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How to Wear Historically Accurate Colonial Women's Clothing

Updated on February 27, 2013
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I love learning about the history of fashion and clothing! If you do, too, check out these incredible books, each of which has fantastic photos of historic garments.

What is Historically Accurate Clothing?

This is an illustrated guide to some of the things I have learned throughout the years about wearing historical clothing. The tips on this page work best for Colonial clothing because the cut and design of women's clothes change fairly dramatically during the 19th century.

While people frequently call historical clothing "costumes," many people involved with living history do not see their clothing as a costume. The difference is semantic, but allow me to try to explain.

If a person has put a lot of time into assembling his or her clothing and making it as historically accurate as possible, it is not a costume at all - it is simply clothing from another era. Just think about a Halloween costume you can buy at the store and how it differs qualitatively from "the real thing." A doctor or nurse costume may look sort of like what a doctor or nurse wears, but it is not something a professional would actually wear into a hospital. The same is true of historic clothing. Yes, there are Colonial costumes, but chances are good those have non-historic additions, such as zippers, that make these tips inapplicable, anyway. These tips are for people who want to wear more historically accurate clothing in a comfortable, useful way. Most of them are also historically accurate and make the clothing more functional, they are simply things that many modern people do not think of when first putting on historic clothes.

Before I launch in to the tips, I want to make sure everyone understands the terms I use. A shift is the basic undergarment that, historically, also doubled as a nightgown. Sometimes people refer to it as a chemise. Stays are the basic women's support garment. They are different from a 19th century corset. Stays lace from bottom to top, end at or near the waistline, and are designed to give a sort of flat-sided, conical appearance. Corsets come down over the hips and typically have one lace coming from the bottom up to the waist and a second lace from the top down to the waist. These cords are cinched in to give an hourglass appearance. Wearing a pair of stays should feel sort of like wearing a lumbar support belt and a sports bra at the same time. If wearing them hurts, something is wrong. Finally, petticoat is the historic term for what we today might call a skirt.

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How to Wear a Shift or Chemise

Many inexperienced people wear their shift incorrectly. They either pull the neck drawstring so tight that it looks like the shift is attempting to eat their head, or they loosen it so much it is falling of their shoulders in some sort of Ren Faire wench look. Instead, a happy medium is appropriate. The shift's neck should not be directly touching your neck, nor should be at risk for slipping off your shoulders.

Spiral lacing
Spiral lacing | Source

How to Lace Stays

Next, the way stays are laced makes all the difference in the world. They are not laced like a shoe, but use a technique called spiral lacing. Spiral lacing uses one cord that runs from top to bottom. You can tie the cord to the top eyelet, or you can sew it in place. As you lace your stays, you will always pull the cord through the eyelet from back to front on one side and from front to back on the other. This makes it easy to tighten by yourself because you can simply pull on the loose end of the cord with one hand, rather than working with two ends of the cord as you would have to if you laced it as you would a pair of shoes.

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Sometimes, stays have an extra piece of cord tied to the bottom with the idea that you can simply tie the lacing cord off and be done with it. I find that this does not work particularly well. Instead, make sure to use a lacing cord that has enough extra length to wrap around your waist at least once. Then, tie the cord off to itself. If your stays begin to work themselves loose or the cord stretches, it is easy to reach through the slit in your petticoat to simply readjust the knot.

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How to Wear a Petticoat

After putting on your pocket, or pockets, it is time to put on your petticoat. Many people intuitively want to tie the petticoat at their sides by tying the front left to the back left and front right to the back right. As the knot slips throughout the day, petticoats tied this way become annoyingly loose. Also, if the petticoat is even a little too big or too small, it is difficult to wear it this way.


A much more convenient, secure way is to tie the backs together and the fronts together. The petticoat cord needs to be a little longer to tie it this way, but it is much more secure. It also lets you wear petticoats that are too large for you, like the one I am wearing in the picture. The extra fabric simply overlaps, instead of making the garment too big to wear.

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How to Wear an Apron

Aprons are supposed to be practical, but if you simply tie your apron behind your back in a bow, it will probably also work free during the day. To make it more secure, pass the cords behind your back and then tie them at your front. This makes the apron much less likely to slip, and also makes it far easier to tie a secure knot because you are not contorting yourself.

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I like to wear my apron tucked up by pulling the corners up and under the apron strings. This creates a sort of pouch that is convenient for carrying things, even very heavy things. If you are wearing stays and have a sturdy apron, you can carry firewood hands-free! Obviously, whether you want to wear your apron up or down should depend on what you are doing. If you are cooking or near a fire, you may want to wear it down to protect your petticoat.

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How to Wear a Cap

For a long time, I struggled with getting a cap to stay in place. Then, I learned the key is putting a small amount of hair on top of your head in a hair elastic or metal clip. While I realize the little metal clip approach is not the most historically accurate thing in the world, you ultimately cannot see the clip. Put the rest of your hair in a bun to keep it out of the way and anchor the bottom of the cap. I make sure the bulk of my hair is inside the cap, pull it up over the top of my head, and anchor it in place with a pin that I stick through the hair elastic or through the little gap in a metal hair clip. A second pin to hold the cap to your bun is not absolutely necessary, but can sometimes be useful.

I hope these tips can help people who wear Colonial style clothing, whether for work, fun, volunteer activities or something else, have an easier time getting dressed and staying comfortable.

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    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 5 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      Wonderfully detailed hub! I appreciate your distinction between historically accurate dress and mere costume. I have done some of both, including petticoats, shifts, bodices and even a fringed hunting shirt.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      I'm glad you enjoyed it and that you appreciate historic clothing! I have also done plenty of costuming. I think it really takes doing both to understand the diffence.

    • profile image

      buddhaanalysis 5 years ago

      i like traditional and classic costumes.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My son and I visited Williamsburg about ten years ago and I was fascinated and fell in love with the area immediately despite some horrific heat. Then of course I had to go see every possible Civil War battlefield I could during the week. Can't wait to return! Love your hub and I'm looking forward to following your history lessons.

    • Brainy Bunny profile image

      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      We took our kids to Colonial Williamsburg this past summer, and we were all both fascinated and horrified by the complexity of the clothing. We're so used to zippers that we sometimes forget that people used to have to button and tie things all the time!

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Oh yeah, it takes some getting used to! When I worked at CW, my stays confused me at first. Then I became so accustomed to my costume I could out it on as fast as 'normal' clothes.

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      Lori 5 years ago

      Can you tell me what colors and patterns/prints are appropriate for late 1700's wear? I'm thinking for petticoats and short gowns...

      Thank you!

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Historically, people loved bright colors. Blues, reds, yellows, oranges, greens - you name it. Solid color linen fabric is always a good choice. Linen was much more common than cotton, but frequently cotton is a more economical choice today.

      Prints are much more difficult to select accurately. The 'cabbage rose' prints you can find easily today are not particularly correct. If you really want a print, I would check a historic fabric purveyor, such as the Mary Dickenson at Colonial Williamsburg, or 96 Fabrics (www.96storehouse.com). For a little design without worrying about inaccuracy, look for stripes.

    • Mmargie1966 profile image

      Mmargie1966 5 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      This is absolutely fascinating! I want to wear the clothing of that era...always have! I'm quite interested in the Colonial Period. Love your hubs!

    • buckleupdorothy profile image

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      When I was little (and actually well through college, if I'm being honest) I fantasized about working at Colonial Williamsberg or Plymouth Plantation. Consider the fire rekindled - thank you! I've always been fascinated with living history, and this hub really brings it to life. Voted up and shared!

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you! I'm glad this hub had at least a little impact. =) And thank you for sharing, too!

    • Flinter-50cal profile image

      Flinter-50cal 4 years ago from SE Minnesota

      You have explained the basic layers very nicely along with good, clear pictures. In a way I'm glad you didn't go into the various gowns/jackets and how to lace/pin them as the variety covering the 18thC can be overwhelming. I am intrigued and puzzled, however, by the method of finishing off the tie for the stays. I wear a busk in the stays, pockets and a bum roll under the outer petticote, 2-3 petticotes all together, then an open gown or a shortgown and an apron. It looks like the stays' tie tied this way would wind up at the same location as all the other ties. To get at it would seem to be quite a challenge. I do find it very easy to get at the bottom of the stays through the petticote overlaps and adjust the tie.

      Overall, very nicely done.

    • Flinter-50cal profile image

      Flinter-50cal 4 years ago from SE Minnesota

      I forgot to mention that we have the exact same stays. Very compfortable!

      A side note is a detail I learned from a friend: how to make a "lock" in the lacing - take a couple of turns around one of the crossings just below the waist, then continue lacing as usual. To adjust the tightness, you can still get at the lacing above the "lock", pull on that to tighten the upper half, slide the loop of the "lock" and tighten the bottom section. With the "lock" the top won't slip loose while redoing the bottom.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Hm, an interesting way to lock the stays in place! I don't have a busk or bum rolls to contend with, and I usually find they end up tied at the side and the petticoats at the front and back, so they never really conflict. It is a little different, I suppose, but I hve always liked how I could tighten them a little if they warm up and stretch out just by sliding the knot a little further around behind, kind of like a taught line hitch.

      These stays are more comfrotable than a pair I Once made myself. I hand sewed a fully boned pair of stays a few years ago! It took me a long time to complete and they are absurdly hot because they can't breathe.

    • Flinter-50cal profile image

      Flinter-50cal 4 years ago from SE Minnesota

      Thank you, thank you, for advising against the extremes of chemise necklines!

      If I may, for the benefit of those just starting out, I'd like to add just a few bits of advice on how to adjust a chemise for a proper appearance and be comfortable. It takes a little practice but the chemise neckline should be adjusted to just peek out of whatever gown or shortgown is worn. Once the stays are almost fully tightened, you can adjust the bulk of material evenly around your body and the level of the neckline by grasping the chemise above and below the stays and sliding it up and down while moving it sideways. This helps avoid thick wrinkles that can get rather uncomfortable and gets rid of a blousy neckline (remember to do the back, too). Reach above your head to make sure under your arm is not pulled down too far. Once the outer layer is on, the chemise neckline can be fine tuned. Necklines of the day were rather low so for general daytime modesty you would also wear a handkerchief (neck scarf). Fancy evening dress has its own rules.

      One thing I've noticed at events is that many ladies think that stays were meant to raise the bosom. Not so! The 1700s sihouette up until the later 1780s was meant to be a flattened cone that accentuated the hips. To achieve this shape, the bosom is actually pressed/pulled sideways/outward, not lifted up like a pouter pigeon. This is actually more comfortable than being "squashed" from the front.

      The stays of the later 1780s began to be shaped using curved boning along the top edge to shape the bust and by the 1790s, to accommodate the rising waistline of the Empire style, stays even had cups.

      "When" you are reenacting will determine which style of stays is correct.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Absolutely! People put their shift necklines all over the place and I sometimes feel like I've spent half my life explaining the differences between different stays and corsets! They are very different with different appearance goals, and wearing the wrong pair is a great way to ensure an improper fit for a correctly made gown! I have a caraco I stitched entirely by hand and it won't fit unless I'm wearing a particular pair of stays (that I was also insane enough I hand sew)!

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Excellent description and photos (and tips)! I am a re-enactor in a colonial dance troop and we have a very strict costume mistress. Everything you wrote is superb!

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 3 years ago from Hawaii

      That sounds like fun! Dancing was so popular then, and it's great that people keep those dances alive. =) Thanks for stopping by!

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      Kathy 2 years ago

      Your stays look as though they don't have boning Is this so. I love its look. I am new to historical dressing but my friends have convinced me and I love the colonial look. I try to sew my own so I am interested in your stays

    • profile image

      Amy Ruth 17 months ago

      Great article! I'm writing a Revolutionary War era novel and have done a lot of research lately. It was my understanding that a petticoat was worn under the skirt, to add volume and to add warmth. Was I completely mistaken on this, or am I just thinking of a different era?

    • Byonder5 profile image

      Byonder5 3 weeks ago

      I like to wear both petticoats and aprons. Fab hub

      Yours b

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