Original Fashion Activists: Women of the American Revolution
Sabrina Rojas Weiss
You might think the “slow” fashion movement, or just the very concept of being conscious of the origins of our clothing, is a relatively new thing. It came about right when everyone started talking about organic foods and fair-trade coffee, didn’t it? In fact, the idea of sourcing our clothing locally and consciously has its roots in the American Revolution and the first female political activists of our country, who took part in what became known as the Homespun Movement.
Even before the infamous demonstration known as the Boston Tea Party in 1773, American colonists were actively boycotting British goods. The French and Indian War had left the British Empire steeped in debt, which the country sought to alleviate by levying taxes on the American colonies, namely on imported goods. To protest these taxes, the colonies drafted a series of “non-importation” resolutions. But of course, in order to survive without imported tea, cloth and yarn, the Sons of Liberty needed the cooperation of their wives and daughters. After all, it was the women who would be doing all the work to make these goods from scratch now.
Spinning bees, traditional gatherings in which women would spin, weave and sew the wardrobe of a widowed or unmarried preacher, became a new symbol of protest. Newspaper articles and ads declared that women who spun their own cloth would “show how greatly they are contributing to bring about the political salvation of a whole Continent,” as the Boston Evening Post put it in 1769. Some women took this even further and drafted their own resolutions, such as the one signed by 51 women and published in the Edenton, North Carolina, newspaper declaring:
We the Ladys of Edenton do hereby solemnly Engage not to Conform to that Pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea, or that we the aforesaid Ladys Promote the use of any Manufacture from England, until such time that all Acts which tend to Enslave this our Native Country shall be Repealed.
Even young girls got caught up in the fervor: “As I am (as we say) a daughter of liberty, I chuse to war as much of our own manufactory as pocible (sic),” 11-year-old Anna Winslow of Boston wrote in her diary.
“Heroines may not distinguish themselves at the head of an Army,” New York teen Charity Clarke wrote to her cousin in England. “[American women are] a fighting army of amazones (sic). .. armed with spinning wheels.. Though this body is not clad with silken garments, these limbs are armed with strength, the Soul is fortified by Virtue, and the Love of Liberty is cherished within this bosom.”
So, that might be slightly overstating things — an actual war still had to be fought, after all — but the Homespun Movement planted some mighty seeds. It not only brought women into the political arena and emphasized the importance of their efforts on the homefront, but it also inspired other movements of civil disobedience, including another homespun movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in India. It’s also a reminder to us all that what we buy and wear has always been important on a local and global level.
Sabrina Rojas Weiss has been a staff writer and editor for VH1, MTV, TV Guide, Bars.com, Manhattan Magazine and Manhattan Bride. She is currently pursuing a freelance career based out of Brooklyn, New York.