Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hem lengths in 18th Century women's clothing

At the moment this post is a work-in-progress. I need to get links to some of the artwork and such, but this is a start.

For several years I've been doing research on 18th century working women's clothing. When I'd first gotten into Living History I was told repeatedly that women wore shift, petticoat, some sort of upper body garment such as a gown, shortgown or jacket, stays
and a hat or cap. The petticoat hems were long. Ankles weren't to show.

So I wore long petticoats. And remembered a childhood vow to never again wear skirts or dresses! Going up stairs long petticoats are dangerous. The hems must be held up, in your hands, to keep from stepping on the hem and tripping yourself, probably breaking something and ripping your clothing as you go down. I don't know about you, but I'm usually carrying something when I go up or down stairs.

If you crouch or bend down, or even get up from sitting in a chair, you end up stepping on the hem as you try to get up. This is neither graceful nor safe.

Let's go outside. Long hems trail in the grass and weeds. If it's wet out, your long hems will be wet to at least the knees. Wet clothing is not only uncomfortable, it's heavy. Your wet and muddy feet will brush the back and possibly the fronts of the hems as you walk, transferring mud and wet to your petticoats. Wet is bad enough. Cold and wet is miserable.

I start making some petticoats in slightly shorter lengths, both to see what happens and to match some period artwork. One day I'm living in a field next to the river in St. Charles, Missouri, staying in a half-faced shelter. It's been wet and cold for a couple of days. I'm wearing a hemp petticoat that is about 4 inches above my ankles. While it's not currently raining the ground and grass are soaking wet. Therefor my hems are wet, cold, somewhat muddy, and keep wrapping itself around my calves. In the back as I walk the hem bounces off my feet, picking up mud and water from them. I'm cold. The wind and wet pulls precious heat from me. The hems are wet for 6 or so inches, and damp another inch or so above that.

Being restricted by my petticoats is dangerous, as I'm working with horses and must have freedom of movement and my attention on the horses. I can't afford to be messing with my clothing. It has to just work, except it's not.

When I get a break I get out my sewing scissors and cut about 2 inches off the length of my petticoats! This puts the end about at the largest part of my calf.

Eureka! That's it! This is long enough that I can move freely, short enough that the hem isn't in the grass, nor do my feet hit it in the back when I walk. For the first time in days the hem of my petticoat dries out. I'm warmer already, even though the length is shorter.

I find I can now go up and down stairs safely, since the hems don't drag like they did before. I can even manage to make it through rough woods, climbing over downed trees and through creeks without the trouble I had before. I can do things like garden, bending over to pull weeds, without stepping on my hems.

All in all, my experiences prove to me that any woman working in the 18th century doing these sorts of things would be wearing petticoats that are mid-calf in length. Which the period artwork shows.


Lorna said...

at least you feel truly feminine after pahraps if we dressed less like men and more like women our lives could improve.
just a thought.

Shelley McClanahan said...

Interesting thought. I guess I don't equate my feeling feminine with wearing a skirt. Most improvements in my life are the result of hard work, not just what I wear. Certainly there are times when some things are more appropriate than others!

Keith said...

Ann Bailey and Mrs Pentry wore men's clothing, I assume because it was more practicle for their lifestyle, which was travelling and living in the woods. If you are a woodswoman, it seems only sesible to wear men's clothing.

Shelley McClanahan said...

Certainly some women wore men's clothing, but we also have records where women were out in their own clothing. I have tried both, and each has it's own pros and cons. I have also tried a combination, which is similar to the clothing described for Daniel Boone's daughter when she was captured, leggings under a skirt.

My experience is that the fabric is as important as construction.

Le Loup said...

Thanks Shelley, very interesting about Daniel Boone's Daughter wearing leggings under skirt.
Regards, Le loup.