The Quick and Dirty
This Getting Dressed Guide is designed for absolute beginners so they can make good choices their first time out. To that end, it glosses over some of the finer points of correct historical clothing. If you want to find out more about the clothing of this period, follow the links in the text to the more in-depth articles elsewhere on this site.
- Shift — It doesn’t have to be perfect because very little of it will be seen. Just something to wear under your stays. Just please don’t pull the neckline off your shoulders.
- Petticotes — (This is what they called women’s skirts in the 17th and 18th century. “Skirts” were the lower half of a man’s jacket.) Petticotes are the simplest thing on earth to make. They are just two pieces of fabric sewn together along the sides. No need to cut shapes or gores or anything!
- Stays — Not a corset or a bodice but a simple set of straight 18th century stays. Don’t let people tell you that only the rich and fashionable wore stays! All classes of women wore stays — from queens to beggars. Stays don’t have to be fully-boned. As long as they shape you into the conical shape seen in the period illustrations, they’ll work. You just don’t want to look like a sack of potatoes. However a Ren Faire bodice is NOT the right shape.
- Shoes — This is tough for beginners. But women have a much easier time than men do. We should be wearing straight lasted latchet shoes with either buckles or bows. But if you’re just starting out, anything that looks like period shoes will work.
- Cap and Kerchief — Add this to the above and you are decently (if not fully) dressed.
- Mantua — They’re not just for the upper class. We have pictures of beggars and common women wearing them. And they’re dead simple to make. I can make one in four hours and that’s sewing everything by hand! Plus they’re fairly “one size fits many” so you can always lend one to a friend.
- Stockings — Knit or cut cloth. And garters to hold them up with. Tied around the knee.
- Apron — Just a rectangle of linen (white, coloured, checked or plaid) on a string worn over your uppermost petticote. Aprons were standard wear for working women and fancy versions were worn by the upper class because they were thought “very feminine”.
- Pockets — On a string tied around your waist under your uppermost petticote. Someplace to keep all your possessions. Not in a pouch that shows.
- Wear boots
- Wear a Ren Faire bodice
- Pull your shift off your shoulders
- Hitch up your skirts
- Cross-lace your stays
- Wear your hair in a modern style or just hanging down
The illustration below is from an extant shift. The important elements are the elblow-length sleeves and the scoop neckline. But again, it isn’t seen so the shape doesn’t matter when you’re starting out.
A GAoP Shift
Wear at least two and neither of them hitched up. Also avoid making them too long. Your shoes should show. They could even be as short as mid-calf. We’re not Victorians after all!
Petticotes really should be pleated to a waistband, but gathering can be used until you get something better.
Petticotes with waistband (L) and ties (R)
And a properly-made set of stays will support your back and it won’t hurt from standing or working all day. I cannot stress how important a good set of stays are!
NOTE: There were women who didn’t wear stays. They were considered “loose” (i.e. not wearing stays) and represent a very low sort of person. Even prostitutes are shown wearing stays.
Also, don’t cross-lace your stays (like a sneaker). This is a Victorian corset thing. Stays should be spiral laced.
The shoes below are seen in pictures of beggar women, peddlers, servants, and other common women. Higher heels and more elaborate ribbons indicate higher class (or at least richer) women.
Low Heeled Women’s Shoes with a simple tie
Higher Heeled Women’s Shoes with Ribbons
There are many styles of cap worn in this time period. Most consist of a straight piece of linen around the face attached to a gathered portion in back where your hair fits. A cap serves two functions — it keeps your hair out of your face and it keeps your hair clean and untangled.
Some hair can show, but most of your hair should be under your cap. A hat or hood can be worn over the cap. White or black hoods were very popular at the end of the 17th century. They were either worn over a cap or tightly-curled hair. Very poor women wrapped their heads with linen so their hair could not be seen.
When not wearing a cap, women had their hair done (in an “up style”). Women with their hair hanging down in public are meant to depict mental patients or women in great distress. Even prostitutes wore their hair up. The except to this rule is “bedroom shots” in minatures or portraits. It was common for wealthy men to have their wives or mistresses painted in provocative clothing and accoutrements including wearing their hair hanging, but these portraits should not be mistaken for what a woman would wear in public. Look at the surroundings depicted in the portrait. If it’s a bedroom, ignore what the sitter is wearing.
A kerchief is just a square of linen folded in half diagonally or cut along the diagonal. Wear it with the 90ÃÂ° angle pointing down your back. cross the ends over your breast and tuck in or pin in place. If portraying a harlot, tuck in the ends to show cleavage, but do not leave off this essential piece of clothing.
A London Basketseller in her Cap and Kerchief
——– The Absolute Beginner Can Stop Here ———–
Women didn’t commonly wear cocked hats. They wore them when out riding and that’s about it, generally speaking. So leave the “boy hats” at home and wear a linen cap.
A Successful London Fruitseller
A London Cripple/Beggar
ÃÂ© 2006 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.