code above.  But they represented only half the population.  Of the 8,000 people in Florida in 1821, 4,000 were enslaved Black men, women and children.  Their clothing emphasized the stark contrast in what it meant to be enslaved rather than free.

Most enslaved men and women were clad in the coarsest and cheapest fabrics available – whatever a plantation owner or overseer decided to purchase for them.   Some slaves, serving as valets, maids, and carriage drivers, would have had formal dress – provided primarily to demonstrate the affluence of the household in which they worked.  But in other respects, clothing was made of  the coarsest and least expensive textiles available, without regard to size or fit.

The daily dress of field laborers consisted of loose shirts and trousers or blouses, skirts, and dresses made of wool, coarse linen, or osnaburg, a burlap-like fabric woven from hemp or flax.  Straw hats for summer wear and sometimes woolen hats for winter, as well as inexpensive leather shoes (or no shoes at all), made up the rest of their work clothes.  Care and repair of clothing – both their own and that of the family who held them in bondage – was part of the workload pressed upon the enslaved, and the rough utilitarian quality of their garb underscored their subordinate position in Florida society.