Fashion wasn’t always foremost on women’s minds during the American Revolution, but that didn’t mean they abandoned it. From the cities — Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia and New York — to farms and the frontier, women kept up with what was being worn in London and Paris. They adapted styles as needed for reasons of practicality, economics — and patriotism.
Defining Roles, Adapting to Practicalities
As in any time and place, fashion distinguished worker from aristocrat, and also was influenced by climate; women in warmer Colonies wore lighter clothing. Women in the Colonies had access to fabrics not available in England — calico, for example, had been banned in Britain because it interfered with the wool industry — and some families boycotted English goods. Formal-wear was different from day-to-day dress. Luxury goods and store-bought accessories were available even in remote areas as merchants moved westward, historian Kate Haulman has written.
The Basics: Shifts, Stays and Petticoats
Eighteenth-century women dressed in layers — just a few if it was hot or that was all they had; things became more complicated for fashion or warmth. First was the shift, a natural-colored short, loose linen gown. Over this, most women wore a stay on the upper body. Rather than cinching the waist like in Victorian times, the stay was to influence posture. A hoop petticoat was followed by a gown, which opened in the middle to show off another petticoat meant to be seen as outerwear. A woman might wear several petticoats beneath, for warmth or volume.
Layering: Robes, Gowns and Stomachers
In Colonial times, “robe” or “gown” meant types of dresses, and “dress” — rather than a type of garment — was a term for attire in general. A gown was a bodice and skirt, with the middle open to reveal the petticoat. On top, a vestlike garment called a stomacher added color; kerchiefs of white or black lace or silk were worn above this for modesty. Later in the 18th century, flaps of fabric called compreres were attached to the gown; these could be drawn up “a la Polonaise” with cords. Fabrics could be simple cotton floral prints, stripes or checks; ballgowns might be made of silks or brocades, some even worked with gold or silver threads. For everything except formal wear, the apron — practical or decorative — was an essential part of a woman’s attire, worn even to church.
Accessories: Cap and Hat to Hose and Shoes
Eighteenth-century women wore caps to keep their hair clean, because they rarely washed it. For going out, hairstyles required elaborate coiffures or wigs, sometimes powdered. Hats were worn atop the caps or wigs; between 1784 and 1786 alone, hat styles changed 17 times in Paris — though with wartime shortages, that likely wasn’t the case during the Revolution. Women’s shoes were leather for everyday wear, trimmed with metal buckles, laces or “paste” — costume — jewels. Heel styles varied from flat to higher, though chunky. Instead of coats, men and women alike wore woolen capes called cloaks, hooded or not, short or long, and tied at the chin. While wealthy women often wore jewels, even a working woman might wear a miniature on a silk necklace.
Clothing as an Expression of Patriotism
As the war went on, many supporters of the Revolution avoided English imports, even wearing homespun — which became increasingly sophisticated rather than rough — and weaving political motifs into decorations: an eagle, for example, or heroes such as George Washington or Ben Franklin, who himself became known in European courts for wearing a fur hat. Boycotting of imported textiles was widespread.
References and ResourcesColonial Willamsburg: 18th-Century Clothing
Memorial Hall Museum Online: Women's Clothing From 1700
American University: Fashion in 18th-Century America
Metropolitan Museum: Eighteenth-Century Silhouette and Support
Women's Clothing in the Revolutionary War Era; Sarah E. Mitchell
Demode: The 18th Century Robe a la Polonaise: Research Summary
Vintage Textile: French Brocaded Silk Taffeta Open Robe, 1780s
American Revolution: The Revolution and the New Republic: Costume of the Women
University of Oklahoma: Their Clothes Spoke Louder Than Their Words
ResourcesAmerican Revolution: Helpful Hints for Clothing for the Revolutionary War Era
MIT CSAIL: Glossary of 18th Century Costume Terminology