In the eighteenth century, colonial clothing was considerably more complicated than clothing today. However, we remain both fascinated and puzzled by the colonial clothing worn by women. Colonial clothing for women consisted of several main garments, and most women had only a few of each that would be worn for days at a time before washing and would be mended several times before disposing of it.
Colonial clothing for women was designed with great care and more attention than we could ever imagine seeing given to today's garments. Often, the fabrics the dressmakers used were imported silk for formal gowns and cotton blends for every day dresses. Though to look at pictures from the eighteenth century, we might think all dress was formal for women, but they typically had one dress for very special occasions and another for church on Sunday, and still another for everyday wearing.
Women went through an almost painstaking process before donning their colonial clothing, though not near so much as those in the 19th century. Underneath a woman's colonial clothing, were layers of undergarments. The shift was the undermost garment worn by colonial women. It was a simple linen shirt, maybe with and maybe without lace, and typically was a pullover with drawstrings around the neck and sleeves.
Over the shift, was worn the stay. The stay was similar to the 19th century corset except colonial women did not draw it tightly to enhance their figure, but rather used it for support of the breasts and back. Stays ranged in quality with the material from which they were made and some were very pliable and others very stiff. Stately women would wear ones made with silk and finer linens while the poorest women had stays made from leather.
The petticoat was another typical undergarment worn with colonial clothing, however, unlike the shift and the stay, parts of the petticoat could sometimes be seen. Certain styles of skirts and gowns were open in the front and the petticoat is what filled in the gap. It also added fullness to the skirt or gown. For very formal occasions, hoops were added to make a gown even fuller.
It's amazing to think that many colonial women had to make their clothing by hand. Wool and cotton were the most popular materials as they were readily available. Socks, jackets, and even shirts were often made of wool. When considering what the typical colonial woman had to do to get dressed for the day, or even to have clothes to put on, we are easily reminded of how fortunate we are to be able to shop online, pop something in the dryer, and to toss something that is worn out. It might even make you appreciate that ugly sweater your aunt gave you for your birthday!