Clothing Speaks


Clothing says what words do not, in the 18th century as well as the 21st. Textiles and costumes curator Linda Baumgarten explains.

Learn more: Historic Threads


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Linda Baumgarten, and in Colonial Williamsburg, she’s Curator of Textiles and Costumes. I have been reading your book, “What Clothes Reveal,” and I’ve got to ask you—that handkerchief with 16 little printed pictures on it, that go from cradle to casket—every time you take your handkerchief out, you are reminded that you’re going to die. That doesn’t seem very nice.

Linda Baumgarten: (Laughs.) This really was a different time, a different era, in the 18th century, of course. That’s why we find it so fascinating. That handkerchief really says something about what people were thinking and planning for in the 18th century. They were very aware of mortality. They had children die in infancy, probably more often than we do. Women died in childbirth more often than they do today, and people were just aware of that mortality and didn’t mind celebrating our life cycle in a handkerchief.

Lloyd: I suppose it makes perfectly good sense if you think of it, in the period.

Linda: In the period, right.

Lloyd: But if you think of it now, it’s sort of ….

Linda: (Interrupts.) It seems morbid today.

Lloyd:   … a sneaky reminder. You were talking about, you could tell a great deal about people just from their clothes. You could tell their station in life, all sorts of things. I guess the most obvious is, that if you were a plantation owner, you did not dress the same as the slaves.

Linda: Correct.

Lloyd:  As I read your book, I kept being reminded that most of the people from that period were not wealthy. About 95 percent were not. How did you differentiate in that group? You start with slaves at the bottom, dressed in rags, or tatters, I suppose, and then you get not quite to plantation level or gentry. Who were those people at not quite plantation level?

Linda:   The higher in the social strata, generally, the better the textiles were. The cut of the garments didn’t change a great deal, perhaps the skirts might be a little fuller, or the cuffs a little deeper, because that’s a use of fabric, a very expensive fabric. But in general, it was how nice the fabric was, so that a rich man’s pair of breeches was probably made out of velvet, or silk, or a really fine wool. A working man’s—say a cooper, or a blacksmith’s—breeches were made out of more sturdy, less expensive, less elaborate textiles. The slave’s breeches—cut very much in the same way, ending just below the knee with a band that was buckled at the knee—probably was coarse linen, something sort of scratchy, or, in the wintertime, very coarse wool, not the really finely finished wool of the wealthier man. So it’s the textile choice, and trimmings, of course. You could have more elaborate buttons, trimmings around your coat, or your pocket-flaps, or, if you’re a woman, ruffles at your sleeves that you might not have if you had to do physical labor for a living.

Lloyd:  I was looking at some pictures, beautiful pictures. I had never imagined that there were pregnancy clothes in the 18th century. I was wrong.

Linda:  (Laughs.) Well, pregnancy was, and is, a fact of life, and women did not hide themselves away while they were pregnant. That’s one of the greatest myths about the 18th-century clothing, is that women hid themselves away. They were out doing, socializing, and taking care of their families, and going to the store as much as pregnant women today have to get out and about during that nine months of their lives.

But, the clothes were adapted to pregnancy. So, the stays could be laced increasingly open—the stays being what we might call a corset today—so that you leave room for the pregnancy. And, the gown was open in the front. You could make the opening wider, and fill that in with a kerchief. You put an apron over that gap, so that there were lots of ways to adapt your clothing. A few women had specially-designed clothing, as you indicated. If they were wealthy enough, they didn’t have to just adapt their everyday clothing, they could have special clothing for pregnancy.

Lloyd:  Well, if you were wealthy enough, you could have anything you wanted, if it was available. I’ve always been curious about the people who weren’t wealthy, because wealthy people can always get along, one way or another. One of the dresses I remember looked to me like, if you were not pregnant, you could lace it up pretty tightly. And, if you were pregnant, you could lace it up pretty loosely.

Linda:  Right, exactly. That is one of the ones—in fact, if you’re referring to a white, quilted three-piece garment that we have in our collection, have had it the collection since the 1930s, we’ve been collecting that long—that garment has a jacket that can lace closed when you’re not pregnant, as you indicated, and there’s a little sort of vest underneath that fills in the gap when you have it laced wide across your front.

Lloyd:  Those sorts of ideas always strike me as ingenious. You don’t need, if you can’t afford it, special pregnancy clothes, but you can adapt what you’ve got.

Linda:  Adapt your wardrobe, exactly.

Lloyd:  And that strikes me as a real way to save money.
Linda:   Especially when clothing took up much more of the budget than it does today. Today, clothing is relatively cheap, compared to our incomes. In the 18th century, textiles were very expensive.

Lloyd: Oh really?

Linda:  Yes. Mm-hmm.

Lloyd:  So it’s more of a budget item than it is today.

Linda:   A greater percentage of one’s budget, if you had a lot of clothing, was taken up in the clothing, because of the expense.

Lloyd:  As always, I’ll bet you women’s clothing was more expensive than men’s clothing.

Linda: I beg to differ.

Lloyd: Oh, really?

Linda:  Yes, many of the men’s suits, especially the formal suits—this would be the tuxedo of the 18th century—was embroidered, silk embroidery on silk ground fabric, and then embellished with lace, handmade lace. So men’s clothing could be at least as expensive as women’s clothing.

Lloyd:  It sounds like it might be a little bit more expensive.

Linda: Well it depends, women’s brocaded silk, but a brocaded gown, even though it’s made on a loom and not hand-embroidered, takes up many more yards than a man’s suit, so you have almost an equal value, I would think.

Lloyd:  What’s the most unusual thing about clothing from the 18th century? What would people notice first?

Linda: If someone came back today? I think we have to look at gender. For a woman’s clothing, what they would probably notice today as unusual to our eyes is the big, full, long skirt. Today, the silhouette, the fashionable silhouette, is slim, and the fashionable silhouette often includes trousers, or pants for women. In the 18th century, full skirts were the norm for a woman’s garment, so today, we would see a woman wearing a long, full skirt as someone going to her wedding, perhaps, but not someone just going shopping.

For men, probably the biggest difference would be that the fashionable pants ended just below the knees, and then you had a stockinged leg below that. Today, men’s pants are long, and that fashion came in right at the end of the 18th century, early 19th century.

Lloyd:  I remember reading somewhere, I don’t remember where, but I was quite amazed because the first president to wear long pants was not very early on, it was in later years. I had always somehow just sort of assumed that men’s pants were always long.

Linda:  Yes, we tend to make assumptions about what we consider normal clothing today, and in the 18th century, it would be quite different. Another difference that occurs to me is, the shaping of the figure through the undergarments. A woman’s 18th -century corset—stays, they call them—was shaping the body into a cone, and didn’t have cups for the woman’s anatomy. So, you had a cone shape, rather than a natural, rounded bust line. That would be seen as quite different today, because we value that, what we call a more natural figure, the shape that nature created.

Lloyd:  There was another thing you were talking about, stays. I was looking at a picture of a cello player, I think, turned out to be a boy.
Linda:  Yes, mm-hmm.

Lloyd:  But, to me, he was wearing …

Linda: A girl’s clothing?

Lloyd:  And it had stays, like a dress.

Linda: Little boys were put into stays from babyhood up to about the time they received their first breeches, their first pair of pants. And, at the same time, they dressed like women in the sense that they had full skirts, and that same cone-shaped torso from the stays. That was considered appropriate support for the floppy young body, as well as, it created the fashionable posture, which for men, as well as women, was to have a very flat back, and to have the shoulders carried very far back.

Lloyd:  If you try to dress a boy like that now, he would go into instant rebellion.

Linda:  Right.

Lloyd:  But that was the ordinary?

Linda:  That was the ordinary. Little boys wore skirts, just like women and little girls wore skirts. If culture says something is normal, we don’t question it.

Lloyd:  I guess that’s true.

Linda:  That is very removed from our way of looking at how gender is shown in your clothing. Today, a boy in a skirt, maybe if it’s his christening gown, we might get a little tiny baby boy in a skirt, but other than that, no skirts for boys today, unless it’s a kilt.

Lloyd: Isn’t that a curiosity, I hadn’t thought about that. In Scotland, men, grown men, very grown men, dress in kilts as part of the culture.

Linda: Right, that’s an expression of that cultural history, and milieu.

Lloyd: Hadn’t thought of that. I guess it’s what you are accustomed to. If society says you can do this, then you can do that.
Linda: Or if society says you should do this, this is how you should dress for this occasion, or this office. We really do have dress codes, although they’re a little bit less spoken than a written-down dress code.

Lloyd: We really do, don’t we?

Linda:  We may learn, by walking into our office the first day, how does a curator dress? How does an administrator dress? Probably you already knew that, but if you didn’t, you learned that from how your colleagues are dressing. The appropriate administrator, if he’s a male, probably has a light-colored shirt, if not a white shirt, necktie, and a suit.

Lloyd:  Except on casual Friday.

Linda:  (Laughs.) Right. Unless he’s helping to install an exhibit, or some other physical activity.

Lloyd: Let’s go to the other end. We’ve talked about kids, how about older people? Are there age-appropriate clothes?

Linda: There are, and there were in the 18th century. If you look, for example, at a portrait of several generations, you’ll see that the older women are dressed more conservatively, they’re showing less skin, they are a little bit more old fashioned in the sense that they tend to dress in what they felt comfortable in as younger women.

And so, there’s one example that we have a portrait of in our collection, two—a grandmother and a great-grandmother—are still wearing the cap that was fashionable in the 18th century, their stays, their full skirts. The young mother is wearing one of those high-waisted, very thin, very revealing white dresses that came into fashion about 1800, and the little baby is dressed just like the mother.

But we do that today, I think, too. I think that, as one ages, they tend to know what’s considered appropriate. I, for example, will probably not wear hip-hugger pants that reveal my mid-portion. That wasn’t fashionable when I grew up, and I don’t consider it appropriate for my age now.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.