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18th Century Costume Guide for Men, Women & Children

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So you're feeling inspired and you want to improve your kit for Battle Road, but you're not sure what you should do? How about helping to balance the overall look of Battle Road participants? A lot of your fellow reenactors have had to choose their clothing based on what is cheapest or easiest to make or buy. Some of them have based their choices partly on modern sensibilities. So while each individual may be dressed in an authentic style, the overall statistics are skewed from what they should be: too many smocks, too many gaiters, too many fine ladies, too many shortgowns, and so forth.

18th Century Costuming Basics

Use linen and wool, not cotton.

Cotton is authentic to our period, but we use way too much of it. Linen is expensive; by wearing linen, you can balance out another reenactor who can only afford cotton. We modern people are shy of wool because we think it's too hot; in the right weight and weave, though, it isn't. It gets harder all the time to find good wool as the modern world switches to those horrid synthetics. Seek out good wool, and use it.

Lower your economic status.

Most everybody likes to dress up, so there are too many fine ladies and gentlemen. There are a lot of middling sorts as well, but not enough really low class people. See below under "Men" or "Women" for particulars of what you can make.

Use unpopular colors.

People in the 18th century had a different color sense. They certainly did use some colors that we still like today, and we reenactors tend to prefer those colors. They also used some colors that we now think are awful. Make something from one of those colors, if you can stand to. And men, consider using pink or lavender.

Hand sew and use edge stitching.

There were two main ways of constructing a lined garment in our period. One was to assemble the outside pieces, assemble the lining pieces, sew the outside to the lining leaving a small length open, turn the garment inside out, and whip the turning hole closed. With this method, there is no top stitching, or almost no top stitching, so you can imitate it with a machine pretty successfully. The second technique was to sew each outside piece to its lining piece, and then whip stitch all the assembled pieces to each other. To assemble an outside and lining piece, you put them together wrong sides together, turn in the raw edges of outside and/or lining (as necessary depending on whether the fabric will fray), and stitch the outside to the lining with a running stitch. You can't possibly imitate this technique with a sewing machine, because the running stitch edge stitch that holds each piece together, and the whip stitch that holds each piece to the next, both show on the outside of the fabric. This second technique is underrepresented among reenactors, so if you have the time, use it.

Piece your clothing.

Just for the fun of it, see how little yardage you can get away with by clever piecing. For lower class clothing, don't worry about whether the piecing matches. Lie a striped piece the wrong direction, or use a different fabric altogether, of a color that only sort of matches.

Get some wear on your clothes.

Most of us only wear our reenactor clothing a few days of each year, so it always looks new. You can try distressing your clothes -- leave an item hanging on the laundry line outside for a few weeks, or scrape a hem against a rough rock or brick until it starts to fray -- but nothing looks as real as real wear and tear. Try wearing your reenacting clothes around the house, or to do yard work or gardening. Stop washing your clothes (except what lies directly against your skin, like shirts, shifts, stockings, and kerchiefs). If they get dirty, brush the dirt off or just leave it. If they get wet or sweaty, hang them out to air.

Practice deportment.

This is good 18th century posture: Stand up straight, shoulders back, shoulders down, butt in, feet turned slightly out, legs slightly bent. Men, make a leg; you can stick your stomach out a little to show your prosperous belly. Women, keep your stomach in and curve your upper arms out and your lower arms back in making a graceful curve with your hands in front of your waist; no hands on hips; to display a fine gown, you may also curve your arms out instead of in; walk smoothly and gracefully. For a lower class impression, though, don't use good posture. Try to "ape your betters" if you like, but don't be too successful unless you really want to portray someone trying to climb the social ladder.

Practice 18th century speech.

Start by eliminating "okay", "hello", and "hi" from your vocabulary. You can try saying "yes" or "very well" instead of "okay", and "good day" or "how do you do" instead of "hello" and "hi", but we could really use more research on this topic. Period plays are a great source for daily speaking vocabulary.

Learn about print fabrics, and make something using an authentic print.

Authentic prints are underrepresented among reenactors -- but we have plenty of inauthentic prints. It's hard to learn what prints are authentic to our period, and hard to find them. It's better to use a plain fabric or stripe than to risk a bad print. But if you have the time to really learn about prints, that's great! Start by finding several books. Read about what printing methods were available during our period. Find books with many examples of prints from our era; Tidings and Textiles In America are a good start but are not enough. Pay attention to the areas in which the prints were produced and the fabrics on which they were printed. Would you, a New Englander, have had access to that fabric? Count how many colors were used. Look at the shapes and the sizes. Really familiarize yourself with prints before you go out and buy one. Before you buy anything, you should be at the point where you can glance at a print and immediately realize "oh, that looks like copper roll; that's post-Revolution" or "that's a small diapered block print like the one in such-and-such book; I could use it for a middling common gown" or "that's a period-style print, but it was only fashionable for upholstery".

Tips for Men

Either make a frock coat, or make a jacket -- or sleeved waistcoat -- and trousers. Frock coats were the most common main garment of the day. A fair number of reenactors have them, but we could use even more. A jacket or sleeved waistcoat, trousers, and a floppy hat or workman's cap make a good impression of a poor farmer or laborer. It wasn't as common as a frock coat and breeches, but this impression is seriously underrepresented now among reenactors, so it could be a good choice, too.

Replace your military cock hat with a civilian hat, your haversack with a wallet or snap sack, your metal canteen with a wood or gourd canteen; get reproduction shoes and replace your full gaiters with farmer's gaiters or no gaiters. Haversacks and metal canteens are largely military items and would have been rare to non-existent in eastern Massachusetts in 1775, and only a moderate proportion of participants should be wearing gaiters. We are allowing these items so that more reenactors will be able to participate, but the fewer, the better.

If you really have time, money, and energy to burn, try to make leather breeches. Not the Dan'l Boone mountain man kind; just ordinary breeches, only made out of leather. They were fairly common during the period, but we reenactors don't have much experience with them. A few reenactors have tried, and some have even succeeded. Apparently it's fairly hard to get the right sort of leather and to fit them so that they're properly tight in the leg and don't chafe.

If you feel like investing in something that's very authentic, particularly for Battle Road, get a fowling piece. This was a common man's hunting weapon, often of local manufacture using surplus hardware of British, French, Dutch and even Spanish origin. There are also many examples of very elaborate fowlers which were produced in Europe and the Colonies. You can find many fine examples in Newman's books, and elsewhere. They're woefully underrepresented at Battle Road, since most people buy English Brown Besses or French Charlevilles that are mass produced by Italian and Japanese companies. A fowler would need to be custom manufactured, but given the increased prices of the production pieces in recent years, it may be worth a little extra investment to have a truly representative weapon for most any early war Civilian, Militia or even Colonial military impression.

Tips for Women

If you don't have stays, make stays. That should keep you busy for a while! If you have stays, make an everyday gown of linen or wool, preferably plain, or at most a stripe. Most reenactor women right now wear either "short gowns" or bedgowns, or fancy ball gowns. We really need more plain gowns to get the right balance. You can make either a full length gown (that is, around high ankle length) or a short (pause) gown, which ends a little above the knee. Make an ordinary English gown (seamed all around at the waist) or a gown "en fourreau" (seamed all around at the waist except at the center back where it is one piece from top to bottom), whichever you prefer. For a middle class impression, use a moderately fine wool or linen. For a lower class impression, use a coarser wool or linen and make the gown just a little bit ill-fitting; use a plain length of wool instead of a cloak or cape; wear men's reproduction shoes, preferably rough-out ones. Poor people in Massachusetts Bay weren't as poor as poor people in England -- there wasn't a whole class of utterly destitute people in rags -- but we still could use more reenactors in lower class clothing.
Get reproduction shoes. Men can hide modern shoes under half gaiters, but women can't.

Tips for Children

Boys were usually breeched between the ages of 3 and 7. Reenactors tend to breech their boys on the early side due to modern sensibilities. Breech your boys late to counterbalance others.

Reenactors tend to let their girls wear grownup clothes too young. Keep your girls in young children's clothing until they hit puberty.
Make a pudding cap for your toddler.