When Doña Maria Went to Town: Dress Practices in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 9:00 AM
Columbia Hall 1 (Washington Hilton)
Robert S. DuPlessis, Swarthmore College
A generation of scholarship has firmly established consumption as a central topic in early modern social, economic, intellectual, and even political history. Explaining changes in consumer behavior—notably, though not only, during the so-called “consumer revolution” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—has proven more difficult. Once-common emulation models, challenged for providing inadequate and elitist accounts of the reasons and occasions for the emergence of new cultures of consumption, have lost ground, and other psycho-social interpretations—e.g., a search for distinction, respectability, or gentility—likewise seem incomplete. Among recent suggestions of more comprehensive accounts, urbanization appears particularly promising, as it emphasizes both supply of and demand for consumer items. Towns and cities provided at once more places to purchase goods and more occasions that encouraged their acquisition and display. Motives of imitation are not wholly banished by the urbanization thesis: as privileged sites of consumption dynamism, towns diffused new objects, habits, and tastes to conservative rural laggards.

Starting from the reconstructed 1767 wardrobe of a cattle rancher’s wife living some 70 km. west of Buenos Aires, this paper will re-examine this understanding of material culture innovation, transmission, and adoption. By virtue of its status as simultaneously necessity, fashion object, and dominant element in individual consumption, clothing is a particularly good index of material cultural change. Based on probate inventories and related documents, the paper investigates female and male settlers’ sartorial practices in four distinctive ports and their hinterlands across the seventeenth and eighteenth century Atlantic. Disaggregating urban and rural consumption, it argues that ecologies of consumer behavior, founded on gender, occupation, economic structure, and commercial networks, both disregarded and reinforced urban-rural dichotomies.

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