Friday, April 9, 2010

Basics for beginners, 18th century clothing

Mid 18th century clothing:
basics for beginners
Presented by Lauri Shillings

(originally presented in an educational clothing seminar on the Ft. Oiuatenon grounds in the summer of 2004)

Let me introduce myself. My name is Lauri Shillings. I have been creating 18th century costume for many years now. I have been a seamstress for an even longer period of time. I have been coming to Ft. Ouiatenon in Lafayette, IN as a participant or spectator for more than 15 years.

Most recently, (as of 2004)I have been working from my home for myself, my clients and contracting my sewing and design services to a local sutler, Ghost Forge. I wish to thank them for their kindness in letting me use their reference library. When not sewing I constantly study reference books, period art and scour the Internet for accurate, usable reference material. While the information I give you will be helpful in attaining a general 18th century period look, nothing compares to a well-thought out persona you have researched yourself. I supply a reading list and references used at the end of this article.

How to choose and assemble a basic clothing kit for women
I will focus on the mid-18th century, common, “working class” or “Goodwife” woman’s attire. I will give you this information with the consideration that we are in a French occupied fort. I will try to give you the period correct description and how it was created, then give you an “acceptable” modern equivalent.

Essential, basic clothing items are:

1) Chemise

2) Petticoat preferably 2+

3) Some sort of sleeved top

4) Cap

5) Other Accessories to add onto the basic 4

The Chemise
The chemise (French) or the shift (English) was usually made of white linen. Less commonly found in Cotton or hemp fabrics. This was an all purpose garment and a woman would have had several of them. This garment goes on first under all layers of clothing next to the skin. The sleeves were elbow length or longer, quite full and fitted to a narrow band at the elbow or a simple drawstring casing. The length is mid calf or just above. The neck opening is fitted to the gown neckline and does NOT fall off the shoulders easily. There might be a narrow drawstring casing around the neckline. These garments can be tailored to the individual, but usually come in youth and adult. White cotton muslin can be used, you will need about 3-1/2 to 4 yards fabric.

Noted differences in design: a chemise for the nursing mother or wet nurse at times had a small slit at center front to ease nursing. Fancy/decorated chemises that have lace or ruffles at neckline or cuffs were for the rich. They would have been applied to the same basic chemise after it’s creation, and removed for laundering.

Petticoats (English) or Jupe (French) are the skirts of the 18th century woman. These have a full skirt (approximately 120” wide), gathered to fit a waistband of fabric tape. These are tied front and back, or would the petticoat could have a drawstring waistband. Usually 2 or more are layered on for warmth. French women were noted for having shorter skirts than their English counterparts. Skirt length is around the mid calf. The shorter skirt offers ease in labor and movement and helps keep the skirts cleaner. Who wants to trip on their skirts while carrying a heavy load or baby? Also worn short to show off pretty clocked stockings and shoes.

Fabric choices for skirts were commonly of wool, linen and silk or blends there of. Less common is cotton and hemp. Solid colors predominated. Vertical stripes are noted of the women in New France. I recommend that prints be used only when matching your top garment. Skirts are constructed with selvage edges on the sides. Raw edges were hemmed narrowly at bottom.

Quilted petticoats were seen by all classes, the wealthier the person, the more luxurious the fabrics and trims.

The Sleeved: gown, Jacket or bedgown
Even the poorest sort of women were known to have at least one gown for finer wear. See and research published period runaway articles for had on/took with items.

Gowns are fitted garments consisting of an upper bodice section and lower skirt section reaching low calf to floor length. They have set in sleeves and often have cuffs. They are worn over stays. Two basic gown styles for our period are the “Sack” gown. ( “sacque” or “robe á la Française”) It is distinguished by the full, loose pleats falling from the back and shoulders of the gown to the floor or hem of the garment. Shorter mid-thigh length versions of this gown are known as the “pet-en-l’air”, or “short sack”. The bodice of this gown is fitted by the inner lining that is laced close and tight to the body.

The other style is the so-called “English” gown (“robe a l’angaise”). Has a fitted back done in 2 different methods: 1) by stitched down pleats in the center back section that flows in one long piece into the skirt (“en fourreau”), or 2) by separately cut pieces that are seamed to the skirt. The en fourreau style is first half to 3rd quarter and the pieced method comes in to fashion in the 1770’s.

Styling details: Robings that look like turned back lapels on a gown front are seen on the majority of gowns up to mid century (1750’s and 1760’s). They pin or lace over a “stomacher” that concealed the stays beneath. The style trend after mid century is the front and side pieces are being stitched together, resulting in a smoother, tighter fitting front.

Jackets are fitted, sleeved garments of widely varying styles. They nearly always have set in sleeves. Sometimes they have cuffs. Jackets generally have skirts that vary in length from hip high to much lower, but not as low as a full gown. A good stopping point is below hip, above knee. Ladies of New France were noted to have worn a “mantelet” also known as: a woman’s waistcoat, fitted bodice, juste. It is a woman’s garment; it has sleeves, occasionally with cuffs. It closes in front with hooks and eyes or with lacing in front or in back. If you have seen the painting “the Chocolate Girl” The jacket style shown is what I am describing. Other jacket styles are caraco, cassaquin, and Riding habits.

BEDGOWNS or shortgowns are unfitted or loose fitted (via stitched down back pleating) garments that are open at the center front. They are t-shaped and have large roomy sleeves that are cut in one piece with the body of the garment. These garments are undress or work wear. Undress does not necessarily mean “at-home” It means anything less than a formal occasion. Common women might have worn these all the time. This garment is very utilitarian and comfortable. I have grouped the style shortgown in this area. Some evidence shows that the shortgown is peculiar to the mid-Atlantic region, perhaps even to CT or PA.

Choose your fabrics carefully. Heavier weight cotton can be used in place of linen, unless you can get good linen. Silk blends and wool blends can be used. Acceptable period prints are hard to find unless you know what you are looking for. Stick with solids, or vertical stripes until you are more comfortable with textiles of the time. Gowns take about 8-10 yards of fabric, Jackets and bedgowns around 4 yards.

If you don’t have stays or do not want to wear them, I recommend that you wear a less fitted bedgown or jacket. It is less obvious that you are not wearing stays with these choices.

A peasant in France or a habitante in New France always covered her hair with some kind of a cap. It was the rule based on religious customs. There were many possible head-dress. And styles were changing constantly. The basic Cap was of white linen, had a larger piece of cloth called the crown, and was pleated to a band or brim. Some had decoration of ruffles, ribbon or lace added. White muslin is an acceptable substitute. Lappet caps were noted among the woman of New France, along with a style of turban noted as being a square of blue check cloth wrapped around the head then tied afore with the two square ends hanging in back. More research is needed on this item, how it is worn, and by whom.

Other accessories
Items to add to the basic 4 as interest and money allow: Kerchief, Apron, pockets, stays, cloak, stockings and shoes. Shoes should be black or brown leather with a low heel, closed toe and preferably a buckle type closure. Heeled “mules” are acceptable. Wooden shoes or “clogs” could be worn. Aprons can be white if you are portraying a better sort. Wool in a color is better for work., especially if around a fire. Pockets are necessary if you are going to carry anything personal, not period correct. Like a cell phone, modern watches wallet, etc. Stays are expensive, for good reason. If you are serious about your hobby, invest in a well-made set from someone you know, or have good references for. Ill-fitting stays are not worth any price. Stockings are thigh high and are gartered below the knee.

How to choose and assemble a basic clothing kit for menI will focus on the mid-18th century, common man attire. Once again, with the consideration that we are in a French occupied fort, I will try to give you the period correct description and how it was created, then give you an “acceptable” modern equivalent.

Essential, basic clothing items are:

1) Shirt

2) Breeches

3) Breechclout

4) Leggings

5) Headgear

6) Accessories to add later

The shirt
The men’s shirt was the equivalent to the woman’s chemise. It is the basic undergarment and is all purpose clothing. It is t-shaped with set in long sleeves that are rather full and have cuffs. There is a basic collar and it has a slit at center front. It closes at the neck with a tie or button. Length is mid thigh with side vents. Seams were flat felled for durability. Men’s shirts have changed little over time except for details on collar height, sleeve fullness and fasteners. Predominantly white linen. Less common to be found in cotton, fustian or hemp. Voyagers brought “Trade goods” for native peoples and these goods became integrated into everyday wear as trade shirts. Bright colors, stripes and calimanco weaves. Some printed indienne cottons/linens. White muslin is acceptable substitute. As well as solid colors and stripes in appropriate colors. Woven checks could be used as well. Study your textiles before purchasing print shirts.

Every man and boy over age 5 wore breeches. They have a fitted waist, button fly and come to just below the knee, and have a fitted knee band closure. Fall front style comes in to vogue around 1760’s and 1770’s. Breeches are commonly found in wool, less common in linen, cotton and hemp. Silk breeches were for the wealthy. Trousers were not common until very late 18thC/ early 19th century. Most breeches you find ready made today at vendors are of canvas. This is an “o.k.” substitute. Heavy linen or fustian would be better, they feel better and are more comfortable.

Slops are acceptable working attire and are historically noted by 1st person accounts to be “common” attire for the workingman or for any dirty job. They are a loose version of the breeches out of lighter weight fabric and lacking the fitted knee band. Closing instead with a tie below the knee, if any closure is wanted. These could be worn alone, or over your breeches. Both slops and breeches should have been worn with stockings and shoes, if you weren’t barefoot. Stockings would be thigh high and be gartered below the knee. Shoes are leather and have a low square heel, closed toe and preferably have a buckle type of closure.

Canadiens traveling for the fur trade adopted the breechclout of the natives early on to replace the cumbersome breeches. A simple long and narrow rectangle of wool draped between the legs and held at waist with a belt or leather thong. Also worn around home during the summer. The shirt being quite long would have covered the ‘clout completely. Not every man wore these, and not everyman should today. Wool, lined in the crotch is your best modern equivalent.

Another piece of clothing adopted by the Canadians to complement the breechclout was the soft wool leggings called “mitasses”. They are held below the knee with garters and are tied to the belt or leather thong that supports the ‘clout. These looked like gaiters with out the buttons.

What to put on your head
Headgear of the male habitante of New France was historically noted to be the Tuque. This is a knitted hat that is cocoon shaped. One end pushed inside the other to make a double thickness and is typically red. Many styles of hats are to be found for men. Choose one that fits your persona and financial status. Kerchiefs can be tied over the head in a “dew-rag” fashion in a pinch. Head gear is not mandatory for men during this era. However, long hair was predominant and if you don’t have long hair, you might do better with a head covering.

Accessories for men
Things to add to your kit would be: kerchief, haversack, waistcoat, and a capot or jacket. Apron of leather.

Waistcoat or Veste is a type of justaucorps that goes down to the knees. It is a sleeved garment with no collar and has buttons on the front. Some research indicates that English waistcoats are made without sleeves, and the French’s were cut with sleeves. A few French waistcoats without sleeves were noted in period inventories. The fact that they are listed specifically “without” sleeves leads me to believe that sleeves were more common.

The capot was the jacket of choice for men in New France and was considered ordinary attire. Historically it is predominant over other coats. Its cut is inspired by the justaucorps but is overlapping in front in a double-breasted manner and has a hood. It closes at the neck with a single button. A belt holds it closed around the waist. Capots are commonly made of heavy weight wool, Summer capots are of lighter weight wool. Other choices could include the “mantelet” or justaucorps. English versions were the “frock” coat.

Thanks for your time.
Your Most Humble Servant,

Lauri Shillings
Originally posted at my website:
Gowns, Jackets, “Shortgowns” and Bedgowns by Sue Felshin,

How to Make a Cap by Sue Felshin
How to draft a chemise by Mara Riley at
Costume Close Up Clothing Construction and Pattern 1750-1790, Linda Baumgarten & John Watson with Florine Carr

Costume in New France from 1740 to 1760 a Visual Dictionary, by Suzanne and Andre Gousse

Fitting & Proper 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society, By Sharon Ann Burnston.

Patterns of Fashion 1 c1660-1860, Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction. By Janet Arnold.

Whatever Shall I Wear? A Guide to Assembling a Woman’s Basic 18th Century Wardrobe by Mara Riley

Who Was I? Creating a Living History Persona, A Modest Guide to the Hows and Whys, by Cathy Johnson

My deepest gratitude goes to all on the 18cWoman newsgroup at, whose discussion constantly keeps me thinking in new ways.

Also visit at yahoo newsgroups:
Beginning Living History || F&Iwoman || RevList

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