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Putting on 18th Century Woman's Clothing

May 11, 2010

For first time historical re-enactors, the process of putting on 18th century clothing may seem a little intimidating and time consuming. Here are the steps you must take to identify the different articles of clothing and the order in which you dress. Start by taking off all you twenty-first century clothing, except your undergarments, please! Next, put on your shift. This is a woman’s basic undergarment, like underwear. The shift is sort-of like a one piece nightgown, but its purpose is entirely different. The shift absorbs your perspiration, protects your outer clothing and would be changed often, depending on your class. 


Pull the bottom of the shift over your head gingerly, then push your arms through the arm holes, and continue to let the shift gently fall past your knees hitting you directly at the shin. You’ll need to put on your knee-high stockings next. This step may seem a little backwards from the way you normally put on your socks. The height of your stockings will depend on how tall and thin your legs are. Role the tube-like stocking up into a manageable size, then slip your delicate, soft foot into the colored, wool or linen stocking. 


Your stockings should be fairly easy to put on, but for people with meatier calf muscles and thighs it may be a tight squeeze, but after a couple of uses, they will stretch out. You’ll need to put on your pair of garters next, to keep on your stockings. As I already motioned your stockings will stretch, so if you don’t wear the garters it can become a nuisance when your stockings are slowly falling down to your ankles and you begin to trip over your stockings. The garters are around 24” long and about an inch wide and use a buckle to fasten around each leg. Leather garters were not always used to hold up your stockings. 


Scraps of fabric were used as well. If you use fabric, it should be long enough to wrap twice around the leg and then tied. Whether you are first-class or third-class, your garters help your stockings stay right where you need them to be, whether your garters are positioned above the knee or just below the knee. The positioning of the garters is your choice, whatever feels comfortable. Don’t forget your shoes! Depending on your society level, it would either be a fancy silk shoe or just rags. Either way, a shoe must be put on to protect your feet. Shoes of the time were often slipped on the foot and not tied. 


This allowed for faster dressing time. Grab your shoe and hold back the tounge, then slip your foot into the shoe very carefully, making sure when you put your foot down on the floor that the heel of your shoes doesn’t come down on top of your other toes. Now you need to put on your stays. This article of clothing was usually for the higher class women, so if your persona is third-class, then it is optional. Think of the stays as the 18th century bra. Some stays where made colorful with embroidered detail and some were plain and distasteful. Since you will not always have anybody around to give you a hand with the lacing of your stays, you will have to do it yourself. Don’t worry! There are some with front or back lacing stays, or both. Since your stays are new, you will probably have to pull the lace (either a leather strip or a thick ribbon) through all the small holes in the back and or front, like when you lace up your shoes. 


Then, when that is done, carefully insert your arm through the arm holes at the top of the stay and smooth the front towards the back or visa-versa, depending on if the ties are in the back or front. If you want your shoe to be tighter, you’ll pull the lace towards yourself, so when you tighten your stays you will start at the top and work your way down. Start at the top of the stays, grabbing the strings that crisscross closest to the neck, pull out with your pointer finger and thumb, and release. Then take the next set of crossing strings and do the same, pulling out tightly so that the top set of strings becomes stiff and firm. Do this all the way down to the very last set of crossing strings. If your stays are too tight, it can cause you to have short of breath, dizziness and fainting, so please don’t tighten your stays too tight. This step in becoming an 18th century woman is one of the easiest steps. You will need to put on your pocket. 


18th century dresses did not have built in pockets like we do today, so they made pocket(s) themselves. They somewhat resemble a bell or a rectangle, depending on the pattern, and can either be plain, printed or elegantly embroidered with tremendous amounts of vibrant colors. There should be a drawstring (called tape) through the top part of the Pocket(s) where you will find a loop, if your pocket doesn’t have the drawl-string in it yet, put it through the loop with a safety pin, making sure to remove the pin later. Take the pocket(s) by the strings and place the string around your waist, then tie, making sure it’s not too tight but that it doesn’t fall off as you work. Also, if you are single and want to show off your embroidery work, then there is no shame in boasting about it. All you have to do is tie the pocket to the outside of your clothing with your apron. After you have put on your pocket(s) you will need to put on your underpetticoat (almost like a slip). 


This piece of clothing can be any color appropriate to the time period, made of linen or cotton. The under-petticoat can either have a tie or hooks to secure your underpetticoat around your waist, making sure it doesn’t manage to “slip” off. Your underpettiecoat may or may not have a slit on each side for pockets, but if it does, you will have to tie both sides. You will want to put your skirt over your head and bring it down, that way you don’t get your shift in an uncomfortable, wadded mess or rip a hole in your petticoat with the heel of your shoe. Put on your outer petticoat this time. If your haven’t caught on yet, you simply have two petticoats, equaling two layers. I do suggest you tie the drawstrings on this petticoat tighter than the last. Because of such a big bundle of clothing underneath, it can get pretty bulky, and so your petticoat may be looser. 


Women always wore a cap, but it is also a great way to hide your untamed, wild, frizzy hair. There are many ways to hide you hair like in a gathered cap (not a Mop cap, it is inappropriate for the time). This cap is the easiest head piece, all you do is place it on your head, over a bun, ponytail, or barrette, it is a great way to hide all your twenty-first century hair styling utensils. For the lower class woman you might want to try a large triangular piece of cloth, muslin or any appropriate pattern and fabric of the time and create a bandana, tying the corners of the triangle to the back of your head under your hair. For the women who are working all day in the heat might need something to keep her hair off her neck and face. Put your hair up in a bun, then just like a bandana, tie the corners of the triangle to the back of your head under your hair. 


After that, take the bottom corner of you bandana (the piece that is hanging down on your back) and tuck it under the corners of the triangle that have been tied, giving it an Aunt Jemima look. This is very practical, allowing the air to reach you neck, cooling you down. You’ll need an article of clothing called a Bed Jacket or Short Gown. The Bed Jacket is a perfect top, resembling a “house coat”. Worn by middle to lower class women, the Bed Jacket would have been plain and simple, while the Short Gown was reserved for middle to upper class. Whether you choose a Bed Jacket or Short Gown, you need to place your arms in the arm holes, pulling up on your shoulders and shift. 


Using 2-3 silver capped pins, pin one at the top close to the neck of your garment, and one in the middle close to the belly-button, to secure your Bed Jacket or Short Gown. Almost done! Now that you have got all the necessities down and out of the way, you might want to make sure that you have a modesty cloth. The modesty cloth wouldn’t have been used for the Bed Gown, but often enough would have been used frequently for the Short Gown. The Short Gown’s neck line comes a lot lower on the chest then the Bed Gown that crossed close to the neck line. The scarf lays around your neck, wrapping around to the front. Then take the corners of your scarf and tuck them in behind the Short Gown front, and situate it until you are comfortable. 


The scarf can come in any 18th century print and color, either in silk, linen or cotton, but will most likely be found in linen. The apron was an important essential to everyday life in the 18th century. It was a very helpful means of transporting the things you needed as well as giving you an item on which to wipe your hands on and dry and wash the dishes. You’re going to need an apron to haul all sorts of stuff like wood, veggies, and laundry. If you go without as apron, count yourself lost. Take the strings and wrap them around your waist, tie them into a knot or bow. I would tie them into a bow to make it easier to take your apron off. As I have stated in every step, the apron is usually made out of muslin, cotton or linen, and in many prints correct to the era. This would add a lot of color to the outfit and keep your petticoat clean. The last item you’ll need is something to block the sun out of your eyes. Therefore, you need a straw hat. The hat can be lavishly arrayed with ribbons, peacock plums and flowers of every shape and frilly color. 


However, most hats would have stayed plain, either way you need in to protect your face from the sun. Adding a hat to your apparel should be pretty easy to do. Place the hat on top of your gathered cap. Take the ribbon that is placed on both sides of the hat and pull them towards your cheeks, tying it gingerly under your chin. Then place a hat pin at the top of your straw hat to secure your elegant or simple hat to your cap, keeping it in place. If you have followed the steps I have laid out for you, you should be dressed. From now on, these steps should be pretty simple and after a while you will be doing this routine blindfolded.

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