MEIGS COUNTY — As settlers moved west into the Northwest Territory, they brought with them traditions of dress that now seems impractical, but were the norm.
On a very warm day at the Chester Courthouse, Janet VanMeter illustrated just how arduous it was for women to dress and work in comfort given the fashion of the day, especially if she were a settler on the frontier.
VanMeter asked her audience, members of the Return Jonathan Meigs Daughters of the American Revolution, to image the difficulty pioneer women experienced putting on and wearing layers of cloth and stays, as she “dressed” a body form.
“In the eighteenth-century women dressed in layers, and it could take up to an hour to dress,” VanMeter said while herself wearing an eighteenth century dress.
First was the linen shift or chemise. Next came stays made of whalebone or reed to give a contour look and improve posture. These stays were laced in the back, so the wearer needed assistance with putting them on. A petticoat followed, quilted in winter, and one of a lighter material in summer, over the stays. A woman might wear several petticoats for warmth or volume.
A gown followed the petticoats, and sometimes opened in the middle to revile the petticoat. Laundry was very difficult, so most outer garments were only spot cleaned.
Gowns were usually made of cotton prints, floral, and checks, reflecting the availability of fabric. Wearing cotton was also a symbol of patriotism for many women during the Revolution who boycotted British goods. Calico had been banned in Britain because “it interfered with the wool industry”, so early in the Revolution many women chose to boycott British goods and use cotton. Homespun became a fashion statement for many, illustrating a rejection of British goods and the supporting of the cotton industry in the Colonies and later the United States.
A stomacher was added to the top for color, and a kerchief of lace or silk was added to the neck for modesty, or cotton neckerchiefs for sun protection. Wearers might pin little ribbons or flowers to the sleeves and front for decorations, and mitts provided arm protection from the sun and provided warmth in the winter.
Hair was washed infrequently, so caps were worn to keep the hair clean, and wigs were placed over the caps when the wearer was going out. Hats were placed on top of the wigs.
Cotton or wool stockings were held up with garters, and shoes were leather for everyday wear, trimmed with metal buckles, lace, or costume jewels.
Women carried a fan, handkerchief and pocketbook in pockets that were tied on and not a part of the gown. Pins were used to secure money, notes and letters in the pockets.
In winter, women wore cloaks that tied at the chin and could be hooded and came in many lengths.
As time went on, styles were adapted to meet the changing environment, availability of fabrics, and roles of women that were evolving in the newly formed United States.
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