Historian Robert DuPlessis on Textile Industry, Atlantic Trade, and Birth of Fashion

The Material Atlantic book cover

fifteeneightyfour: How Apparel Made the Atlantic World 

Robert DuPlessis, the author of The Material Atlantic, answers questions about the textile industry in the early modern period, the rise of Atlantic trade, and the birth of fashion – they're all connected!

Your book, The Material Atlantic, examines the textiles and apparel that became available to consumers during the 17th and 18th centuries in the Atlantic world, and how and when they were acquired. There is so much that you cover – economic history, globalization, colonialism, consumption, fashion – how did you begin, and what resources did you find the most useful?

My prior work on European cloth production and more generally on early modern economic history left me wanting to know more about exports and consumption of textiles within the context of globalizing trade. The resulting material cultural interactions—a key topic of this book—were particularly intense throughout the Atlantic basin, both in colonies and elsewhere in an increasingly integrated commercial system.

To explore these topics, I turned first to a source that I’d used a bit previously: probate or post-mortem inventories. Inventories raise many problems of interpretation, which I discuss in the introductory chapter of The Material Atlantic, but they are abundant and indispensable for studying (among many other things) textiles and clothing offered by merchants, retailers, and other suppliers, and the fabrics and apparel that individuals acquired.

With rare exceptions, however, inventories were compiled only for free settler decedents of European descent, though I was fortunate to discover some fascinating ones drawn up for free people of color in Saint-Domingue (Haïti) and Cape Colony (South Africa), and for a Native American leader. But to find out about the dress of enslaved men and women, as well as less prominent indigenous people, it was necessary to look at many other sources—missionary reports, travelers’ accounts, merchant records, government documents, and all sorts of images, by semi-trained (often clerical) as well as professional artists. All these sources were partial in every sense, but examined together—including, at times, with inventories—they revealed the contours of dress cultures across a significant social selection of the people living around the vast Atlantic basin. 

How did you decide when to begin and end your story? What was particularly interesting about the early modern Atlantic world to you?

Europeans started exploring and trading in the Atlantic in the 15th century, and in the 1500s began to colonize and exploit natural resources. But only from the mid-17th century did commerce, migration, and settlement produce a network of relationships—what the historian Pierre Gervais terms “a shared Atlantic world”—such that it makes sense to analyze patterns of consumption and dress culture creation throughout the basin as a whole. By the late 18th century, the foundations of that Atlantic world were crumbling, as the American and Haitian revolutions ushered in a first period of decolonization and as the industrial revolution began to remake the global economic order on which the Atlantic world depended. Still, in the intervening century and a half, Europeans constructed their first overseas settler empires; mass enslavement coupled with forced migration provided labor in plantation agriculture throughout that European imperium; consumer good production and consumption globalized; and prolonged encounters among immigrants, coerced and free, and indigenous peoples and cultures took place. All these phenomena, which for better and for worse have shaped the modern world, were the context in which the dress practices of early modern Atlantic people developed. 

Read the full story.

DuPlessis is the Isaac H. Clothier Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations. Among his recent publications are books on the textile industries of central Italy and on the economic history of Europe, as well as articles on the emergence of new patterns of consumption in the Atlantic world, on the French overseas empire during the Ancien Régime, and on the advent of modern concepts of capital. His new book, The Material World: Clothing, Commerce, and Colonization in the Atlantic World, 1650-1800, concerns cultural and economic exchange across the Atlantic world (Africa, the Americas, Europe) during the first era of globalization from the 16th-century age of exploration to the industrial revolutions of the late 18th century.