They wore what? Episode 1

I know it’s been a while since I’ve stopped by. But to be perfectly honest there hasn’t been much in the way of home-making or crafting going on here! I’m still working quite steadily on my Michigan Dolls, there are about a dozen bodies in various states of stuffing waiting to be stitched together. Then it’ll be dress making time! (My favorite) It has gotten to be the time of year where my attention starts to shift from the 21st century, to the 19th. As many of you know I have worked as a Historic House Interpreter since I was 18, this summer will be my seventh year doing it! I LOVE my job. Like it gives me goosebumps love it. How many people are so fortunate to have a job they love? This job has also made me increasingly aware and passionate about women and their stories throughout history. So bear with me, these coming months are sure to bring abundant posts about some of my favorite points in time and the various stories and lives of the women who came before me. Another big part of my job as of last year is supervising the lady house interpreters on Mackinac Island. For me, that means creating a plethora of materials to make their jobs (and mine) easier, to encourage them and to help them gain the skills and knowledge they need to do their jobs well. It’s really important to me, but unfortunately it can sometimes make for boring crafts. 😉 sometimes.

In the same vein, I’m contemplating tackling a big project, sewing my own 1830’s stay and dress. I will definitely be sharing my adventure in that!  Have you ever wondered what they were wearing under those dresses? A few more layers than we modern women tend to wear; keep on reading for a nerdy rundown of 1830’s attire.

1830's Dressing Guide
I made this to help out our new girls and any volunteers get dressed properly.


This is poster I put together to aid our new girls and volunteers in getting themselves dressed and ready for a day  at the Biddle House. We wear at any given moment 4-6+ layers. During the 1830’s fashion started to see the changing silhouettes from the slim dresses of the 1800-1810’s (Think Jane Austen) which then morphed over a couple decades into the huge hoops skirts of the 1860’s (Civil war, think Gone With The Wind) Personally, I like the 1830’s. Dresses came to about ankle length (depending on your age) the sleeves, sometimes called Mutton sleeves are big and poofy, which gives your arms a wide range of movement. They also create the illusion of a smaller waist. The bodice is form fitting and has a high waist, with well gathered skirts. Which creates a silhouette that is flattering on basically any body type. Skirts were given shape with corded petticoats (a precursor to the hoop skirts) Think a plain cotton skirt with thick up to 1″ cord sewn tightly into the bottom of the petticoat, to make it stiff and hold the dress out. This of course is covered with another plain petticoat. Petticoats are worn for two reasons, one for modesty, if you’re not wearing AT LEAST one petticoat your dress has a tendency to go between your legs when you’re walking or sitting. NOT ladylike. The other reason is for cleanliness. While some modern women have closets the size of bedrooms (or just a small one even) most of us have I’ll bet a dozen or more different outfits we can wear on any given day. (Yes yoga pants count) This has not always been the case. Even wealthy women during the 1830’s probably didn’t have more than a few gowns and dresses. For us lowly peons (the everyday jane) we probably had one or two plain day dresses, these are the ones you’d be wearing every day. Probably one “sunday best” type of dress, and MAYBE  one nice fancy dress, which was probably outdated, for going to dances, weddings or other fancy occasions. So a petticoat (and all the undergarments) help to keep our dresses clean. Free from bodily dirt and sweat, and we wear aprons over our dresses to protect them during the course of a day filled with household chores. Laundry involved lots of hard labor, which I’ll tell you about another day. Just know, your average 1830’s housewife would probably kill to have that crappy washing machine you hate.

You want to be an 1830’s woman yet?

There are still more layers to yet be uncovered. Stays, which are similar to corsets without quite so much boning, were the Bra’s and body shapers of the day. You would wear one of these over a chemise (think plain nightgown) Stay’s of the 1830’s allow for a little bit more movement and flexibility then the corsets that would follow during the later half of the 1880’s. Though they do have a very fun feature for special occasions. There’s a pocket that runs down the front of the stay, into which you can slip a Busk. “What’s a busk?” you say? A busk was usually made of wood or bone, and it’s a long flat piece, maybe 1″ wide, 1/4″ thick and as long as your torso required. So what happens when you put a strong piece of wood down your front? Well, you can’t bend very well, if at all. Especially not forward, it makes you keep your back straight. Slouching is NOT ladylike. Women would have worn these for special occasions, NOT as an everyday thing. Unless you’re crazy.

Also up top, collars were extremely popular during the 1830’s. This particular aspect of the fashion I don’t as much care for, but it does create a nice quaker effect. Collars were usually white, sometimes with fancy white embroidery on them, sometimes just plain. There are collars which are worn underneath the dress that peak out the top there are also collars that are worn overtop of the dress. Those sometimes were made in matching fabric to the dress. We have only recently implemented collars at work, so I’m still getting used to them!

Lets go down below for a bit. Underneath petticoats we sometimes have a bit of a debate over what was and wasn’t worn. Pantalettes (or bloomers) were probably around. But there seems to be some debate as to whether or not proper ladies wore them. Personally, I couldn’t live without them. Sweaty, chaffing…yeah, I’ll keep the Pantalettes. These are also made out of plain white cotton or linen (linen was cheaper) are rather baggy around your nether regions and end at about knee high, with lace trim or plain. Ever wonder how they went to the bathroom? Crotchless pantalettes. Contrary to what most men would like to believe, the crotchless underwear is for the sanity of the women. If you’re putting the pantalettes on first, then a Stay over them, that makes it quite difficult to get your pantalettes on and off throughout the day to use the bathroom. So, just make ’em crotchless. Problem solved! You still have to gather up your skirts and petticoats before you squat, it sure would suck to have those get dragged through the toilet….

To complete our outfit, we’d be wearing knee high socks or stockings probably held up with a garter of some sort. (no elastic you know?) and shoes which during the 1830’s a lot of women’s shoes were similar to our flats today. Black was the color of choice for every day wear. You might have shoes that matched your fancy evening gown. Nothing like the closets full of shoes we have today. Once you’ve done all that, your hair would be put in a neat bun at the back of your head and most women were still wearing Daycaps, a white cap that varied greatly in plainness-ruffles depending on your station and occupation) Daycaps are actually marvelous inventions that hide the worst hair days and keep your hair cleaner longer as you go about your household activities, cooking, cleaning, laundry, sewing etc. It was also common for women to arrange their hair to cover most of their ears. No make-up was worn unless you’re involved in a less savory business like theatre or “entertaining gentlemen.”

So what do you think? Could you crack it as an 1830’s housewife? We do have a volunteer program if you’re anxious/curious to try out this lifestyle for an afternoon….

For three months out of the year, I’m wearing this ensemble more often than not. “Is it hot?” you (and THOUSANDS of visitors) ask? No, not usually. Today, like in the 1830’s we use all natural fabrics for our clothing. They used linen or wool, we use cotton. Which means very importantly, that it breathes! It lets air through, it can wick away sweat, especially when a lovely breeze goes through. The layers protect us much like an oven mitt from the heat of the cooking fire. It protects our skin from the heat of the sun if out in the garden, a big bonnet protects our face. I highly doubt if many of the women in the 19th century died of skin cancer, they had it all covered up! My 1830’s ensemble is my historic equivalent to yoga pants and a comfy t-shirt. I will admit however, that when it gets humid out…we suffer. But everyone is suffering no matter what they’re wearing. At least I’ll be historically beautiful (and getting paid) while I’m doing it.


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