Meet the Milliner


The milliner is mistress of a thousand tasks, making gowns and garments for ladies. Janea Whitacre describes the trade.

Learn more: The Milliner


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. The gowns and accessories that come from the millinery shop create their own kind of living history when someone puts them on. Janea Whitacre has experienced this herself. She’s the milliner and mantua maker at Colonial Williamsburg. Janea, thank you for being here today.

Janea Whitacre: My pleasure.

Harmony: Milliner and mantua maker. What does that title even encompass?

Janea: Well, in the 18th century, your milliner is the person who makes all the ornaments or accessories to your wardrobe. It might be the innermost layers of shirts and shifts for the family, your outermost cloaks and robes and ruffles and aprons and trims.

Harmony: And that’s your milliner?

Janea: That’s the milliner. By definition, we’re milliners because we deal in a thousand things.

Harmony: Oh, mille?

Janea: Exactly.

Harmony: OK.

Janea: So it’s a very diversified trade. One of the few that nearly always is owned by women, and of course closely related to our sister trade of mantua making, which is dress making. So an apprentice can train for both and then almost a double apprenticeship.

Harmony: So mantua means dress or gown. That’s a funny word.

Janea: It is.

Harmony: Where does that come from?

Janea: Late in the 1600s, there was a style of gown called a mantua. Women who had been working with the tailoring trade start making these, and they are allowed to break away from the tailoring trade. Within a generation or two, just about everything that women wear is based now on the mantua. So we have a trade independent of the tailors.

Harmony: Who are the customers going to be? I imagine finer ladies would be coming to the milliner and mantua maker.

Janea: Well everyone knows how to sew, but you’re applying your sewing to household linens, mending. You might actually be making your shirts and shifts at home, which means that you might compete with the milliner for that product. But those are the garments that get the very best sewing so it’s questionable whether people have the time to do all of them.

Harmony: This is a largely women-owned business. These women also are international business people. They do a lot of trade. Where are their wares coming from, and their supplies?

Janea: The milliners in Virginia are trading with merchants in London, and it’s the London merchants that are then gathering the goods together that are coming in from all over the world. Fabric and the goods that we’re using in the fashion trades represent international commerce and trade.

Harmony: What do Williamsburgers like?

Janea: They really like new shoes and stockings and gloves. They also are buying an incredible amount of linens and cottons. Of course we have summer wardrobes, so that would be different from London fashion, so we’re wearing lighter colors, lighter weight fabrics. In 1774, summer lasted until middle to late November, so it’s a good portion of the year that we have our own specialized wardrobe.

Harmony: It stands to reason that linen and cotton would be the most in-demand fabrics because those are what your undergarments are going to be made of. Correct?

Janea: Definitely linen. As the century progresses, more and more of the innermost layers are being made out of cotton, but cotton is coming in from our sister colonies in India. There’s some coming in from China, there is cotton from Persia and Turkey and Egypt, a little bit from the West Indies and other places.

Harmony: Talk to me about how a gown is worn, because the gown itself will never actually touch your skin. Is that right?

Janea: Yes. You have the layer of linen in the shift, then perhaps an under petticoat which is about knee to calf length, then the stays on top, then you have maybe your gown petticoat and your gown. So it’s definitely layers. And they all get washed as needed, but because you have those layers, you don’t have to wash the outer as much. But we’ve got great laundry recipes, and that’s part of the Milliner’s trade.

Harmony: How are they doing laundry in those days?

Janea: Well, of course you know, wet washing with water and soap and dry washing is any material not using water. So turpentine is being used for various recipes, gin comes to mind, then they have the fuller’s earth and the French chalks and the bread crumbs and solutions that are made up that either are bleach or will lift stains and grease out of fabric. And many of these recipes are found in the family cookbooks or household books, so when our customers come to Williamsburg without those books, they might have come to us as an option.

Harmony: Bread crumbs. When I get bread crumbs on my clothes I consider that I’m getting dirty. These were used as a method of getting clean?

Janea: You can brush them into the fabric, it will help lift the grease and then they’re brushed out. That’s also used to burnish silver and gold threads.

Harmony: How many gowns would a lady have had in her wardrobe?

Janea: That’s a question that we really honestly wish we knew the answer to. Clothing just doesn’t show up on inventory, and people don’t write down what’s in the cupboards and in the drawers. Even today, 21st century, we don’t keep those kinds of records, but fabric is the biggest import. The people making clothes are here in Virginia in big numbers. There’s many styles of clothing that can be made, and there’s commentary and essays that too much money’s being spent on clothing. So lot of factors sort of point to good wardrobes.

Harmony: When you talk about styles, when we see a movie that’s done in the period, it’s interpreted today as pretty much one style: a colonial style. But I understand that styles are yearly, they’re decadal, it changes quickly.

Janea: Yes. Just like today you’re wearing different color combinations or, you know, a different style of sweater from last year or different jacket. The 18th century understood those changes. The style of apron might change in shape from year to year. The colors that we wear might change four or five times a year in the 18th century. It’s subtle, but the more you study it, the more you pick up on the sleeve is a little tighter this year from last year, or the ruffles are in gauze, or there’s triple layers of lace instead of just single layers.

Harmony: What is influencing style in the colonies in the 18th century? Who’s setting the trend?

Janea: We’re looking to England. They say, however, that if you see something in Tuilerie Garden one week it will be on Pall Mall the next. So between Paris and London, very fast communication of fashion. Between England and the colonies, it’s one ship’s crossing. And you know, that good passage might be six to eight weeks, and then we know what the styles are. In England, though, it’s not just French fashion. There’s all sorts of influences, including maybe there’s a new play on the London stage and the actress has got a new style of gown, or a new hat that she’s wearing. And next week everybody wants to be wearing it.

Harmony: Fashion seems like, we regard it as kind of a frivolity. But if you look at it more closely, it seems like it can kind of tell you a broader story about international trade, trade embargos, what materials are available, what social station you’re in. What can we learn about the society of the past when we look at its fashions and its clothing?

Janea: Well, people need to be clothed. People need to be dressed and it’s a very personal way of maybe identifying with England that I’m wearing English fashion, or maybe it’s a way of identifying with a new thought during the Stamp Act crisis. In the 1760s, one comment that floated around is that you were the most patriotic if you were the most threadbare. Of course, as soon as that was over, they went right back to importing. And they didn’t decrease the importation of fabrics and feathers and fans and hats until the Revolution started. As soon as the war’s over they go right back to importing.

Harmony: You have the advantage in your trade of being a historian who studies these garments, but you actually also get see them in motion; you wear them, you see them worn, you see how they get worn, where they’re weak, why they’re constructed a certain way. Do you get to learn something specific by wearing the recreations that you make? Do they tell you something when you put them on?

Janea: They do. The stays for instance are a very comfortable garment.

Harmony: Tell us what stays are?

Janea: That’s what most people call them a corset today. That’s actually a different article of clothing in the 19th century, but the stays help us stand up straight, they give us the posture and deportment of the century. If you’re going to step the minuet, they’re going to help you with that balance and your gracefulness. They’re also going to help you understand why you courtesy or you give a sink when you’re greeting someone. Or you’re sitting, and you’ve got your feet just ever so slightly apart so that you can lift yourself straight up out of the chair, because if you put your feet together, as we would think 21st century is proper, you can’t get out of the chair. So it’s little things like that.

So being within the clothing, the 18th century called it being within your compass or staying within your place. Being inside the clothes helps you understand so much about the people. We like to take a look at our hands and say that we have a trade within the hands, and one of my goals is to see that my hands and eyes can do the same work. Can they make the same garments? Can I fit someone as they should be for the 18th century? If I read their newspapers, if I read their books, if I look at their clothes, I remake their clothes, that’s one way that I can get closer to understanding people.

Harmony: You wear beautiful 18th century gowns every day. I wonder if there’s a part or an article of the 18th century clothing that you’re really glad to take off every day or conversely if you’re tooling around town on the weekend do you really miss part of your 18th century garb?

Janea: Well, we get used to wearing long skirts and so I must admit that in my 21st century clothing, you know, knee length skirts, little too short. We also get used to having our hair up in a cap, and it’s kind of fun, because you can walk right past people that you’ve talked to earlier in the day and they don’t recognize you because you look so different without that fashionable cap on your hair. So it’s a way of being incognito in your own town.

Harmony: You are very easily identifiable though in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. Where can people come find you in your shop and learn more about your trade?

Janea: Our shop is on Duke of Gloucester Street right beside the Silversmith and across the street from Wetherburn’s Tavern. Our front window has the best light in the entire building so you’ll find us sewing, working, cutting right downstairs in front of everyone that comes in to visit. And we just might give them pins to help us pin things or you know, “Here’s a pair of scissors to help cut out this piece of fabric with us.” So we invite them to come in and share this 18th century experience with us.

Harmony: I hope they do. Janea, thank you so much for being here today.

Janea: You’re welcome.


  1. My daughter is in 5th grade. She is researching the steps that milliners go through to make hats, stomachers, neckerchiefs, stays/corsets… Her class is learning about colonial trade and she chose the milliner. She hasn’t been able to find out the process/steps that colonial milliners utilized to make an accessory. Would you be able to provide this information? Or perhaps be able to suggest a publication that can provide the information? Thanks so much, Stephanie

    • Stephanie,

      We have shared your question with the milliners, and will share their advice with you as soon as possible.

      In the meantime, you may find enough to get started in our clothing section.

      Thanks for your great question.

  2. […] Listen to “Meet the Milliner” podcast […]

  3. Need more info on how to be a milliner, I’m doing a project on one and need steps on how to do what a milliner does

  4. this was very helpful

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