Sunday, October 5, 2014

Rare Everyday-Wear: A Woman's Shortgown, c.1780-1800

Sunday, October 5, 2014
Isabella reporting,

As promised, here's one of the 18th c. garments from Pottsgrove Manor's current exhibition, To the Manor Worn: Clothing the 18th Century Household, that I featured last week here. The exhibition includes silk gowns, a magnificent embroidered waistcoat, silk breeches, and quilted silk petticoats.

The shortgown, left, is considerably more humble, and because of that, it's much more rare, too. Like the 19th c. cotton dress I wrote about here, shortgowns were most commonly worn by working women, and they often turn up in the advertised descriptions of runaway indentured servants and slaves. Shortgowns were t-shaped garments with a flared hem that were comfortable for physical labor. They had no fastenings, but closed with straight pins along the front opening. Made from cotton, linen, or wool, shortgowns were worn over a linen shift and a petticoat; they were early, easy separates.

An 18th c. working woman's wardrobe was limited, and each article received hard wear. Clothes were mended and refashioned until there was literally nothing left but rags, which in turn would then have had another life around the household. Unlike a wedding gown or baby cap, a shortgown like this would not be set aside and preserved for posterity. Even the few that have survived would not find a welcome in most modern costume collections, which tend to concentrate on the clothing of the elite classes, beautifully constructed clothing of rich fabrics.

This shortgown tells a different story. Its owner was neither wealthy nor famous, but she was thrifty and resourceful and skilled with a needle. The fabric is either corded linen or cotton, once off-white and now discolored with age. The simple style could have been made by the wearer herself.

As the exhibition catalogue notes, "In the 18th century, the material made up the biggest cost of a garment, so even the clothing of wealthy individuals often shows some level of patching to get as much use of the fabric as possible."

This shortgown has been patched, and patched again, with neatly squared patches and careful stitching. As you can see in the detail, right, some of the patches are scraps of the original fabric, and others are simply similar fabric. Most of the patches are in places that would have received the most stress and wear, under the arm and along the sleeves.

The name and history of the shortgown's owner are long forgotten, but she left her testimony in each of the tiny stitches across each frugal patch, making the most of what she had. She's as much a part of early American history as George Washington, and I'm glad to see her work preserved and presented as the treasure that it is.

To the Manor Born: Clothing the 18th Century Household runs through November 2, 2014. For more information, see Pottsgrove Manor's website, or their Facebook page. Many thanks to curator Amy Reis and the rest of the staff for their assistance with this post.

Above: Women's shortgown, linen or cotton, c.1780-1800. From the collection of the Chester County Historical Society. Photograph courtesy of Pottsgrove Manor.


Sharon said...

If anyone wants to make this, or just learn more about it, it was written up with a graphed cutting diagram in Fitting&Proper, 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society by Sharon Ann Burnston. It's on pp. 20-22.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you for adding that, Sharon! I'll add my recommendation to anyone interested in recreating colonial clothing or reenacting (and yes, I own it, too). It can be difficult to find clothing reference books that don't just focus on clothing worn by the wealthy, but include the clothing of "average" people as well. I recognized the shortgown at once from the book when I saw it in the display case. :)

Anonymous said...

I like the post very much!

I always wonder, when I'm in a schoolmuseum or the like, how many hours went into the darning samplers!
In Holland, the self-educated-painter Jopie Huisman, who was also a rag dealer, made a wonderful painting of a patched underpants (and I'm no great embroiderer, but my daughter's pants look a bit like it too ;).

Unknown said...

Hi Isabella,
Thank you so much for the great article. It is always wonderful to see information about the common person's clothing. I am hoping you can add some detail about wool short gowns. What information have you found on this variety of the garment?

Deanna said...

Thank you for this post! This shortgown is very interesting with all the patching. It looks like it was possibly lengthened as well? There is another very interesting shortgown in the Susan Greene Historic Clothing Collection at Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford, NY. It appears to have been widened by adding a strip under each arm that runs all the way down the side. Same color, different stripe. Since the current exhibit there is "Fashions in Fiction", it may not still be on display right now, but I am sure folks can view it if they make arrangements ahead.

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