Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dressed for Summer: Three Eighteenth Century Women

Sunday, July 18, 2010
Susan reports:

I've already shown what the 18th c. gentlemen of Colonial Williamsburg were wearing to keep relatively cool on a hot summer day, and it seems only fair to include the women today. As with their male counterparts, natural fibers are the order of the day: linen, cotton, and silk. And, also like the men, in 1775, they still consider themselves to be English to the core, and are following the same styles that their counterparts are wearing in London. Because clothing histories usually show only what the upper class ladies wore, I'm including examples from the serving/laboring class, the "middling sort"/tradesperson, and the gentry.

The young woman, top left, is dressed as a maidservant. She could also be a farmer's daughter, milk-maid, laundress, or any other woman who worked hard for her living. Because her work would likely involve physical labor, she's dressed for ease of motion as well as to keep cool. She's wearing a loose-fitting linen short gown over her linen shift and petticoat (skirt). A short gown is also an economical form of dress, with a simple construction that made a frugal use of fabric. Her apron is plain and her cap unadorned, and her only ornaments are the printed cotton cuffs on her jacket.  

The next young woman, middle left, is an assistant to a mantua maker (dressmaker). She's a skilled seamstress whose daily work won't require much physical labor, and will keep her indoors. Her trade also requires her to be more aware of fashion, both as a stylish representative of her shop and her mistress and to show her own skill with a needle. She wears boned stays (corset) to give her body the conical shape fashionable in the 18th c., and her striped cotton gown is trimmed with ruffles at the cuffs and neckline. Though she's not wearing hoops, the sides and back of her polonaise are looped up to give her skirts more volume. The gown is open in the front to display her pink linen petticoat, and over that she's tied a sheer linen apron, more for style than to offer any actual protection to her petticoat. Her cap is ruffled, with a silk ribbon bow, and the single most important mark of her dress would be the thimble on her finger.

The last young woman, bottom left, is dressed as a lady, ready to pay an afternoon call on a friend. Fashion, not practicality, is her goal. Her striped polonaise is made of silk taffeta in the latest London style for 1775. The close-fitting, ruffled style, elaborately cut to display both her figure and the stripes, would have been a costly gown, using a great deal of expensive fabric. (See close-up of the bodice below left.) To give her the fashionable shape that such a gown demands, beneath it she's wearing both stays and pocket hoops. She's also the only one among these three wearing jewelry, earrings and a bead necklace. On her head she's wearing a ruffled linen cap, topped by a fine straw hat decorated with silk gauze, ribbon, and flowers (below right.) Cool for summer? Maybe. Practical? Not at all. But could there be a prettier confection for a summer day?

Photo of striped polonaise, left, courtesy of the Margaret Hunter Shop, Milliners and Mantua Makers, Colonial Williamsburg. While these ladies work in the 18th c., they do visit the 21st as well: check out their new Facebook page!


Finegan Antiques said...

I prefer my shorts and a tank top thank you very much. I guess it helps when you didn't know anything different but still they must have been miserable. Thank goodness for the evolution of clothing.


Keith said...

Quote " And, also like the men, in 1775, they still consider themselves to be English to the core,".

I was very surprised by this statement, but pleased as it matches my own thoughts. But would you by any chance have any quotes or documentation to back this up?
With respect & regards.

Lady Burgley said...

Beautiful photographs. Excellent illustrations of the class differences in dresses. The styles are basically the same, but the cloth, fit, and decoration change everything. How easy it must have been to determine one's "station", and be judged by it.

Annie said...

'Confection' is exactly the right word for these dresses. Sweet and pretty to look at, but I can't imagine wearing all those layers in this hot weather.

nightsmusic said...

Lovely pictures, but I have a question. In the bottom picture, the striped polonaise looks like it was woven that way (which would be correct) but the hat looks like the striped fabric that covers it has been pieced. Is that right? That hat must have cost a small fortune back then!


Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Forgive me for being slooooooooow as molasses answering - must be the weather.

Donna and Annie, I've done a bit of interpreting, dressed in full 18th c. dress in the summer, and oddly, it's not any warmer than modern clothes. In some ways, it's more comfortable because of the linen that's closest to the skin. Hard to believe, I know, but true. Do other interpreters/re-enactors agree?

Le Loup, I could (and probably will!) write another whole blog on just this topic. I could write a whole book! But short version: even though the first signs of the coming revolution are being voiced in 1775 (Patrick Henry most prominently in Virginia), most colonists still hoped for the king and Parliament to reconcile.

However, what I intended by saying that the colonial Virginians were still at heart English was primarily cultural rather than political. Most Tidewater colonists were of English ancestry, and many still had family in Britain. They spoke English, worshiped in the Anglican church, believed in English values and English law, laughed at English humor and danced to English music. They looked to London as the greatest city in their world, and the place that set the styles and fashions that they followed. That kind of cultural identity is very hard to shake, and it proved much more difficult to develop a new American identity than it did a new government. For that matter, we're still working on it. *g*

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, you're right: the polonaise is made from a woven stripe silk taffeta.

Beneath all the ruffles, the hat is a fine straw, very similar to the ones hanging on the line in the picture a couple of days ago. The straw hat has been covered in a sheer stripe fabric, with more of the same gathered and stitched into the exuberant shapes on the crown. If you enlarge the photo of the hat in this blog, you can just make out the rings of braided straw in the brim between the stripes. Hope that's a better explanation!

Keith said...

Sorry this is off topic re your 18thc. clothing, but you gave me such a great answere to my last question that I thought you may have an answere for this one.
Can you tell me what an 18th century "flip-can" is/was?
Alexander Selkirk had one when he was marooned on Juan Fernandez Island.
Thanks for your time.
Regards, Le Loup.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Glad you found the last answer useful, Le Loup. :)

But a flip-can...I'm sorry, but I haven't a clue. I guess it must have been something very important if Selkirk had it with him on the island. So much of history is simply trying to "remember" what's been forgotten, isn't it?

Keith said...

I now know that an 18th century flip-can was infact a brown glazed stoneware jug for holding flip. But I do not know what size or shape!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hah! That makes sense. Flip's beer, spices, rum and molasses, heated with a poker, and a can for drinking is like a tankard: a can of ale. I'm afraid my imagination was detoured off into very 21st c. flip phones and cameras instead. :)

Melody said...

The maidservant's dress is definitely the most comfortable. I wear one when I volunteer at my town's historical society, and none of the original buildings have AC. There's no corset and the skirts are loose fitting, so they're easy to walk around and give tours in.

Saints Awake said...

I also write books, mostly non-fiction but I do write some historical fiction and romance. My current book is about a rich young woman from Philadelphia about 1880, who is tired of the high society and goes out to Wyoming to stay with her cousin, who is a widower. When she tells the housekeeper that she wants to become a "western woman" she is told how she must dress differently. From the skin out.

I have researched some but can't find pictures and names of the underwear of that time, not for a city girl but for a farm girl or farmer's wife. Like most men I'm generally ignorant about that subject even though my wife and I have six daughters and a son I have left it to her.

Where can I go to find the pictures and names of the upper panel that is tied on around the breasts to hold them in. Unlike a brazier which is designed to do the opposite.

Information for any other pieces would be helpful too.
Thanks for having this great blog.
Franklin Reid

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