Founded by the London Company in 1607 as “James Fort,” Jamestown, Virginia is the first permanent English settlement in the United States. Jamestown, along with Williamsburg and Yorktown, is one of three cities that make up the Historic Triangle of Colonial Virginia. These three cities share many similarities in clothing and textiles, which defined an individual’s social status during colonial times.
Throughout the 16th century until the early 19th century, men of all social classes in Jamestown wore suits made of cotton, linen, wool or leather. These suits consisted of a long coat that fell to the knees, a waistcoat that was the precursor to today’s vest and knee-length pants called breeches. Under the waistcoat, men wore a long white linen shirt tucked into the breeches. During the 18th century, men wore a cravat, which is a neck cloth made of white linen. Wealthy men wore cravats embellished with lace or fringe, and working class men wore an informal, basic cravat. Shoes were fashioned out of soft leather and had a straight sole that didn’t differentiate between the right or left foot. Most shoes were fastened by a buckle across the top of the foot.
In Colonial Jamestown, women generally wore a two-piece dress made up of a gown and matching petticoat. The gown, also called a mantua, had a fitted bodice, sleeves that reached the elbows, and a skirt with an open front that showed the petticoat beneath. Wealthy women wore gowns of silk, while working class women wore wool, cotton or linen. Under their dresses, women wore stays, which were the precursor to the modern corset. Stays were designed to correct posture and were fashioned out of linen and stiffened with whale bone. Mob caps, which were bonnets with a puffed crown and frills or lace around the face, were worn at all times. Shoes were made out of silk or leather and were fastened by a buckle across the top of the foot.
Until they reached age 6 or 7, boys in colonial Jamestown wore long, loose gowns that fastened in the back, called bed gowns. Once they reached 6 or 7, they were “breeched,” which was when they were given their first pair of breeches. This often called for a celebration because it marked the end of a boy’s childhood. Like their fathers, boys would wear a long white linen shirt that was tucked into their breeches, with a loose-fitting waistcoat over the undershirt. Boys also wore a cravat, knee socks, and leather shoes.
Families often could only afford two outfits for each child: one was worn daily and the other was saved for church or formal occasions. Regardless of social status, girls dressed like miniature versions of their mothers and wore dresses with form-fitting bodices. Daughters of wealthy families wore stays that were stiffened with whale bone and lined with linen. It was believed that these would help with posture and girls as young as three months old wore stays with their dress clothing. Because stays restricted movement, working-class daughters did not wear stays with their daily clothing. Like their mothers, girls wore mob caps at all times.