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What The Colonists Wore

( Originally Published 1940 )

As the products of the spinning wheels and looms we can consider the costume styles of early America. To a large degree, even though American made, these were imitations of the prevailing English styles on the various class levels.

The gentlemen of Jamestown wore "Elizabethan" clothing. It was a style which the English had derived from the Spanish, and is generally described as "Spanish bombast." The word "bombast," incidentally, originally meant cotton, or other stuffing, used in costume to pad out and improve the male figure. These first Virginia gentlemen wore corsets, called busks, laced extremely tight. The main garment of upper clothing was the doublet. This was a tight-fitting jacket, with plenty of bombast stuffed under it between the linen shirt and the corset. It usually extended a little below the waist, and produced an extremely rigid form. Sleeves were separate garments and were attached by lacing to the doublet, the splice being concealed by a special roll of decorative material. The doublet, as well as the sleeves, was often slit to reveal the fine linen shirt worn beneath. Ruffs of various sizes were worn for dress occasions. These were thickly starched and reinforced with wire. For informal wear lie-down collars of linen were worn. Sleeves had cuffs turned back to match the ruffs or collars. A leather jerkin, a sort of second doublet, was sometimes worn for additional warmth or protection. It was primarily a military garment.

Breeches were short and bulky. At about the time of the Virginia colonization the awkward "pumpkin" style was just going out and the new "knee-breeches" were coming in. Cloaks of all length were worn; the hip-length Spanish cloak being the most popular among the Southern gentlemen. One of the genuinely "American" phenomena of the period was the copying of European cloth styles in the handy fur of the colonies.

Beneath the short breeches those who could afford them wore silk hose usually extending up the full length of the thigh. Silk hose for men continued in style until the 19th century.

An additional pair of shorter, coarser stockings, called "boot hose," was worn to protect the silk hose from the friction of the boots. Boots were made of very soft leather and extended up to mid-thigh but could be rolled down to any desired height. A common affectation of the early Colonial dandy was to wear one boot nearly hip-high and the other rolled down below the knee.

A variety of hats were in vogue; high and low crowned, wide and narrow brimmed, plumed and unplumed. All immigrants to Virginia were advised to bring with them a Mon mouth Cap. This was a knitted sort of skull cap, tight around the brim, but with plenty of loose material above. It was decorated with a tassel and somewhat resembled the caps now worn by skiers. This practical head-gear was favored less by the gentlemen than by the craftsmen and hard-working men of other colonies.

The ninety-two "chaste and uncorrupt" women who were shipped to Jamestown by the Virginia Company were from the lower classes of England, and were accordingly not lavishly arrayed. Their fabrics were not of a costly variety.

They wore a low-waisted bodice, with low neck and a stiff lace collar standing up behind. Tight sleeves had linen cuffs turned back to match the collars. Their skirts hung to within a few inches of the ground, were very full and were usually split in front to reveal the contrastingly colored underskirt. Probably few of these women were wealthy enough to wear the fashionable farthingale, or hooped underskirt. Their capes, hats and gloves were rather similar to those of the men. They wore shawls, which substituted for the standing collars among the poorer girls, and small muffs. They used paint, powder, and "beauty spots" in moderation and had small mirrors dangling from their waists.

By 1730 these essentially Jacobean costumes had given way to the Cavalier trends from the court of Charles the First. The doublet and breeches, which were now all knee-length, were no longer padded with bombast. The doublet was full skirted and the jerkin had become the more important garment. Lie-down collars were entirely the vogue, and the doublet was fashionably left unbuttoned below the sternum to reveal a greater area of pleated linen shirt. Sleeves were slit for the same purpose but had many buttons which could be fastened in cold weather. Silk stockings were still worn beneath the knee breeches, but shoes had generally replaced boots. Each shoe was decorated with a pompom called a "shoe rose" and there was no distinction in form between left and right shoes.

In the settlement of New England the Pilgrims of 1620 were not a great influence. They were poor and of no power. Accordingly they were more or less absorbed by the later immigration of Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1630.

Of the 102 Pilgrims who had arrived on the celebrated Mayflower, thirty-five had first migrated to Holland, where they had absorbed certain Dutch mannerisms. They had all mortgaged themselves to a company in London and their lot was miserable. Their religious convictions, eschewing frips and furbelows, affected costume largely in a matter of degree. Thus we find that the apparel of the New Englander was much the same as that of the Virginian in form, but was stripped of decoration and accoutrement and lacked gay color. Sermons against fancy dress were virulent and laws were passed to regulate the expense of costume. The stiff broad-brimmed hat found general acceptance.

It must be pointed out that by the middle of the 17th century less than one-fifth of the population of New England belonged to the Puritan church. Others were not enfranchised.

Those who did belong were under the thumbs of a group of eccentric and misanthropic zealots. It is the severe costume of this group which has come to be known as the Puritan costume. The majority of New England inhabitants imitated the costume of contemporary England, with only such degree of restraint as was more or less inevitably imposed by the proximity of their fanatical neighbors.

The Puritan women did not wear the farthingale or the stand-up collar. They wore the lie-down collar of linen, or simply a shawl draped in a similar manner. Their hair, usually knotted behind, was most often covered by a hood which was part of their cloak.

The craftsmen of this era, throughout the colonies, worked in a waistcoat, or short doublet, and shirt sleeves. They wore coarse woolen stockings beneath their knee-breeches, usually a Monmouth Cap, often a crudely shaped leather apron with a handkerchief fastened around the neck to absorb rolling sweat. The colonists of New Amsterdam wore similar garments, except that they adopted a squarer cut. They were fonder of color than any of the English colonists and used contrasting shades of many brilliant hues.

The Quakers of Pennsylvania imposed upon themselves much the same denial of ornament adopted by the Puritans. Their motive, however, was less a hatred of gaiety than an awareness of the functional. They did not condemn rich fabrics, or other materials, as did the Puritans, but only useless ornateness of design.

The Pennsylvania-Germans, the Swedes, the Scotch and Irish, the Spanish and French settlers brought their own costumes with them, which were not tremendously different due to the close correspondence between the European courts.

About 1670 male costume altered and revealed the beginnings of the coat and vest. In Western Europe, England and America the coat and waistcoat came into use. The coat was evolved from the cassock, a loose, knee-length coat with buttons all the way down the front. This, in turn, had evolved from the military jerkin. The waistcoat, which eventually became the vest, was first merely an inner coat several inches shorter than the outer garment. It was often ornately brocaded. By the time of the American Revolution it was shorter and the widelapeled, double-breasted outer coats were cut away in front to display the attractions of the waistcoat.

Both coat and waistcoat grew shorter as they evolved toward our present costume. Then, suddenly, in the 19th century, the pants descended to cover the entire leg. For a while they re mained tight, to reveal the attractions of the well-molded leg, but rapidly became looser until they achieved more or less their present form.

Women's clothes moved toward greater convenience. By the seventeen-nineties there was actually a vogue of bobbed-hair. The style was known as a la victime, and was a by-product of the French Revolution. The hair was cut short and combed forward, a few strands dangling over the fashionably squinted eyes. Hats became an anarchic free-for-all.

All these prominent modes of costume in the original colonies were, as we have said, essentially European. Little American creativeness went into them. But as Americans began to push westward the new American personality, the frontiersman, had little contact with and no desire to imitate Europe. The people of the frontier lived constantly in dangerous and difficult circumstances. They had to match the Indians at their own game, (whatever it might be at any given time), and function as fur-traders, farmers, explorers, and ambassadors, all at once. Their log cabins, adopted from the Swedes of Delaware, were little fortresses. Their gardens yielded meagre provender at the best.

The frontiersman wisely imitated the Indian in his costume. The most important item was the hunting shirt. This was a loose, smock-like tunic, pulled on over the head. It was usually made of buckskin. The seams were decorated with fringes. Sleeves were tight but not too tight for action. Sometimes there was a short slit at the throat laced with buckskin thongs. The tunic usually extended to just above the knees, and had a wide collar, covering the shoulders like a short cape. Edges, like seams, were decorated with fringe. No breeches were worn, but buckskin leggings extended the full length of the legs, and an Indian "breech-clout" was worn around the loins. Soft Indian moccasins replaced shoes. The close forest necessitated a small hat, and thus the tight coonskin cap, associated with Daniel Boone, evolved.

This was essentially the costume of the early, backwoods riflemen who were the deadliest marksmen of the Revolution. The Buckskin wearers became so well known for their deadli ness that Washington once recommended the buckskin costume to the Continental Army at large purely for its demoralizing value.

The frontier women had few, if any, of the fancy items of civilization. They usually wore a loose bodice. In place of a collar they used a brief shawl or merely a kerchief. Hats were not worn. Skirts, for utilitarian reasons, were shorter than those of the women in the eastern communities. For "formal" occasions these girls and women wore moccasins, but when not travelling they frequently went barefooted.

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