Episode 024: Kimberly Alexander, 18th-Century Fashion & Material Culture

John Hancock Coat

What can John Hancock’s suit tell you about the man who wore it?

The clothing a person wears tells you a lot about them: Whether they are rich or poor, what kind of work they do, what colors they like, and what they value.

We know that John Hancock was a wealthy merchant and prominent politician, but did you know that his suit reveals even more about his life and personality than the documents and portraits he left behind?

Museum professional and textiles expert Kimberly Alexander joins us to explore the world of 18th-century fashion and material culture and what objects like John Hancock's suit communicate about the past.


About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Each episode features a conversation with an historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.

Episode Summary

Kimberly AlexanderIn this episode, Kimberly Alexander, an historian of early American material culture, joins us to explore the fashionable 18th-century.

Using examples that we can see during our next visit to New England museums— such as John Hancock’s suit and Elizabeth Bull’s wedding dress— Kimberly reveals what historians mean by the term “material culture”; how we can read clothing and objects such as teapots and pewter tankards as historical sources; And what the clothing worn by men and women during the 18th century can tell us about the wearers as individuals and the period as a whole.


What You’ll Discover

  • How Kimberly became interested in early American fashion history and the study of material culture
  • What historians mean by “material culture”
  • Overview of the types of clothing and fashion accessories people wore in the 18th century
  • Who Elizabeth Bull was, what her wedding dress (1731-1735) looks like, and what Bull’s wedding dress tells us about the early American past
  • Why Elizabeth Bull learned the skill of embroidery
  • How elite women used their embroidery and sewing skills when they fell on hard times
  • How historians like Kimberly read clothes and objects as historical sources
  • Information about John Hancock’s suit of clothes and what it looks like
  • Why early Americans like John Hancock paid to alter their clothes instead of buying new suits and dresses
  • How the study of clothes and objects can unlock the stories of the artisans who made them
  • How the study of material objects reveals information not contained in the written historical record
  • How the study of textiles and objects reveal the intentionality of the individuals who commissioned and owned those textiles and objects
  • Brief overview of the role free and enslaved African and African American women played in 18th-century fashion
  • Native American influences on 18th-century Anglo-American fashion
  • How early Americans laundered and pressed delicate fabrics

Elizabeth Bull Wedding Dress

Links to People, Places, and Publications


Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question

What might have happened if the 13 colonies had not gained their independence from Great Britain? How might the fashion history of the United States be different?


Questions, Comments, Suggestions

Do you have a question, comment, or suggestion?

Get in Touch! Send me an e-mail, tweet, or leave a comment.



Enjoy the Podcast? Why Not Subscribe?

| Listen to Stitcher



Ratings & Reviews

If you enjoy this podcast, please give it a rating and review.

Positive ratings and reviews help bring Ben Franklin's World to the attention of other history lovers who may not be aware of our show

Click here to rate & review on iTunes | Click here to rate & review on Stitcher


*Photos of John Hancock's suit & Elizabeth Bull's Wedding Dress courtesy of the Bostonian Society.


1 comment
  • I wonder how much of Hancock’s local purchases of clothing were because of him wanting to earn the political support of local artisans and tailors? He was known for spreading his wealth around in other ways to garner political support–maybe this was simply another way for him to do so, and perhaps the amount of clothing he purchased locally is an outlier for a man of his status?

More from this show