Saturday, August 30, 2014

Eighteenth Century Women’s Fashion: A Heroine’s Journey -- Kathy Fischer-Brown

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us.”-- Virginia Woolf

 Linen shift
Linen shift
As a child at the beginning of Lord Esterleigh’s Daughter, the heroine, Anne lives a poor existence with her mother in rural England. Her clothes are simple, made from linen and/or wool that was spun and woven at home or by the local weaver. Throughout the trilogy, her clothes change as her lot in life changes, reflecting her station in life and her views on the world and how she chooses to act.
In the 18th century, a woman’s clothes, regardless of her status, consisted of over-the-knee stockings knit from linen or wool, and held up by garters. Her basic undergarment was the linen shift, which also served as a nightgown. Stays, stiffened with whalebone or wood, provided support. Pockets were worn suspended around the waist with ribbons or cord under her petticoats, which had slits in the side for access. Skirts were worn in a varying number of layers. Some skirts were sewn or pinned to the bodice, while others were worn interchangeably with bodices or jackets. Bodices were fastened by pinning, sewing or lacing. (Women did not wear buttons until a later period, with some exceptions.) As a practical
Embroidered pocket
necessity, women also wore caps made of linen. Even the youngest children of the period dressed like miniature adults, with little girls squeezed into stays, or "jumps," and smaller versions of the clothing her mother would have worn.

 
While Anne lives with her father, Lord Esterleigh, in London and at his country estate, she wears clothes and dresses her hair in a matter befitting the daughter of a marquess in the late 1760s. Fashion of the English upper class was influenced heavily by what was worn at court. Fabrics included silks, brocades, cotton, velvet, linen, and wool. In this upper crust of society, cloth was often imported and the garment was cut and sewn by dressmakers (not ready-made, hanging on a rack in a shop).

Book Two of the trilogy, Courting the Devil, takes place in
Upper class women
upstate New York under threat of impending war as the northern British army makes its advance from Canada toward Albany. Here, Anne lives a hard life as an indentured servant. As it was in early childhood, her clothing is homemade of linen, wool, or a combination of the two called linsey-woolsey. Cotton fabric was rare in the north. 


For reasons of simple economics, her skirts, like those of many poor women of the era, are worn shorter than their wealthy counterparts. Her shift is made of unbleached linen, much coarser that the same garment she wore as a member of the English aristocracy. Outer skirts, or petticoats, and jackets (with or without sleeves) are dyed with colors found in local plants, berries and tree bark. In winter, she layers her skirts for warmth. Anne wears a linen mob cap that keeps her hair as clean as possible, especially when the weather makes it impossible to bathe. A cap is also vital in helping to keep her hair from catching fire, a common cause of serious injury or death among women of the period.

Used by permission of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, Massachusetts
Wedding gown
Early in the third book, The Partisan’s Wife, Anne and Peter are married at the American encampment during a lull between the two battles we now refer to as Saratoga. White wedding gowns didn’t come into fashion until a much later date. During the colonial and Revolutionary Era, the gown a woman was married in would have been a practical, functional outfit, something she would wear a lot more than once. Anne’s wedding dress is blue (with white stripes), quite old, and made of fine linen. She carries a bouquet of late blooming asters and wood marigolds that would have been found in the area. To round out her bridal attire, she wears a fichu (a neck kerchief worn around the shoulders and tucked into the bodice) of an almost gossamer muslin and a borrowed cap with ribbons embroidered with forget-me-nots.

Cover art by Michelle Lee
Later in the story, while Anne and Peter are in New York, Peter commissions for her two new gowns and purchases the red hooded cloak seen on the cover of the book.


~*~

I wish to thank the good people at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, Massachusetts for permission to use some of the photos in this article.Other photographs are courtesy of the Jas. Townsend & Son catalog.
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