Only the Clothes on Her Back: Clothing and the Hidden History of Power in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Written by Laura F. Edwards
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

Throughout history, clothing has played a pivotal role as a signifier of class, race, and gender. Before the 18th century, when Western sumptuary laws became largely obsolete, the wearing of luxury materials was reserved for the worldly and clerical elite. After traveling in Europe, Lady Wortley Montagu praised the imposition of a dress code in her famous Letters (1708-20), arguing that it prevented the confusion and social unrest that in her opinion resulted from persons of uncertain distinction attiring themselves in the manner of their superiors. Readers interested in this kind of fashionable power politics will greatly appreciate Only the Clothes on Her Back, a legal-historical, scholarly examination of the interrelation between dress and progress in post-revolutionary North America. With each chapter devoted to an individual court case or group of cases, Professor Edwards’ study provides a fascinating insight into the ways in which disenfranchised members of the population—the enslaved, people of color, women, immigrants—were empowered to own and sell cloth, whilst being barred from trading most other goods. Why clothes, exactly? As the title of her book promises, Professor Edwards offers a convincing explanation of an intriguing cultural phenomenon.