The Colonist's Summer Wardrobe

summer gown

Southerners adapt to summer temperatures in every century. Curator Linda Baumgarten tells us how to dress for the heat in colonial style on this week’s podcast.

Learn more: Historic Threads


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. One of the things our historic costumed interpreters get asked all the time in the summer is, “Are you hot in those clothes?” Well it’s a question we wondered about here on the podcast, too, so we’ve asked Linda Baumgarten to tell us a little more about summer clothes in the colonial South. Linda, thank you for being here today.

Linda Baumgarten: My pleasure.

Harmony: What’s your title? You are curator of…?

Linda: I’m curator of textiles and costumes. I curate the antique textiles and costumes so I have the objects in the collection that reveal what people wore in the 18th century.

Harmony: So we’re thinking about summer clothes. Here in Virginia where we live, summer is a hot, muggy and humid season and requires a whole different wardrobe set. Was this similar for our colonial counterparts?

Linda: Yes. There were many things that people took into account when they were dressing for the summer season. One is that they could choose fabrics that were thinner and more comfortable: thin linens, thin silks if they were dressing up or an unlined coat rather than a lined coat for winter.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, just like us today, people had to dress for their station, for the event and for the formality of the occasion. So today if we’re going to interview for a job at a company that has a dress code we might still wear a suit and a neck tie if we’re a gentlemen. If it's 100 degrees out we wear the clothing that is assumed appropriate for that occasion. The same things happened in the 18th century. If there was a formal occasion, people had to dress in all of the layers that were deemed appropriate.

Harmony: If we’re going to talk about summer we ought to compare it to winter. Let’s talk about the fabrics that people might wear in the winter.

Linda: In the wintertime they would basically layer their clothes. Women, for example, would have their linen shift, their undergarment, then one, two or three petticoats, these were like skirts, then their pair of stays, this was equivalent to a corset today, and then on top of that might be a wool gown instead of a thin silk one for summer. Then they could also wear some kind of cape or cloak over the top of that for warmth and then follow that up with a pair of mitts or long gloves.

Harmony: Because there are accessories for winter and summer just as there are today.

Linda: Correct.

Harmony: So your winter accessories would be those mitts you mentioned. Probably some headwear?

Linda: The cap or a hat or maybe both.

Harmony: And then when we get to summer are we wearing fewer layers?

Linda: In the summertime they would probably wear fewer layers, but mainly lighter, more comfortable textiles with their clothing. One man who was writing to someone in England telling him what to wear when he came to Virginia said that your clothes must be as loose and light as possible and if I can read the quote I think it might be fun. This is a man writing in the 1730s and he said:

“In summer time even the gentry go many in white Holland waistcoat and drawers and a thin cap on their heads and thread stockings.” Now thread stockings are made of linen.

“The ladies straight-laced in thin silk or linen.” Now that reference to straight-laced means that they did wear their stays, that was their support garment, but they didn’t lace them very tight. They laced them a little more loosely for the summer season.

Someone else said, “Your clothing in summer must be as thin and light as possible, for the heat is beyond your conception.” He’s writing to someone in England, of course, and he recommends an unlined suit and then the thinnest stuffs that can be made without lining and he says, “You have to have a stock of linen waistcoats made very large and loose.” Again, you’re adjusting your clothing and their fit for how hot it’s going to be.

Harmony: So it sounds like they’re still wearing a lot more layers than we would consider comfortable for summertime today?

Linda: Well it depends on the occasion. For someone who was working in the fields out of the formal public view they could wear, a woman could wear, her shift and perhaps a petticoat. She would probably want stockings just for comfort with her shoes, but that would be fewer layers. She might not even wear her stays unless she needed them for support. A man working in the fields could wear his breeches and perhaps his shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the neckline open. That is perfectly appropriate in that situation for someone who was a farmer or a field worker.

Harmony: It’s funny to think about the propriety of wardrobe today versus then. Now we show so much skin; short sleeves and shorts, tank tops even. No lady or gentlemen would have walked down the street in that type of clothing in the 18th century.

Linda: That’s correct. Even wearing your shift and petticoat on the street would be highly inappropriate. It would be like someone today wearing just their underwear down the street so today our mores include showing more skin. Those things change with the times, but we also keep in mind it depends on our cultural group. Today if a person’s religious beliefs require them to be covered up they wear long sleeves or a burqa or some other covering that is appropriate for their belief system.

Linda: When we consider the bounds of propriety we have to think about children and how they got comfortable during the summer. There’s a revealing reference in the diary or the journal of a tutor who was teaching children in Virginia and he describes in 1774 that it was, “so hot the wind itself seems to be heated.” Then he describes his clothing, which was a thin waistcoat and a loose, light linen gown. So this would be in place of a coat. He’d be wearing a sort of a loose gown similar to a banyan that some people might be familiar with.

But the little boys, Harry and Bob he says, had nothing on in school but their shirts and breeches. He also describes the little girl, Fanny, who was sitting on a little bench. He said, “She put her hand in her pocket and seemed exceeding diligent in looking for something, but before she took out her hand she had off both her stockings and left them both in her pocket.” Now this is behavior that is cute and appropriate for a little girl, but a lady would not go without her stockings in the summer.

Harmony: I feel for that little girl.

Linda: Right.

Harmony: And also the fashion now for suntans was considered a crude accomplishment in the 18th century. Someone who is suntanned would look like a laborer, someone of a lower class who worked in the fields.

Linda: That’s right. Someone of a class who wasn’t a laborer would try to maintain a white complexion or as light as possible and so they would wear, a woman would wear a hat for example to shade her face or gloves or mitts to shade her forearms. Fieldworkers, of course, got a tan, but that was appropriate for their station in life.

Harmony: Something that’s funny to see in the streets of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area today are people wearing sunglasses, but that was something that was available to colonial people; sunglasses, fans, other types of summer accessories.

Linda: Well fans were certainly available. Now the glasses that were tinted actually were typically not worn as sun shades. They were considered tinted glasses to help weak eyes and were worn indoors as well as outdoors so the idea of sunglasses really wasn’t much of a fashion in the 18th century. You’d use more of a hat or some other kind of sun shade for your eyes.

Harmony: People in the summertime today might be planning beach vacations and getting their body ready for bikini season. Was there a bathing costume in the 18th century for men or for women?

Linda: There was a bathing costume. Martha Washington’s bathing dress survives, not in our collection, but in another collection. This was just a long, loose garment that a woman could walk out into the water or more likely in a private little area where they would get wet, but certainly not a bathing suit showing the legs or the arms or even the chest.

Harmony: Would they have to do laundry more frequently in the summer? Did people get their clothes dirty and sweaty more quickly?

Linda: Absolutely, and it’s really a myth that people were wearing their clothes without washing them. They did definitely wash, especially their body linens, the parts that touch the skin and got sweaty. They would wash them frequently.

Harmony: How did they do that?

Linda: They washed them by hand in large tubs using lye soap scrubbing by hand or against a board of some kind.

Harmony: And that’s a chore that would have been relegated to the enslaved population most likely?

Linda: Enslaved population or if someone was a poor householder they would do their own laundry.

Harmony: When we look at summer clothing of the 18th century and compare it to summer clothing of today are there things that are similar? Are there aims that are similar?

Linda: I think the aim is to be comfortable within the bounds of propriety and for everyone, everywhere that’s basically what we’re looking for is what level of comfort can we achieve while still being fashionable, appropriate to the setting and to the occasion and we may consider comfort way down on the list of requirements if the other factors trump. For example, if I want to be in very high fashion I’ll wear very high heels even though I don’t consider them comfortable or I might wear tight clothing or more revealing clothing if it’s fashionable.

Harmony:  Linda, thank you so much for being our guest today and keep cool out there.

Linda: Thank you. You too.


  1. This was shared in a blog. Glad I was alerted to it. The information is wonderful and answered a lot of questions. Thank you.

  2. We’re glad you found us!

  3. I always marvel when watching cinematic re-enactments of military encounters from either the War of Independence or the Civil War; even if the coats are without linings and the waistcoats are made of linen instead of wool, such campaigns must have given special meaning to the refrain that war is hell.

  4. After the Battle of Monmouth the bodies of Hessian soldiers were found to be fully dressede as their military regulations required even in America’s hot climate. Upon examination of the bodies, clothing was removed and steam arose from the chests.

    The heat of battle and the hot Summer exhausted General Washington and his men at the battle. MANY soldiers collasped from the heat after the battle and were found laying under bushes and trees in attempts to find shade.

    • Joseph Plumb Martin’s diary of course attests to the heat and men dying of heat exhaustion during the War for Independence. I don’t think people during the 18th & 19th centuries were any more “used to” the heat than we are today. I work for a museum where I live, and we have letters and journals etc. in which people complain of the heat, being uncomfortable while trying to sleep at night etc.–it’s just that they didn’t have the benefit of air conditioning which lets us escape from it as we do today.

  5. @Nancy Warren: Thanks for the vignettes!

    Were attempts ever made to rebuff the dictates of fashion and to adopt more sensible summer attire? It would seem to make perfect sense from a military perspective, as soldiers unencumbered and in relative comfort — especially in relation to the enemy — would make for better soldiers, surely?

    • You both bring up some great points. We’ve put the question to curator Linda Baumgarten, and we’ll see what the record tells us. Thanks for your question.

    • We checked with our military expert, Erik Goldstein, who told us the following: when soldiers were fighting, they did wear their uniforms. Erik points out that when a wool uniform gets wet from perspiration, the evaporation was actually helpful in keeping one cooler. I understand that uniforms in battle were considered an important part of the equipment, unit cohesion, (and possibly intimidation). When not in battle and at camp, soldiers wore more comfortable clothes similar to “fatigues.” He also indicates that units sent to the tropics were issued linen small clothes (breeches and waistcoats).

  6. This is wonderful! I love the 18th century and especially the clothing. I always learn so much from Ms. Baumgarten’s books and now the podcast. I live too far away to visit C.W. as much as I’d like so having the features like this on the website are a great way for me to “almost” be there. 🙂

  7. My husband and I just returned from a visit to Williamsburg. The heat index one day was 105. We were struck by the cool demeanor of the interpreters. Even though the women obviously had on long sleeve tops and multilayers they did not appear to be sweating as I was in shorts and a sleeveless cotton top. I was amazed as was my husband. I did notice that they chose the shady side of the streets on which to walk or sit, however, and under a tree felt much cooler than in the sun.

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