Apparel Oft Proclaims the Man

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Apparel Oft Proclaims the Man”: Exploring Consumer Behavior and Social Identity

by Nancy O’Malley

W.S. Webb Museum of Anthropology

University of Kentucky
William Shakespeare wrote, “Costly thy habit as the purse can buy, but not expressed in fancy; rich not gaudy; for the apparel oft proclaims the man.” The relationship between consumer behavior and social identity is a complex one. Market access, income and other factors often present obstacles to the acquisition of desired commodities, be it fancy clothing, expensive dinnerware or other stylish accoutrements. This paper explores the archaeological evidence for choices relating to personal appearance and public image using two assemblages separated in time and varying in ethnicity and class. Ancillary evidence from store ledgers, probate documents, historic photographs and other archival sources offer further support for the choices people make and how they overcome obstacles such as limited income and low market access to realize their desires.

Nancy O’Malley

W.S. Webb Museum of Anthropology

1020A Export Street

University of Kentucky

Lexington, Kentucky 40506


Slide 1 Search on the terms clothing, appearance or other similar words in a quotations website and you will be served up a plethora of pithy adages either exalting the importance of personal appearance or admonishing those who focus on appearance at the expense of character. Slide 2 The selection of clothing, accessories, personal ornamentation, hair arrangements and the like is perhaps the ultimate consumer act since it embodies intentional choices that relate to one’s public image and social identity; in effect, a person’s appearance is a walking advertisement of their attitudes about themselves and how the world sees them. Carolyn White wrote, “Dressing the body is an intimate, personal and individual experience at the same time it is a conscious and knowing presentation of the body and the self to the public.” The presentation is two-way: the presenter has an audience.

Virtually every excavation of a domestic site turns up artifacts related to dress, hairstyles, accessorizing, protection from the elements, etc. Slide 3 Many factors drive the process of making consumer choices with respect to personal appearance, including one’s social class, adherence to prevailing fashions, need for protection from weather, modesty (or lack of it), safety issues, work requirements, religious observances, ethnic traditions, income, personal habits and market access. My analysis included both material culture and archival evidence to examine the relationship between consumer behavior and social identity as it relates to personal appearance. I selected two assemblages distinguished by time, ethnicity, class and market access.Slide 4

The station site of Hugh McGary and his family occupied from 1779 to 1788 in Mercer County, Kentucky provides a good example of an early historic assemblage on the frontier. Hugh McGary was from the North Carolina back country from whence he travelled the Wilderness Road to Kentucky in 1775, bringing 40 horses, his family, other livestock and possibly some slaves. He had the packhorses to transport many household necessities and perhaps even some luxuries. In McGary’s back country culture social status was measured by material wealth and he wasted no time acquiring thousands of acres of prime Kentucky land. He owned and traded slaves, held high military rank, and served as a member of the county court. A social image that bespoke his landed status, his political influence and his economic power reiterated to those who interacted with him that he was a man to be reckoned with. But his access to markets was constrained by a lack of mercantile outlets in Kentucky and the Appalachians to cross or major rivers to traverse to reach places where he could be a consumer.

Slide 5 The artifacts relating to appearance in the McGary assemblage include plain and decorative buttons, jewelry, and straight razors. The buttons were most likely from men’s clothing. The largest buttons have stamped decorative motifs. They were probably used on coats and may have been brass plated. Smaller buttons typical of those used on breeches were also recovered. At least one was plated. The smallest buttons show traces of gilding and were decorated with a stamped star or sun and with a circular arrangement of oval holes around a plain center. One of the smallest buttons is made of pewter or a similar alloy. Slide 6 A circular buckle with a center bar probably secured the fabric strap on a cuff. The chape from a garter or boot buckle was also recovered as was a pin that could have been used to hold a cloak closed. Jewelry included a finger ring and a plated trapezoidal pin. Slide 7 One inference that can be made from these artifacts is the use of fabric rather than exclusive use of buckskin for clothing construction. Fabric production was a labor-intensive and time consuming endeavor that made the value of fabric relatively high compared to other commodities. Fabric clothing was more comfortable and versatile than leather garments as well as more fashionable. Evidence of fabric production and acquisition is abundant on the Kentucky frontier. The buckle chape could have been used to prevent the leg section of a tall leather boot to droop, suggesting the use of leather cobbler-made footwear rather than sole dependence on moccasins. Use of moccasins was widespread on the frontier but boots offered greater protection and were more expensive to acquire. Another inference concerns the practice of shaving. A clean cut, shaved appearance was a mark of gentility among some social circles. The use of jewelry also suggests higher social status. The finger ring is about a size 7 and may have been worn by a woman of the family.

The McGary family lived in a log station, a crudely constructed temporary dwelling. They were not able to express their social standing in their domestic architecture during the turbulent early years of Kentucky’s settlement. Evidence of their social position had to take other forms. That the family was capable of dressing more formally when the occasion demanded it is documented by the reminiscences of a man who saw the McGarys and other settlers dressed for a party given by George Rogers Clark. He commented, “when these Fort Ladys came to [be] Dressed up they did not look like the same." Undoubtedly, Hugh’s wife Mary wore clothes suitable for heavy domestic tasks and Hugh and his sons probably each wore sturdy buckskin clothing when on militia duty, hunting or in agricultural pursuits, but the archaeological evidence also suggests the use of cloth breeches, linen shirts that buttoned down the front and/or at the wrist, coats that closed with decorative buttons and tall leather boots. Slide 8 The assemblage also includes thimbles and scissors, indicating the ability to repair and construct clothing. Slide 9

Hugh McGary could have purchased fabric and notions for making clothes when he returned east on various militia errands or during other travels or from enterprising peddlers who brought goods into Kentucky in the years prior to the establishment of the earliest stores in the late 1780s. Slide 10 The McGary assemblage and other indicators of gentility that are recorded for the family, suggests that they were people of substance, occupying a higher rung on the social ladder of frontier society and that their clothing choices attested to their status as well as their ability to purchase higher quality or more expensive clothing elements.

Slide 11 The second assemblage of interest is that of the Hummons family. William and Emily Hummons were freed slaves who bought a shotgun style house and lot in Lexington, Kentucky around 1870. William worked as a blacksmith Slide 12 while his wife took care of their four daughters. The family regularly attended church and their children attended school. William remained working class all his life. After his death in 1898, the family continued to occupy the site until the early twentieth century.

The Hummons’ former slave status placed them in a socially ambivalent position. As newly freed people of color, they negotiated new positions in post Civil War society by many means, including their personal appearance and their clothing choices. One of the outcomes of emancipation was that a person was free to make individualized choices and no longer was constrained by the clothing provided to him or her by a master. One’s personal appearance and image was the expression of an individual’s intent to claim full status as an American citizen and consumer. The use of clothing and accessories served to express respectability, adherence to societal expectations of proper social behavior and resistance to racist stereotypes.

Market access for the Hummons family was essentially unrestricted in the sense that they lived in an urban setting with a well established mercantile system. The largest obstacle to their acquisition of items of clothing and personal adornment was their purchasing power since the family lived largely off of William’s blacksmith wages. However, there were ways to overcome financial constraints. Many African American women were accomplished or at least competent seamstresses and could make clothes for themselves and their families. By the turn of the 20th century, reasonably priced, mass-produced “ready-made” clothing became widely available.

Slide 13 A photograph of William Hummons’ mother, Hiantha, provides us with a sense of how the Hummons women portrayed themselves through dress. Obviously a formal photograph, Hiantha dressed up for the occasion in clothing typical of late nineteenth-early twentieth century fashion. She wore a dark suit consisting of a jacket and skirt. The jacket was form fitting, decorated with wide pleats and held closed by cloth-covered buttons. A lace jabot encircled her neck and was held in place by a band from which an ornament was suspended.

Personal artifacts from the privies of Hiantha’s son, daughter in law and four granddaughters yielded a predominance of two and four-holed shell, milk glass, and porcelain buttons with lesser quantities of fancier buttons and other accessories.Slide 14 Most of the buttons are very plain. Size ranges suggest use on undergarments, shirt and collar cuffs and waists. Less frequent handmade four-holed bone and wood buttons with a central fifth manufacturing hole and fragments of a coarse, roughspun fabric were recovered from the basal levels of the earliest privy and could have been from garments worn during slavery and brought to the site after emancipation. The distinction between buttons on undergarments, work clothing and more formal apparel is a difficult one. A plain two-holed or four-holed button of glass, shell or porcelain could have been attached to a variety of garments. Plain buttons often were used in areas where they would not be visible or on everyday wear that was not heavily ornamented. The large number of plain buttons compared to decorative ones suggests that most of the family’s clothing was intended for everyday wear and work. A U.S. Army artillery button may have been on a military jacket worn by William who never served in the military but may have purchased surplus clothing during periodic sales offered by the state. An amusing example exhibits a very realistic molded housefly.

However, decorative buttons and other appearance-related artifacts provide evidence of more formal apparel. Slide 15 Examples include black glass buttons of various styles, a faceted jet button, a brown and white check porcelain button possibly used on a dress of matching fabric, and a dome-shaped button with a carved swastika motif. Several examples of finely woven twill fabric with expertly hand sewn seams suggest higher quality fabric used for clothing. Shoe parts include low heeled shoes with high laced uppers of leather or cloth. Shell inlaid studs indicate the use of detachable collars. Slide 16 Accessories include a bone hair ornament, a woman’s ring that once held a gemstone, an engraved brass pin, a scalloped edged metal buckle covered with mother of pearl, a pocket watch and a handpainted portrait miniature that was once part of a bracelet. Slide 17 The portrait miniature was an extraordinary find that raises the more interesting and intriguing issue of how the family acquired it in addition to its use as a piece of jewelry, a topic that unfortunately I have no time to discuss. Fragments of a hair receiver for saving hair were also recovered. Hair could be made into pads that were used in pompadour hairstyles of the late Victorian/early Edwardian era. Among the bottle glass were perfume and cosmetics bottles. The diverse assemblage of appearance related artifacts from the Hummons site offers strong evidence of particular attention paid to dress and appearance with an emphasis on stylish, elegant apparel for special occasions as well as less ostentatious clothing for every day. Despite their working class status, William and Emily Hummons seem to have been able to overcome financial impediments to acquiring more expensive apparel.

Slide 18 The two examples cited in this paper represent consumers in circumstances that might arguably impede or restrain their ability to acquire more expensive luxury items related to dress and appearance; yet their assemblages demonstrate that constraints of market access and purchasing power were overcome. The cautionary tale may well be summed up as “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Consumer behavior choices do not necessarily follow a strict economic logic that dictates the acquisition of goods that meet basic needs and eschews the expenditure of limited resources on what might be termed “luxury” items. Limited market access or purchasing power does not preclude acquisition if the desire is there. Appearance related artifacts are one of the means at our disposal to investigate the extent to which people of limited means like the Hummons or with limited market access such as the McGarys fulfill their desire for belongings that go beyond what is minimally necessary to provide protection from the elements, or other concerns connected to functional aspects of clothing and accessories. Likewise, the choices consumers make give us insights not only about their consumer behavior and how they interact with the marketplace but how they see themselves and how they wish others to see them. More expensive and stylish clothing thus is a means by which one announces one’s aspirations, class and understanding of societal clues regarding the language of dress. Consumer behavior becomes a means to crafting social identity, a handmaiden, if you will, in service to the demands of image creation. In this sense, consumption itself is less important than the motivations underlying the buying behavior.

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