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Colonial Costuming

Making historically accurate colonial period clothing is very complicated.  It can be a fun challenge for those with much experience in the fabric arts, if they have instructions and period garments to compare with the instructions.  There is more information about that in the bottom half of this page.

If you are trying to costume children for "Colonial Day" at school, then you are trying to give them some feeling for how eighteenth century clothing was different from twentieth century clothing, and you are not trying to be historically accurate.  Below are some suggestions on how that can be done.

Colonial Costuming for Children

When reenactors are dressing their children (both boys and girls) they have them wear dark shoes and dark socks, so that they aren't really noticeable.

Here is a link to pictures of authentic eighteenth century clothing, with some ideas of how to fake the same.  Since this site is from Virginia, there are some regional differences with New England.  Personally, I would go with knee britches (short pants) for boys.  And you're best off with a blouse and skirt or long dress for a girl.

For Boys:

Wear long socks and short pants.  If you do not have short pants, roll up a pair of long ones and tuck the ends into knee-length socks (soccer socks work well).  Add a loose cotton shirt, and a vest if you have one.  You can make buckles from cardboard covered with aluminum foil, and stick them over dark leather shoes (shoes work better than sneakers for this).  (Waistcoats - what we call vests - of the period were long and got shorter throughout the 18th century.  By 1775, they were down to the hips, so if you are planning on a vest, you want to aim for a length to the hips.)  I went to a men's formalwear thrift shop and bought a man's vest and used that, which worked for a kid after I pulled in the extra width.  So you can think of vests as a lovely, and optional, accessory.  They were very fancy during the period.  All boys and men wore hats - tricorns (called 'cocked hats' back then) are available for purchase or you can make one.   If you live in Eastern Massachusetts, there are various places that sell tricorn hats. 

Here is a YouTube video about how to make a tricorn.

For Girls:

Girls can wear long skirts and loose blouses, or fancy dresses that reach the floor.  (The important thing is to cover the legs, elbows and head.)  A shawl, apron and a mobcap or straw hat are perfect accessories.  Even a lace doily pinned on top of the head works.  Ballet slippers and dress shoes with straps or buckles look similar to early footwear.  Stay away from sneakers, sandals and flip-flops - definitely will take away from an eigteenth century look. 

Mobcaps are not exactly period-correct for the eighteenth century, but they are easy to make, and give a period feel.  Here are instructions for how to make a mobcap:

Cut a circle of fabric (22-24 inch diameter for an adult, 18 inches for a child).  Two inches in from the edge of the circle, punch holes every couple of inches.  Insert a ribbon or string through the holes to use as a drawstring.  Put the cloth on the head that's going to wear it, pull the drawstring, tie a bow and you're done. 

Here's a link to a page from Colonial Williamsburg that tells you how making a mobcap can be used as a math project.


Here's info on trimming a woman's straw hat if you have the time and interest.  Hats were usually worn over caps when women were outdoors; caps were worn all the time.  You will have to click on the link on top that says "Hats & Bonnets".

Here's a link that shows pictures of various things women wore, which uses eighteenth century terminology. 

If a girl wishes to know what stays were, the closest modern equivalent would be a sports bra.  The whole point of stays and bum rolls and panniers and other such undergarments was to mold women into the fashionable shape of the period.  The nineteenth century name for stays would be a corset.

Pockets are interesting - most modern girls are used to having pockets in their jeans.  Women DID have pockets back then - but they were a separate garment that tied around the waist, usually under the petticoats (which had slits so a woman could reach her pockets) so that women could carry things they needed.

Historically Accurate Period Clothing


For more information about making your own historically accurate period clothing, see

For women's clothing:

18th Century Women's Clothing Layers

For men's waistcoats:

18th-century-waistcoats


Here are some good books on the subject:

Clothing Does Make the Man; A Guide to Men's 18th C. Common Clothing, by Cathy (Kate) Johnson

Common Clothing 1730 - 1820, by Cathy (Kate) Johnson

Whatever Shall I Wear: a Guide to Assembling a Woman’s Basic 18th Century Wardrobe, by Mara Riley.

Sutlers

There are also sutlers (peddlers of period clothing) who sell ready-made period clothing.  Be aware that many of them sell clothing from different periods and places, and that you will want to choose items that are correct for the place and period that you are trying to represent.  They are also fairly pricey.  Here's a link to a list of them.


Home Dancing in Colonial America Bios Recommendations Colonial Costuming Colonial Music

Dance History Alive!
Jacob and Nancy Bloom        781-648-8230        Jacob@DanceHistoryAlive.com