Fashion is not given great attention in deTocqueville and Beaumont's writing. However, deTocqueville did include this brief mention when recording his first impressions of New York, "All the customs of life show this mingling of the two classes which in Europe take so much trouble to keep apart. The women dress for the whole day at seven in the morning. At nine o'clock one can already make calls. At noon one is received everywhere. Everything bears the stamp of a very busy existence. We have not yet seen any fashionables. I even have the notion that good morals are here the result less of the severity of principles than of the impossibility in which all the young people find themselves of thinking of love or busying themselves seriously with it" (Pierson, 70).
Tocqueville and Beaumont included another observation about fashion after visiting a store in Detroit in order to buy mosquito netting. On the wall he noticed, "This print represents a very well dressed lady and at the bottom is written: Mode de Longchamps 1831. How do you find the inhabitants of Michigan who give themselves the styles of Paris? It's a fact that in the last village of America the French mode is followed, and all the fashions are supposed to come from Paris" (Pierson, 284). It appeared odd to these Frenchmen to discover such an interest in European fashion is this uncultured, new country.
This reference is appropriate to fashion within the cities -- where European clothing was a sign of status among wealthy women. But in rural communities, families were still dependent upon homespun cloth and simple homemade clothing at the time Tocqueville was traveling. Immigrants from Ireland and Scotland first planted flax in the New England states during the beginning of the eighteenth century. Men most often performed the heavy labor of removing seed polls and separating fibers through swingling, hackling and breaking them into manageable lengths. Then it was the job of the women to spin the fibers into linen thread and finally into cloth. The cloth was then dyed or bleached for the desired appearance before being made into clothing for the entire family (Langdon, 245). The housewife's sewing work consisted not only of making and mending clothing, but the manufacture of sheets, tablecloths, towels and anything else needed by the family.
Understandably, people owned few clothes during this time. A country woman might own three dresses (one for church and social occasions), while her husband might have two or three shirts and one each of summer and winter pants. Most often, a daytime long shirt was also used as a nightgown for men and women. The tight, whalebone stays in corsets would not have been common at the time Tocqueville was traveling in America. But despite doctors warnings, they were popular in the later nineteenth century -- particularly among the wealthy (Larkin, 186). Shoes were even more scarce than clothing, and were most common for men whose work was done outdoors, with children and women being last to receive shoes.
The sewing machine did not come into existence until the 1840's, so even among wealthy Americans, clothing was usually made by a seamstress or tailor to suit the individual's size and taste. It was not until the time of the Civil War that ready-made clothes became the norm. The silhouettes below give a general impression of the changing fashions of the times and an idea of the skill involved in the work of a seamstress -- whether a housewife or a professional. The trend in women's attire shifted from the voluminous skirts of the late eighteenth century, to the slim skirts of the early nineteenth century, and back again to the full hoops and bustles during the mid nineteenth century. As skirts grew larger after 1820, they were held out by petticoats with horsehair padding around the bottom. However, once men changed from the powdered wigs and short breeches of the eighteenth century, their clothing style was to remain fairly stable from the early nineteenth century until modern day styles.
The clothing of children was slow to change. Infants were almost invariably dressed in long gowns. Most children, particularly in rural families, wore dress like clothing until they reached an age to begin work around the house or farm. At that time, they adopted a style of clothing similar to that of their parents, with the exception of shoes. Within wealthier households of the time, children were dressed in miniature but fancy outfits like those shown in "Godey's Lady's Book" in March, 1843.
A final mention of Tocqueville's description of women, recorded at the beginning of his trip, serves to explain the lack of commentary on fashion in his journals. He wrote, "We take our places at a table always served with meats more solid than well prepared, and around which are seated some very pretty persons, occasionally accompanied by some very ugly ones. The great merit of women here is to be very fresh complexioned. Beyond that they have very few, or rather they have none at all of those exterior charms which contribute so powerfully to elegance of figure, and whose rounded form so agreeably flatters the eye. I don't know why I speak of their physical qualities, for they are above all remarkable for their moral virtues" (Pierson, 84-5).