The Evidence: American Portraits


We have two main sources of evidence for anything we say about caps in the 18th C.  -portraits and artifacts. *  This article is about the portrait evidence.

Narrow the set of portraits to only those that are American, adult, 18th C, and women**.  Throw out English, European and children, and see what is left. The results are surprising.

These ideas are based on a set of about 300 portraits gathered from books, internet searches, and museums visits, over a 15-year period.  I feel I can make these generalizations because, even as I add more portraits to the set, the ratios aren’t changing.

(This is an actual research method, where you gather data without making hypotheses, and stop gathering when you seem to be getting mostly repeats in the same ratios.  I was glad to learn this recently.)

Here’s what I found:

  1. We have no cap evidence before 1750.  American portraits are rare in the first half of the century. Of the few we have, most wore no cap for their portrait. 
  2. The majority of women across the 18th C wear no cap in their portrait.  There are feathers and flowers, pearls and ribbons in their hair.  Around 1765-1789, there is a vogue for veils in portraits called A la Turque. After 1785, younger women in Empire styles wore fewer caps in general than their elders.
  3. There are no genre paintings made in America until 1796.  These portraits are of women with money.
  4. Between 1750 and 1775, women wore one of two caps: one with a ruffle under the chin, and one without.  These are commonly called a “lappet cap” (ruffle under the chin) and a “round-eared cap” (ruffles curve around near your ears). There are more lappets than round-eared caps (a little more than half), especially among older women in portraits. (In artifacts, lappets far outnumber the 2 round-eared caps I discovered.) 
  5. After 1775, the cap world explodes with mushrooms and clouds of caps, piles of linen and lace, chef’s caps, bonnet-like styles, the Dormeuse, and the Corday. . .
  6. … until caps disappear from young and fashionable heads with the emergence of Empire styles in the late 1780’s.
  7. Meanwhile, older women continued to wear the lappets they had always worn.
  8. And Quakers wear an especially plain – and fine – version of the lappet that then becomes the fossilized style they wear for the next 100+ years.
  9. American cap styles are more sedate than many seen in portraits from Europe and Britain. We have only one portrait of a woman wearing really long lappets, lace or no lace, so common in French paintings. Another “missing” style is the scarf tied under the chin. Although these appear on poor women in Cries of Dublin, for ex., we do not find them in U.S. portraits or artifacts, perhaps only because we have no drawings of poor American women. Apart from Kilburn’s young woman, the dramatic butterfly cap is not apparent, although common in European portraits. Nor are there any ship – shaped hairdos with flags and feathers. Cap styles in the U.S. were, in general, more sedate.


I am not saying these women didn’t see the fashion plates, genre scenes, or portraits from England and Europe in a timely manner. We know they did.  They were aware of French hairdos and Swedish ruffle boxes. But portraits of rich women offer no evidence they actually wore them.  And that was the question I was asking.  


**By “American” I mean the areas of the North American colonies that became the United States.  While this short hand is inaccurate for all you geography sticklers, it is necessary for brevity.

By “women” I mean adults and not children, or even teenagers, where we can tell.

By “18th C” I mean 1700-1800.

*Other sources are newspaper ads from milliners and makers, a handful of first-person mentions, court records, death inventories.  Here’s a wide-open field of research to plumb, digging into the ephemera. So far, I haven’t seen anything that describes the style of the cap.  But maybe you can find that to add to our understanding.


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