Collections of historic clothing are usually filled with the clothes of the rich and famous, which can give the misguided impression that everyone in the past wore silk and lace. Not quite; but the dress of ordinary folk is much harder to find (and, for us writers, to imagine) because not much of it survives. Clothing was expensive, and most was worn until it was worn out. Garments were patched and mended and handed down, refashioned (see here) and recut until there was often nothing left. Even rags were useful, with a gentleman's fine linen shirt eventually ending up as bandages or rags for the paper maker.
All of which is why I especially enjoy seeing what our mantua-maker friends in the Margaret Hunter Shop, Colonial Williamsburg, are wearing to work. While they might be stitching fine silk, for the most part they're dressed as their 18th c. counterparts would have dressed. A shopkeeper's assistant or apprentice in the fashion trades was expected to dress as stylishly as possible within her means, and their clothes often reflected the latest fashions sewn in more modest fabrics. Stylish was good for trade - she was, after all, a walking advertisement for the shop - but not so stylish that she rivaled the customers by dressing above her station. (As always, please click on the photos to enlarge to see details.)
Here Sarah Woodyard is dressed as a mantua-maker's apprentice c. 1775. Her gown is a reproduction of a closed-front English gown with the skirts looped up into two puffs in the back. While this style would have been most fashionable in silk, it's here made up in block-printed cotton. The printed pattern features a meandering vine and tassel motif which would also have been copied from expensive woven silks. The single color would have made the fabric more affordable, too, but the design of the gown – carefully cut to make the most of the cloth's pattern – more than compensates.
While the gown has no costly silk ribbons or trimmings, the apprentice's fine linen cap features not only a wide silk bow, but also extravagant pleating for maximum effect. Her kerchief and apron are also fine white linen, and her white thread stockings and quilted petticoat also contributes to the impression of a neat and tidy assistant. I like the subtlety in the white-on-white textures; if you look closely, you'll see that there's a woven check in her neck kerchief, and diamond-patterned quilting in her petticoat. There's another spot of color in the heart-shaped red pincushion - an essential part of the trade - that hangs ready at her waist, and more in her red ribbon garters. Everything except the stockings was cut and stitched by hand by Sarah herself, just as any good apprentice should.
But it's her shoes that are truly eye-catching. As we've seen before, the 18th c was a glorious time for women's shoes, and these are no exception, made from red silk with yellow leather-covered heels and brass buckles. Sarah is particularly proud of these shoes, since she made them herself while working in CW's shoemakers' shop – see her carving the heels from wood here.
Many thanks to Sarah Woodyard!For more pictures of her shoes in progress, see the Margaret Hunter Shop's Facebook page. All photographs here copyright 2012 Susan Holloway Scott
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.