Welcome to The Life and Times of Hope for Charity Series. In this episode, we will look at the Working Woman's daily wear. Hope for Charity, my upcoming debut Christian Historical Romance novel is set in the Georgian/Regency era of the 18th century. If you haven't seen the previous episodes in this series, you may want to start here.
The Working Class Woman and Fashion
The working-class woman, married or unmarried, would have required serviceable clothing. Clothing sturdy enough to last while doing dirty jobs in harsh environments, which includes their own homes.
Some jobs may have required uniforms (provided as part of their benefits), such as housemaids, but the overall layers and accessories of the working woman's wardrobe would have been basically the same.
Today's working woman's wardrobe, even if they work for minimum wage is probably much larger than the lower-middle-class working women of the 18th century.
According to the Closet Maid survey, the average American woman has 103 items of clothing in her closet.
44% of them can’t find an item in their closet at least once a month,
33% of them say they have clothes that are too tight, and
10% of them are depressed each time they open the closet doors.
What about lower-middle-class women of the 18th century? It varied. However, one of the best ways to get an idea of how much clothing a woman of this type may have owned during this period is through Estate Inventories.
An estate inventory is a legal accounting of anything of value owned by an individual at the time of their death . . . (emphasis mine)
Below are two estate inventories of the clothing of women from the early and mid-18th century.
When Mary Wickham died in 1705 the following articles of clothing were enumerated: 4 petticoats, 2 gowns, 7 hoods, 11 handkerchiefs, 6 aprons, 10 caps, 4 cornetts, 2 pair sleeves, 1 neckcloth, 1 pair of bodyes (stays), 1 pair of stockings, 3 hoods, 2 shifts, 2 waistcoats, and 2 pairs of women’s gloves.
Another from 1755: 1 pair of stays, 1 silk gown, 1 chintz gown in black and white, 1 calico gown, 1 striped gown, stockings, 1 skirt, 1 cloak, a velvet hood, a muslin (fine sheer cotton) apron, 3 shifts, 2 handkerchiefs, caps, and an apron.
How did these women afford all these clothes not to mention shoes? The women then are as smart and savvy as the women of today. They did what they had to do. Most women and men could sew their clothes but the secondhand clothing business was alive and well at that time, too.
Secondhand clothes were an important element in the clothing strategies of working people. These could be obtained as cast-offs from employers, or from markets and specialist shops in urban areas.
Besides making clothes and buying used clothing, their sewing skills were put to use in repairing and remaking clothing to suit the styles of the day. Yes, even the poor wanted to be stylish. No, they could not afford quality materials but they did the best they could with what they had.
Now that we know a bit more about how these women obtained their clothing and how much clothing they may have owned let's take a look at the clothing itself.
Shift- "A shift would be made of linen and would serve as both nightgown and slip."
Stockings- "A close-fitting garment covering the foot, the leg, and often the knee, usually made of knitted or woven wool, silk, or cotton;"
Stockings at the time would have been tied on with a ribbon or a garter.
Fichu or a Neck Kerchief- " . . . a large, square kerchief worn by women to fill in the low neckline of a bodice. It originated in the United Kingdom in the 18th century and remained popular there and in France through the 19th with many variations, as well as in the United States. The fichu was generally of linen fabric and was folded diagonally into a triangle and tied, pinned, or tucked into the bodice in front."
Pockets- "Women's clothing did not have attached pockets. A pocket or two would be tied on around a woman's waist before she put on her final layer. Gowns and petticoats had slits in the sides for access to pockets. Pockets were not meant to show, as they contained personal and sometimes valuable items."
Stays- "Stays are a support garment stiffened with whalebone, wood or reed;"
Petticoat- When the first petticoat was mentioned in 15th-century literature it was simply an underskirt (unseen) worn under the overskirt (seen) for warmth, or as an extra layer of privacy to keep the legs hidden from sight. However, as time went on into the 17th and 18th centuries, the outer skirt would often be made with a V in the front by which a decorative petticoat could be seen. Also, to add warmth or shape several petticoats might be worn at a time with only the last decorative petticoat seen through the V. Of course, the means and needs of the woman would play a role in her petticoat choices.
Stomachers- "A stomacher is typically a V or U shaped panel used to cover the undergarments which would otherwise be visible through the opening of the bodice of the dress. Most bodices did not lace up at the front so they could be made larger or smaller as required. Stomachers were around from roughly the 1570’s - 1780’s."
Gown- The gown bodice and the skirt could be cut as one or the bodice and skirt could be cut separately and sewn together at the waist. In both styles, the fabric of the bodice and skirt is the same, and usually the front of the gown skirt was open, revealing the petticoat underneath. The kerchief was a square piece of linen, wool, cotton, or silk, folded into a triangle, and was worn about the shoulders and around the neck, to protect a woman’s skin from the elements (and provide a modicum of modesty – 18th Century gowns were very low-cut by today’s standards)."
Apron- "Early aprons were made from muslin, silk, and serge, and formed part of the dress for special occasions as well as everyday wear. Aprons in the early 1700s were in regular use to protect clothing and were usually a simple rectangular piece of fabric fastened with ties or a belt."
There is more! Accessories and hats and shoes O my! But we'll save those for another day.
Today we'll end with this video that I think you will enjoy.
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the dress of the working-class women of the 18th century in England. Next time we'll take a look at the aristocratic women of the time. Although I won't redefine each layer, you may enjoy seeing the extravagance of ballgowns and trends that would have been completely impractical for the poorer women of society. If you haven't yet subscribed, please consider subscribing today so you don't miss future episodes or updates.