Colonial Williamsburg: Fashion Fanatics Part 2

The following explanation is grossly oversimplified for those who know nothing of the clothing styles of the period. I was a bit surprised how no one else seemed to know all about the Georgian era! Isn’t anyone else obsessed with Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and the Poldark Saga?

Getting dressed was quite an ordeal for women. Each day they put on a long linen undershirt known as a shift. Everyone owned several and these were embroidered with the owner’s initials. No one wanted to share their underwear with other family members.

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18th-century shift with embroidered initials

Next a lady put on her stockings, tied them with garters and put on shoes. Then over her shift she wore a pair of stays (later known as a corset). This was not for nipping in the waist, at least not for women, it was for posture and to hold in the wobbly bits. This is not the Victorian era and it is acceptable to show off one’s womanly assets (at least in the evening/formal occasions) and one’s arms.

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18th century stays. They are lined with whalebone (baleen) and lace up the back. Some laced up the front and others laced up both sides. To put it on requires help and if one doesn’t have a maid, one can simply put the string through loosely,  tie a knot, put the stays on, shimmy into them and pull the string from the top or shimmy into them backwards and turn them around.

Stays extended from mid-bust to just below the waist and created the desirable 18th-century figure of a smooth, inverted cone without separate cups for the breasts.

Working women sometimes wore leather stays, called jumps.

Dresses didn’t have sewn in pockets. Ladies often embroidered or pieced together pockets to wear under their petticoats. Gowns would have slits to reach inside the pocket. Because gowns had separate pockets, this explains the origins of the nursery rhyme “Lucy Locket” (“Lucy Locket lost her pocket; Kitty Fisher found it. Not a penny was there in it,. Only ribbon round it.”)

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18th-century stays and pocket in storage at the art museums of Colonial Williamsburg. The pocket is missing the ribbon tie.

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18th-century embroidered pocket

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Pair of patchwork pockets

Next came a petticoat, possibly one for warmth and one meant to be seen like a skirt. This could be quilted, embroidered, silk, wool, etc.

dark green silk petticoat quilted in floral design

Green silk quilted petticoat

Over the petticoats came an open gown and in between the empty space in the front a lady would pin or hook an embroidered triangular piece of cloth known as a stomacher. There were several types of gowns worn at this time but the exhibit only shows the open robe style.

 

Instead of a gown and stomacher, some women wore printed cotton jackets like this one.

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Cotton printed ladies’ lace-up jacket

Other visitors wanted to discuss at length what women did when they had their “monthlies.” I’m uninterested in this topic but here is a summary of what was discussed:

  • At least one woman wore an extra apron backwards.
  • Some women may have worn extra petticoats if they had them.
  • It’s possible some women wrapped rags around them like a diaper.
  • Alternately, many women married in their late teens or early 20s and were pregnant and nursing for much of the next 20 years so they may not have had their monthlies.

The records just don’t tell us these things, not because they were too genteel and refined (that came later at the end of the Regency era) but because it was just an ordinary thing women dealt with and didn’t think to write down. Do you keep a diary? How often do you write about visits from Aunt Flo and what you do? If you don’t, start now so future generations can know what we did back in the 20th/21st centuries!

A slideshow of quick video clips of different types of fashions popular in Virginia played on a screen next to the exhibit. I tried to get as many different images as I could.

 

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Men often wore an informal robe at home known as a banyan.

Children wore simple, T-shaped dresses known as frocks. Boys and girls both wore these until the boy was old enough to be breeched (dressed in breeches like his father). 

By this period some of the Virginia Indians also liked British printed textiles.

I recommend reading the book What Clothes Reveal : The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America by Linda Baumgarten, Yale University Press, 2012.

A summary from the above book can be found on Colonial Williamsburg’s website.

Welcome

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Welcome!

Welcome to my new blog about some interesting things I have found in libraries, archives and museums. I’m a recent library school graduate and historian so I spend a lot of time in the above mentioned places! I’m mostly an early American historian or 18th, 19th and early 20th century history buff. I live in New England where there are a lot of great museums and libraries and I love visiting museums when I travel.