Colonial Costumes for Men
Colonial Man's Clothing - Patriotic Costumes for Men
Colonial America was a great period in men's clothing styles, with practical garments that were easy to move in and flattering to every figure, from the big and tall man to the stripling youth. Here you'll find a detailed checklist for men's colonial costumes with notes on men's clothing styles of the 18th century colonial and American Revolutionary period.
Find where to buy colonial men's costumes for any purpose - for community theatre and school plays, for Fourth of July parties and parades, fancy-dress and Halloween, or more authentic patriot garb for historical re-enactments.
You can even make your own colonial man's costume or adapt your own men's clothing to 1770s style with just a bit of straight basic sewing and a few well-chosen accessories. Read on for lots of colonial men's costume ideas!
Photo: Colonial Williamsburg by Luigi Crespo Photography [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr
What Kind of Colonial Man are You?
Many Civilian Roles for Men in 1700s America
The colonial period in America may have been fraught with conflict but by far the majority of men were for most if not all of their lives in a civilian role. In this realm, however, the costume of the Colonial Man we normally think of is that of the townsmen of the Thirteen Colonies, for the most part - but just consider the variety of options you have!
For example, what clothing did the rough-and-ready woodsmen and country farmers of the 1770s wear? What kind of clothing was worn by the colonial-era merchant seaman, privateer or pirate? What about shipyard workers, blacksmiths and farriers, wheelwrights and carters, the servants and stable boys who worked for the wealthier families? Colonial America had its lawyers and judges, too, with a rudimentary system still modelled on the British courts, so the officials were black-gowned and wigged accordingly... and so on, and so on.
Every role in society would have its own typical clothing styles, so your costume choices are wider than you might at first think.
Patriot Soldiers of the American Revolution
Clothing Maketh the Man - The Right Colonial Costume Depends on What Character You'll Play
When you're putting together a costume for a colonial man, the first thing to consider is how authentic you want or need your costume to be. What is the occasion? and who are you going to be? A specific historical figure, or an ordinary Colonial Man about town?
For example, when you will be playing a distinctive character - such as George Washington, for example, or Ben Franklin - your costume will need to be sure to include those items we associate with those historical persons, especially in the matter of finding the right wig for the character. Ben Franklin is normally seen with a well-balding forehead and straight long hair, of course, and a Ben Franklin costume will also his characteristic small round spectacles to be complete.
Samuel Adams Costume
Find a Costume to Suit Size and Budget
Size and price are two other items to think about. Big and tall men will have a more difficult time than standard sized men to find a ready-made costume, although you will find a few on this page. Off-the-rack costumes or a few key costume pieces mixed with your own gear will be the least costly way to go, but the infamous "one size fits all" is usually NOT the truth, in reality!
Any size of colonial-era clothing can be had from a theatrical costume supplier or made to custom order, of course, but suppose that your budget may not stretch to custom gear or a professional outfit? Fortunately, I've got some suggestions, below, to help men (of any size and shape) get suited up for the Fourth of July without breaking the bank.
First, let's run through a quick checklist of those must-have items of clothing and accessories for a Colonial Man costume.
Clothing Checklist for a Colonial Man's Costume
Look for a long shirt in plain cotton or linen, with long sleeves that are fairly full and no collar, just a neck band. For a working man's colonial costume, you can tie a narrow neck scarf in the opening of the shirt. As the social status goes up, so does the amount of detail in the shirt - a folded or pleated neckcloth, a soft ascot tie, or a lace-trimmed jabot and cuffs. If you think somewhere between "pirate shirt" and "peasant shirt" that will get you in the right ballpark. Note that the shirts in colonial times were very long, down to mid-thigh or longer, so the working man's costume has an option to wear the shirt tucked into the breeches or left out and belted at the waist.
The vest is long, down to the thighs, fastened with many small buttons. It cuts away in a V shape just below the belly, and the armholes are quite close-fitting. Lower class and working men would have a hard-wearing vest of wool or heavy cotton weave in a plain medium-dark color that wouldn't show soiling - olive, grey, brown, and the like. Men of higher social status would show more luxurious fabrics and decoration on their vests, especially the vests work for special occasions, with fronts embroidered or made of brocades, satins, and similar fancy fabrics. Buttons for a working man's vest might be base metal, bone or wood, while a rich man's buttons might be a work of art in of themselves.
- Knee Breeches
Men's trouser styles have changed so radically over the years, the typical knee breeches are often one of the most difficult parts of a colonial men's costume to get right. To begin with - no zippers! Button drop-front or pull-on drawstring pants were the two main choices. If the shirt is worn loose down over the top of the pants, belted at the waist, you can often get away with shortening a pair of your own old dress pants or secondhand trousers from Goodwill to just below the knee, to make a pair of breeches. Elastic was not invented in colonial times, so if you want to be authentic your breeches will button at the bottom or have a drawstring.
- Coat and/or Cloak
The everyday coat is essentially a vest with sleeves, and would not necessarily be worn by a poor man in colonial times. An upstanding citizen of the community would be unlikely to go without his coat in public. You might want to skip the coat, however, if your Fourth of July weather is often on the hot and steamy side! At night, in poor weather, or if you're dressing as Paul Revere, consider adding a mid-length cloak to your costume.
- Stockings (Hose)
Above the knee, knitted hose in white, off-white, or beige-tan, are tied with a garter above or below the knee - remember, elastic had not been invented in the 1770s!
Black or brown leather, shoes were buttoned or buckled. I don't advise wasting money on most low-cost "shoe covers" except for a quick Halloween costume, perhaps, as they have a tendency to look like you're walking around with bags on your feet. You're better off to buy an inexpensive pair of slip-on shoes or use your existing dark dress shoes, and add a buckle on top to approximate the look of colonial shoes.
1770s Military Costumes - Officers of the Revolutionary War
If you are dressing up as a colonial soldier - either Patriot or British Redcoat - or a military or naval officer (on whichever side of the Revolutionary War), your costume will call for finding an appropriate uniform. That's quite straightforward for the officer class on both sides and for the redcoats. The dress of the militia man or the ordinary recruit or volunteer, however, was much more modest, even in the earliest and most prosperous days of the conflict...
Photo: 225th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Rhode Island 1778. American Army marches south down the East side of Rhode Island to Engage the British. Photo by Graemesmith, [CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
The ragtag common foot soldiers of the American patriot forces were frequently clad in whatever they could cobble together from their own clothing and limited kit issue. Later on in the War, as supply lines stretched thin and funding failed, it was increasingly likely that the soldier's costume would have included a few worn cast-offs from injured or fallen comrades, or bits and pieces of clothing that were scavenged along the way.
Sew Your Own Colonial or American Revolutionary War Costume for Men - Historical Costume (Coat, Vest, Shirt, Pants and Hat) Sewing Pattern
If you can sew, or have access to someone who sews - and if time permits - then making your own costume is often a good way to go. Butterick sewing patterns have always been a reliable choice for my projects (as have Simplicity and McCalls patterns).
You can sew the entire wardrobe from underwear "drawers" to breeches and trousers, and from shirt to waistcoat to an impressive over-coat with broad facings and sweeping skirts, in 1700s military style or for the patriotic civilian of the period.
Shop the remnants section of your local fabric store for the materials, and you'll have a fabulous colonial costume made to fit perfectly - often it's the best option for hard-to-fit extra large or extra tall men.
Here are just a couple of the sewing patterns for appropriate costumes you'll find for sale at a reasonable price.