Costume, Class, and Copley: The Display of Wealth Through Dress in Portraiture

Dress was very important in 18th century colonial Boston, particularly with its variety of social classes. Only the wealthy were able to afford the sumptuous imported laces, silks, and printed damasks that many of John Singleton Copley's sitters wore. The late 1760s, in particular, marked a time when Boston was flourishing in commerce and had a variety of luxurious fabrics at its disposal - ships carrying cloth from "England, Ireland, Scotland, Holland, Italy, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Flanders, India, China, and Turkey" routinely came into its ports. This time period also saw the growing city  become a site of brewing resentment towards British governance as well as imported goods, including fabrics.

In 1714, philosopher Bernard Mandeville noted the tendency, in urban Britain, to have strangers "generally honor'd according to their Cloaths." The same could be said of colonial Boston. Because dress was so visible, it further acted as a way to gauge political and personal opinions of an individual. Eighteenth century colonists based personhood on material goods owned, and had a habit of “equating luxury goods with character and social status.” Art historian Paul Staiti observes that in late colonial America, "who a person was- or seemed to be- was a matter of reading what the person posessed."

He believes that these portraits seldom portrayed sitters in dress they actually owned. Rather, as a portrait painter, it was Copley's job to create an identity for his sitters, whoever they were - gentlewomen, mothers and wives, wealthy merchants, religious leaders, silversmiths - and part of doing so included using the symbolism of different fabrics and styles of clothing as "props...that fulfilled the desire of elite clients who wanted to assert their position and social identity...”.

Copley understood the importance of fabric, as indicated by the immense effort he took in accurately showing its texture and detail. Therefore, analyzing the dress in Copley’s portraits, both for style and fabric type, may reveal crucial clues to the individuals who wore them, as well how they fit into the social and political fabric of mid-18th century Boston. This exhibition puts the spotlight on three Copley portraits - Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait (1771), Paul Revere (1767), and Nicholas Boylston (1769) in an attempt to analyze how Copley utilized costume to send messages about his subjects.  

 Further Reading: 

Note: To view citations, please hover for several seconds over underlined and bolded periods in the exhibit text. 

Baumgarten, Linda. "What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America." Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002. 

Carrie Rebora et al. John Singleton Copley in America. New York: N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.

Hollander, Anne. "Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting." London: National Gallery Company, 2002. 

Lasser, Ethan W. “Selling Silver: The Business of Copley’s Paul Revere.American Art, 26.3 (Fall 2012): 26-43.

L.H. Butterfield, ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961, vol. I, pp. 294-295. 

Lovell, Margaretta M. “Mrs. Sargent, Mr. Copley, and the Empirical Eye.” Winterthur Portfolio 33.1 (Spring 1998): 1-39. 

Mandeville, Bernard. "The Fable of the Bees." London: J. Tonson, 1714.

Reynolds, Joshua. "The Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds." London: J. Carpenter, 1842.

Richardson, Jonathan. "An Essay on the Theory of Painting." London: A.C. Publishers, 1725. 

Staples, Kathleen A. and Madelyn Shaw. Clothing Through American History: The British Colonial Era. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishers, 2013. 

Staiti, Paul. “Character and Class: The Portraits of John Singleton Copley,” in Reading American Art, ed. Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy, 12-37. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 


Anna Khomina