How to Wear Historically Accurate Colonial Women's Clothing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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