I hate getting dressed. I wish we had already advanced into OS systems so we could just float around bodiless without a care in the world as to whether or not our socks matched. I look into my closet everyday and am just… bored.
That being said, I am also suuuuuper grateful that we don’t live back in the day. I’m not talking about 30 years ago when our parents had to walk to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways. I’m talking about the dreaded centuries were woman had to drown themselves in fabric and sweat to be pleeeeeasing.
I did a bit of historical reenactment theatre for, lets just say too long. The latest was a few years ago in Maryland at a local historical farm. We actors had to put on the proper dress to tell our 1770s stories.
Ahhhh, don’t we look happy? Isn’t our love just radiant?
We are sweating our… faces off. We are both under so many layers (mostly me) in a stifling hot cabin, in the middle of July, on the EAST coast. That means lots and lots of humidity. We were lucky that year to get a day below 95 degrees. Often it was above 100 degrees.
To tell it honestly, nearly 250 years ago, it would rarely if never gotten that hot #globalwarming. Still, the people of that time were very hard workers. The farm where we worked was a 1770s tobacco farm located across the river from Mount Vernon (Washington’s house). They would have cleared the land, built their cabin and barn, established and maintained their crop, made or traded all their goods and raised a family. All I had to do was give a few speeches and demonstrations a few times a day and I was close to passing out from heat exhaustion.
Let me tell you what those gals wore.
Let’s start with under garments. A cap almost always adorned the head. This trapped in heat which was awesome for the winter, horrid in the summer. Next comes the shift which would be made of linen and would serve as both nightgown and slip. A lady would be lucky if she owned more than two and would use it around the clock until it was time for laundering, which was rare. Oh! And panties did not exist yet… think on that. Lastly comes the stockings which were hand-knitted of wool or linen and came all the way up to the knees. Great for not shaving and soaking up that sweat! Yum.
Next the outer under garments – stays! They are somewhat like a corset if a TINY bit less severe. They were mostly made with whalebone, wood or reed in the hopes of providing good posture and that delicious ice cream cone shaped silhouette. Every woman should worry about that while raising kids or weeding. To be fair, she’d probably start wearing one as a child, so would be used to it. (I cheated… on this one… most days) However, the restricting garment wouldn’t be complete without the finishing flourish – a busk! “A busk is a piece of wood that has been shaped so that it is smooth and rounded at the back. It prevents the woman from bending at the waist, and creates the rounded shape down the front of the body that was fashionable. Many busks were gifts from a boyfriend or husband and carved with designs on the front” (1). Hahahahaha – a gift… from a boyfriend… haha. “Oh honey, you REALLY shouldn’t have…”
Next comes my favorite item – the pocket! Pockets weren’t what they are today, that is to say, they didn’t come readily built into our clothes. They were a stitched pouch that you would tie around your waste over the stays, under your petticoats and skirts. I LOVED this guy. I had so much room for activities in this little pouch, it was almost a personal challenge to see what I could stuff it with.
Moving on to the petticoats. You would wear at least two, and in the winter, up to five for warmth. Basically it is a glorified skirt that were made of linen, wool, cotton, or silk if you fancy. (Again, I cheated on this one too)
Think we are almost done? HAHAHA not even close.
Now the daily garments! In the picture above you will see a yellow garment, a blue garment and a white one draped near my neck. The white one is a kerchief which was meant to keep me modest. I used it to catch sweat and wipe sweat and wring out sweat, oh and also to hide my neck tattoo. The blue garment is the outer skirt, or a fancier petticoat made to give the lady SOME sense of fashion. But the real beauty was the yellow layer or the actual dress / gown. This one is tied down the front with string, but sometimes they would actually sew the garment closed or use straight pins to fasten it – daily. Buttons were not fashionable on women’s clothing. They were mostly made of a very fine woolen material. Wool. WOOL. DURING AN EAST COAST SUMMER. ON TOP OF ALL THOSE OTHER LAYERS.
To be fair, I loved this dress. These pictures are of our wedding day and I felt like a pretty pretty princess. Mostly, I wore this:
I took off about 4 layers and added an apron to work the farm and accomplish basic household chores. It was here that I learned how to spin and weave wool fibers right off the sheep and into fabric. One of the most random talents I have, but also one that I loved and am proud of. Tangent.
All in all the experience was very very fun. I learned a great deal and grew to respect the women of colonial America for the amount of crap they had to deal with and the fortitude with which they met those demands.
- “Women’s Clothing from the 1770’s.” Memorial Hall. Web. 17 April 2017. <http://memorialhall.mass.edu/activities/dressup/notflash/1770_woman.html>.
IMAGE SOURCES: Accokeek Colonial Farm