Like with men’s clothing of the Revolutionary War era there were “standard” items worn almost universally. This basic set of clothes would include: a shift, petticoat, stockings, shoes, stays, a modesty piece and a gown or short gown. Again the quality of construction, materials, colors and patterns would set one class of person apart from another. Additional articles could be caps, hats, pockets, aprons and capes.
For complete information on 18th century women’s clothing, including patterns and descriptions, check the Basic Non-Military Clothing Guide for Women, printed by the Brigade of the American Revolution and Beth Gilgun’s Tidings from the 18th Century.
Choosing Clothing Styles to Match Your Persona
For types and styles, Clothing and Textiles in New Jersey: 1776-1782, is excellent reference. It is a collection of excerpts from New Jersey and New York newspapers containing references to clothing and fabrics in New Jersey; advertisments for run away slaves and indentured servants, descriptions of lost or stolen property, and advertisements of merchants. It gives a good idea of what styles, fabrics and colors of clothing were available and/or popular during the war. It includes descriptions for both men and woman, as well as many classes.
Another source is contemporary prints and paintings. Artists such as William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Denis Diderot‘s L’Ecyclopedie (1763) have numerous drawings of all sorts of individuals from the period. Diderot’s work is especially helpful because he produced hundreds of plates dedicated to specific trades and industries and while Hogarth is somewhat early for our period, his subjects are a window into everyday English life.
Fabrics and Patterns
For our uses, only 100% natural fiber fabrics such as linen, wool, cotton, silk and are certain blends of these are acceptable. Of these, the fabrics of choice were linen and wool because they were the most available fabrics and cheaper in the 18th century. Correct fabrics drape properly, conform to shape more readily, crease, wrinkle, and wear more appropriately and are safer to wear around camp fires.
The following is reproduced from the Basic Non-Military Clothing Guide for Women for reference:
- Linen: a fabric made from the flax plant, noted for it’s strength, coolness and luster. Please do not confuse linen-look materials for true linen. These are often polyester blends. Read the bolts for fiber content.
- Cotton: a fabric made from plant seed fiber. Because the cotton gin had not been invented at the time of the American Revolution, cotton was more expensive than linen and most of it was imported.
- Wool: the fiber from the fleece of sheep. This was the most common fabric, whether called woolen, worsted or stuff. Wool was so finely woven that is would retain a firm edge when cut and left “raw”.
- Silk: A filament produced by the larvae of a silkworm as it spins it’s cocoon. While some silk was produced domestically, most silk was imported.
- Color: All colors achieved in the 18th century were created with natural dyes. These were obtained from berries, roots, bark, flowers, shells, and insects. Some fabrics “took” dyes better than others.
- Stripes and checks: While solid colors were probably the most common, stripes and checks were worn.
- Stripes: whether even or uneven, remained fairly small until just before the end of our period.
- Checks: for semantic clarification, means any fabric of any fiber in plain weave with one, two or three colored warp and one, two or three colored weft stripes intersecting at right angles to form squares.
- Prints: Printed linens and cottons were available and popular in the eighteenth century. Finding printed fabrics today that are right for our clothing is difficult. Some companies, such as Waverly and Schumacher, have produced fabrics, which are called “documented prints” in 100% natural fiber.
On all 100% fiber fabrics, prewashing in essential. Even if you intend to dry-clean your clothing, rain and sweat can shrink a fabric just as easily, ruining your garment. Also make sure all your seams are finished to prevent unraveling.
Documentable styles and patterns are just as important so be sure about anything before you buy. Approved patterns are available from the Brigade of the American Revolution. This is not to say that the BAR is the only source for patterns, just the most reliable. J.P. Ryan Patterns are also very good and available from many of the merchants, and Beth Gilgun includes many patterns in her book Tidings from the 18th Century.
Before you purchase finished clothing or materials to make your own, check with the Commander first, getting a sample swatch before committing yourself.