Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

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The Clothes that Make the Colonists

There’s the saying, “it’s the clothes that makes the man”.  Today, we can assume learn a lot about a person from their outfit.  It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure that out.

The same goes with studying history.  There’s a lot to be learned about people judging from the clothes they wore.  However, there is one prominent hitch in this method.  During colonial times, which is the period we are concerned with, fabric is hard to come by.  It takes years of work to make a new petticoat.  Thus, clothes were worn until they could not be worn anymore.  Or, if they were outgrown, they were taken apart so the fabric could be reused.  Few every day outfits were preserved, therefore, for our study.  As Eliabeth Ewing wrote in “Everday Dress”, clothes “were refurbished, altered, given new trimmings of lace, ribbon, frilling, brought to date, eventually cut down to for a smaller member of the family”.  Because of this, museums tend to have only fancy attire (worn maybe twice a year) and baby clothes (too small to be reused and not worn as hard) to exhibit.  The problem with studying the fancy attire is that they are fashion based.  Ewing explained that fashion was used to create a certain kind of image and reap attention.  However, clothes are what is “worn by the man or woman in the street”.  A modern example.  We have fashion trends, such as high-waisted shorts or beanies, but we wouldn’t wear a Versace gown to the mall.

Baby clothes tell us a bit more.  The colonists swaddled their infants, in the hopes of making them grow straight.  Also, the tight swaddling clothes made squirming impossible, turning the child into “a neat manageable bundle that could be hung on a peg on the wall out of harm’s way” (Kidwell & Steele, Dressing the Part).  As they are learning to walk, they would often wear puddings, which were hats made to cushion their heads should they fall.  Children also had leading strings attached to their dresses.  The strings were used for walking lessons and as leashes to grab them if they wandered too far. Both genders wore dresses.  Claudia Kidwell and Valerie Steele wrote:  “The 18th century child was not generally thought of as having a personality, much less a gender”.  Indeed, it was a very big moment when sons graduated to breeches, a time determined by their mothers.

 Luckily, we do have enough information to gain a myriad of insights into the every day outfits of the thirteen colonies.  People in cities could buy clothes from tailors.  However, those living in the countryside, such as our own Chadds and Barns families, relied more on peddlers and travelling salesmen.  As each colony had their own currency, those peddlers and salesmen often operated on a barter system.  Another method of buying clothes is the secondhand market, which really grew by the 17th century.  It was cheap, resourceful, and not only used by the poor.  It became that well-off people would pass on unwanted clothes to their servants, who preferred to sell rather than wear them.  

We also know some things regarding fashion.  Around 1790, simpler clothes were vogue.  Petticoats were very minimal.  Muslin, which are light, were preferred.  Shawls came into fashion.  And men’s formal attire came to be more evocative of country clothes.  Part of that shift in fashion can be attributed to national prejudices.  Fancy attire came to be associated with the outrageous lavishness of the French court under the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Hoping to move away from that association, colonists started to prefer the image of a country gentleman as ideal.  However, around the 1820s, entering into the Victorian Age, fashion became elaborate once more.  “It was gradually becoming fuller-skirted, with puff sleeves reappearing and increasing in size, corsets becoming once again formidable figure-controllers, waists nearing their natural place” (Ewing).  Just like today, fashion is ever changing.