Formal Wear

Explore formal clothing

Just like today, people of the past dressed up for formal occasions in styles that differed from their everyday clothing. Formal textiles for men and women often featured lavish professional embroidery. Other garments were made of silk brocaded on a weaver's loom with silk, silver, and gold threads. Mantua-makers and tailors constructed the gowns and suits.

Formal clothing retained traditional features long after such designs had gone out of style for daily wear. The persistence of old-fashioned design elements in formal clothing is called "fossilization." Gowns were made with wide hoopskirts half a century after side hoops had gone out of fashion for general wear. Men wore embroidered suits with knee breeches for formal occasions long after breeches were replaced by long pants for daytime wear.

Women's Gowns

Explore women's formal gowns

Women's dresses were called gowns during the 18th century. Until the late 18th century, gowns usually had long full skirts atop fitted, cone-shaped bodices. At the end of the 18th century, waistlines rose to a point just under the bust line and skirts were narrow. Full skirts returned by the 1820s and 1830s.

Men's Suits

Explore men's formal suits

Men wore embroidered suits with knee breeches for formal occasions long after breeches were replaced by long pants for daytime wear. Men's embroidered suits were the 18th-century equivalent of white tie and tails today.

Fashionable Wear

Explore fashionable clothing

Shaping the Body

Explore women's fashionable clothing

How did women's gowns of the 18th century differ from those after 1835? On the surface, they often appear similar. With the exception of the slim-skirted neoclassical styles in the period from about 1790 to 1820, women in both centuries wore long, full skirts and bodices with defined waists close to the natural position just above the hipbones. Mid-19th-century dresses shared this overall silhouette with those of a hundred years earlier. Dresses in both eras had sloped shoulders and narrow waists with full skirts supported by extra petticoats or hoops.

Despite these similarities, bodice shapes differed considerably between the two centuries. Eighteenth-century stays molded the torso into a smooth cone. Gowns were constructed over the cone without using waistline or bust darts. Stays pushed the shoulders back, resulting in erect posture. In contrast, 19th-century corsets had individual cups for the breasts and promoted posture that was more naturally curved at the back shoulders. Post-1830 gowns had to have waistline darts or gathers to allow them to fit over the hourglass-shaped corsets.

Real Men Wore Sequins

Explore men's fashionable clothing

Gender distinction had nothing to do with the color of the garment or the use of flowers, silk, or delicate fabrics. Males of all ages wore sequins, lace, and embroidery. During most of the 18th century, fancy, colorful clothing signaled formality, not femininity. Color-coding in children's garments—pink for girls, blue for boys—did not occur until well into the 20th century.

Dressy waistcoats, or vests, were often made of white or pastel-colored silk embellished with rich embroidery and sequins. The relatively short length and angled points at the fronts typify styles between 1770 and 1800. This silhouette continues to be popular for vests today.

Suiting Materials

Materials used for men's suits were heavier in weight and of different patterns than women's dress fabrics. Early in the 18th century, fashionable men wore bold designs in rich velvet and flat-woven silks. Like women, men wore bright colors and pastel shades for formal occasions. Later in the 18th century, small-scale enclosed patterns and solid textiles gained prominence. Eventually, men turned to dark colors and neutral shades for their suits.

Everyday and Work Clothing

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People from every social level owned everyday clothing. For relaxing at home and going about daily business, wealthy men and women chose clothes that were more comfortable than their fashionable or formal garb. Manual laborers dressed in garments suited to their activity. They modified fashionable styles by shortening the skirts on their coats or gowns or by making the garment looser. They used accessories to protect their clothes and bodies from abrasion.

Women's Everyday and Work Clothing

Explore women's everyday clothing

During the 18th century, a woman's status was evident in her choice of clothing materials and the quantity in which they were used. Did her clothes have beautiful trimmings, such as lace and needlework? How many dresses did she own? Were they elegant in style and fit? People who had to do physical labor modified the elegant styles of the period for greater ease of movement, durability, and affordability. Everyday long gowns seldom survived, but prints and paintings suggest the garments were cut like fashionable dresses of the period. They were, however, made of cheaper textiles and without trimmings and ruffles. When a long fitted gown was too impractical for the work to be done, working women put on shorter garments that required less fabric than a full gown. These included short gowns, bed gowns, and jackets. Neck handkerchiefs, gloves, and mitts protected women's chests and forearms from exposure to cold or excessive sunlight. Further, kerchiefs offered greater modesty when fashion dictated low necklines. Workers and older women especially relied on such accessories.

Men's Everyday and Work Clothing

Explore men's everyday clothing

Men's work clothes deviated from the fashionable ideal in basic silhouette, choice of textiles, and accessories. Stylish close-fitting knee breeches and long, full coat skirts were unsuited to vigorous physical movement. Even if laborers could have afforded them, white ruffled linen dress shirts and fine silk knitted stockings would have been too delicate for work. Besides using sturdy textiles for their everyday clothes, men added comfortable, protective accessories. Instead of tight stocks around their necks, many men wore generously sized neck handkerchiefs or neck cloths. Fabric leggings protected the shins.


Men of nearly all social levels wore frock coats for informal activities or work. With their less-restrictive cut, plain materials, and turndown collars, the coats were comfortable and practical. During the last quarter of the 18th century, fashionable men began to wear frock coats of more expensive fabrics for dress wear.


Banyans, or gowns, were loose garments that men wore for casual occasions during the day or before they dressed in more formal clothing. With them, men wore caps, shirts, waistcoats, breeches, stockings, and shoes or slippers. Banyans came in two different styles. Some gowns were cut like large T-shaped kimonos and others tailored more closely to the body. Wealthy men would have owned examples such as these, made of expensive textiles. Ordinary men wore gowns, too. Philip Vickers Fithian, a plantation tutor, occasionally wore a gown in his Virginia schoolroom.


Fashionable silk knitted stockings were impractical for workers. Some men wore leggings over their coarse linen or woolen stockings to protect their legs and clothing from snags and scrapes. Others wore hose made out of cut-and-sewn linen or wool textiles. American slaves wore stockings called "plaid hose," stockings made of plain wool twill fabric.


Some work clothing was more symbolic than practical. Visible male servants such as waiters and footmen were often required to wear elaborate livery uniforms. The suits were usually made of wool in two colors based on the master's coat of arms and were embellished with elaborate woven edgings called "livery lace." Buttons sometimes featured a heraldic crest. In Virginia, prominent men such as Royal Governor Botetourt, Robert Carter, Landon Carter, and George Washington all had liveried servants.

The symbolism of the uniforms worn by footmen, waiters, and carriage drivers was obvious to contemporaries. Although livery suits are elegant in appearance, they were intended to enhance the person served, not the person wearing the livery.


Explore lifecycle clothing

Life experiences greatly affected people's choice of clothing in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Special celebrations and clothing helped instill an awareness of the human cycle from birth to death. Weddings and similar happy events called for special finery. Pregnancy and nursing, near-constant conditions in many women's lives between marriage and menopause, required that women adapt their fashionable wardrobes. Body and health changes brought about by age caused people to dress differently than in their youth. Death of a loved one required clothing to symbolize the survivors' feelings of mourning. Commemorating life's passages through symbolic ceremonies and apparel emphasized the joy of happy events and helped people deal with grief at sad occasions.

Dressing Your Age

As new fashions came and went, people decided which styles suited them. Fashionable clothing was modified to fit the individual's age, changing body shape, or life circumstances. Judging from period portraits, mature women covered more of their bodies than younger women. They wore caps, kerchiefs to fill in the necklines of their gowns, and mitts on their arms. Mature men sometimes continued to wear knee breeches long after trousers came into fashion. Older people often became more conservative in their dress, wearing styles that had been fashionable in their younger days.

Pregnancy and Nursing

Explore maternity clothing

While the everyday clothing of most men was dictated by their occupations, women's clothing was in large part affected by their biology. Married women's lives were centered on their families, with little likelihood of a career outside the home. Without effective birth control, women expected to bear five to ten or more children, of whom several would likely die in infancy or early childhood. As a result, many women were pregnant or nursing a child much of their adult lives. Pregnant and nursing women had to alter and adapt their usual clothing to accommodate their condition.

"Lying In" and Nursing

Throughout most of the 18th and early 19th centuries, women adhered to the practice of "lying in," or remaining in the bedchamber, for about a month following delivery. Rarely, this long period was shortened to as little as two weeks or even ten days. During this time, family and friends came to visit the mother and new baby. Women lying in wore shortened versions of shifts, loose bed gowns, and petticoats with wide waistbands intended to support the abdomen. Most women nursed their children about a year following birth. Eighteenth-century gowns with front closures and low necklines were easily shifted aside or opened for nursing.

The Myth of Secluded Pregnancy

Despite the myth that women of the past secluded themselves when pregnant, such was not the case. The lives of fictional characters Scarlet O'Hara and Melanie Wilkes from Gone With the Wind have caused many people to misunderstand the history of pregnancy. As author Margaret Mitchell wrote,"Scarlet knew she would be forced to retire into Aunt Pitty's house and remain secluded there until after her child was born. . . . No lady ever showed herself when she was pregnant." The historical record reveals a far different picture for real women. Letters and diaries indicate that women not only ventured outside their homes, they enjoyed active social lives while pregnant. They dined with friends, attended religious services and cultural events, and went about their daily business.


Weddings called for the best clothing and accessories the bride and groom were able to afford, although few could invest in a dress or suit dedicated solely to a single event. Because they expected to wear their wedding gowns for years afterwards, many brides chose patterned silk or a practical dark color. Wealthy brides who could afford a special outfit often chose white or a combination of silver and white. Fans designed especially for weddings were carried by the bride or given as commemorative gifts to attendants and close friends.

Infant and Children's clothing

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As their first layer of clothing, infants wore thin shirts and "clouts," or diapers. Some infants were also swaddled, or tightly wrapped in bands of fabric. Although swaddling was intended to encourage straight limbs and erect posture, it also rendered infants immobile. The practice of swaddling gradually died out during the second half of the 18th century.

"Miniature Adults?"

It is often said that children dressed like "miniature adults" in the 18th century. Indeed, the clothing in prints and paintings does appear to reflect adult fashions, just as some children's clothing today echoes adult fashion. Nevertheless, overt and subtle symbolic elements of children's styles marked them as youthful to people of their own time—signals people today may miss. A ruffled shirt collar marks an eight-year-old as a little boy. Similarly, a ten-year-old girl wears stays and a tight gown, making her look grownup to 21st-century observers. A back-fastening gown, however, was the style of a girl, not a grown woman.

Children in Skirts

Skirts apparently had an unspoken symbolic value in 18th-century society. Skirts symbolized children's dependence, in the same way that adult women, all of whom wore skirts, were also dependent on their husbands or fathers. People who wore pants (men) were the dominant members of the family and society. Skirts also had practical value for the mother of a child who was not yet fully toilet trained; it was easier to keep the child clean if clothing did not fit closely around the loins.

A New View of Childhood

During the 18th century, a philosophical movement began to affect children's clothing. Parents began to view children as individuals whose clothing needs were unlike those of adults. People were ready for a less formal lifestyle, overtly affectionate family relationships, and a new view of childhood as a separate stage in life. This trend was in part spurred on by the writings of philosophers, educators, and physicians, such as John Locke, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and Dr. William Buchan. Increasingly, children dressed in clothes that were more comfortable, practical, and suitable for an active young person.


Caps were considered indispensable accessories for all children. Close fitting under caps of undecorated white linen or cotton often lined more elaborate caps decorated with lace edging, ribbon, Hollie-point insertions, or silk and metallic embroidery. Padded caps called "puddings" protected the heads of toddlers when they fell.


It is often difficult for modern viewers to determine a child's gender in paintings and prints from the 18th century. Little girls as well as boys wore skirted frocks or dresses and stays. The laced torsos of boys echo the feminine cone shape of the girls. As a result, there appears to be little, if any, difference between the clothing of girls and boys. Nevertheless, subtle clues, such as hairdo, collar treatment, or a masculine toy used as a prop allow modern viewers to determine the gender of the child.

Boy's Suits

The change from skirts to breeches was a big event in a little boy's life. Occurring anywhere from four to eight years of age, depending on the time period and the family's desires, breeching symbolized growing up and moving from the female domain to that of males. Although little boys usually shed their stays when they graduated to breeches or trousers, girls continued to wear them into adulthood.

Boy's clothing underwent a significant change during the 18th century. Gradually, comfortable, washable suits with trousers replaced uncomfortable suits with knee-length breeches. One style, called a skeleton suit, had the trousers buttoned to the jacket.


Explore mourning clothing

Following a death, survivors signaled their grief and honored the memory of the deceased by wearing special clothing and accessories. Proper mourning clothing also reflected on the status of the deceased. For those who could afford them, mourning clothes followed the cut of the current fashions, except made in colors and specialized materials considered appropriate to the occasion. The first stage of deep mourning required black textiles without gloss or shine. Second mourning clothes (worn about six months after the death) could be made of shinier textiles and lighter colors, often gray, purple, white, or dark prints. During the early 19th century, some women adopted white and black for their mourning clothing. Merchants advertised for sale accessories such as mourning fans, mourning ribbon, suits of mourning ruffles, and mourning buckles. Scores of gloves made of chamois or lambskin were distributed at large funerals.

African Americans

Regrettably, few items of clothing or accessories with histories of use by African Americans survive. Period sources suggest that the clothing of African Americans varied greatly, depending on their occupations and whether they were slave or free. While African Americans generally wore garments styled after those of their Anglo American neighbors, they revealed their cultural heritage in the way they adapted certain items, such as kerchiefs, the way they styled their hair, and the way they moved.

Native Americans

Euro Americans had a complex relationship with Native Americans. Although settlers feared and fought the Indians, whites also learned to copy—even admire—the natives' skills in the wilderness. Fighters and frontiersmen adopted elements of Indian dress and accessories, including the use of moccasins and tomahawks. The native dress at the Boston Tea Party was not merely a convenient disguise, but also a powerful symbol of the ability to fight and survive.


Explore accessories

Through centuries past and into the present, accessories have been put to practical and fashionable use. From head to toe, people have worn hats, kerchiefs, shawls, gloves, ruffles, aprons, purses, wallets, and jewelry and shoes as part of their ensembles.

Accessories can be used to explore history. International trade in raw materials and ready-made accessories affected what people could purchase. Accessories responded to changes in fashion's silhouettes, and current events influenced the design of fans and handkerchiefs.

Women's Accessories

Explore women's accessories

Women selected from a wide array of accessories to enhance their stylish ensembles or to provide practical warmth and protection. They wore caps, hats, neck handkerchiefs, aprons, pockets, purses, mitts, gloves, stockings, shoes, and jewelry.


From 1760 to 1780, women's gowns had closely-fitted bodices, sleeves that usually ended just below the elbows, and full skirts. The gown was only a small part of the look, however. Delicate and expensive white accessories, such as kerchiefs, aprons, and sleeve ruffles could dress up a plain dark gown. Shoes and stockings protected the feet, but also allowed the wearer to show off the latest fashion in the shape of the toe or the height of the heel. Removable shoe buckles changed the appearance of a pair of shoes while also serving to fasten the shoes in place.


Gown styles changed dramatically at the end of the 18th century. Waistlines rose to just under the bust, textiles were soft and drapey, and skirts fell close to the body. Slim lines made it less practical to wear pockets under the skirts, spurring the fashion for handbags, also called reticules. Newly fashionable shawls added warmth to relatively thin garments.They also enhanced the elegant lines and classical appearance of clothing inspired in part by Greek and Roman art. Shoes with low or flat heels coordinated well with the new neoclassical styles.


In the 1820s, neoclassical styles had moderated. Waistlines began to drop, sleeves widened, and skirts gradually became fuller, often embellished with trimming around the hem. Fine cashmere or wool shawls from India and Paisley, Scotland, were especially fashionable accessories. Some gowns had separate removable sleeve extensions to add variety to a gown with short sleeves.

In the late 1820s and 1830s, sleeves became extremely wide. Loose cloaks with capes on the shoulders went over wide sleeves better than a fitted coat would have. Because hairstyles were puffed up in curls and topknots, women used bonnets with boning or reeds for shaping to avoid crushing the hair. Muffs continued to be used for warmth, but were also a fashionable accessory carried indoors.

Men's Accessories

Explore men's accessories

The well-dressed man needed more than a suit to assure his place in fashionable society. From the wig or hat on his head to the tips of his buckled shoes, gentlemen's accessories could be practical, stylish, or both. Pastel colors and glittery stones were considered manly and appropriate for dressy occasions.


Explore handkerchiefs

Handkerchiefs came in a variety of sizes, types, materials, and functions. Printed handkerchiefs could function to cover sneezes, to tie around the neck, or to proclaim political or personal beliefs. Printed handkerchiefs are sometimes called "snuff handkerchiefs," because their designs helped hide the stains from the popular finely ground tobacco that people sniffed.

Other varieties of handkerchiefs were also in use. People used pocket handkerchiefs of white, colored, or checked linen or cotton to wipe their faces and noses. Women also used neck handkerchiefs, or kerchiefs, as fashion accessories. Often beautifully embroidered in decorative patterns or made from expensive sheer materials, neck handkerchiefs were large squares or triangles worn around the shoulders to fill in the low necklines of gowns.

Pockets & Purses

What's in your pocket or purse? Like us, people of the past carried a wide variety of coins, bills, and other objects in their pockets, wallets, and purses. Some pocketbooks came fitted with combs, writing implements, and note pads. In other instances, owners tucked personal mementos into their pocketbooks, such as a lock of a loved one's hair, personal correspondence, or a favorite inspirational verse.


Explore pockets

In the 18th century, women's gowns did not have sewn-in pockets, probably because pockets filled with personal belongings would have ruined the lines of full, floating skirts. Instead, women carried small items in separate, commodious bags tied around their waists beneath their skirts or aprons. Some pockets came in pairs, worn on each side over the hips; others were singles.

Women of all social levels wore pockets. They carried a number of personal and valuable items in their pockets, such as money, keys, handkerchiefs, sewing implements, spectacles, and jewelry. An Englishwoman named Elizabeth Horn reported her pocket stolen in 1716, along with the five keys and a prayer book that she carried inside the pocket.


Explore purses

Purses beautifully embroidered with silk and metallic threads were often used as elegant containers or "gift bags" in which to give money at the end of the year. Some small purses also held aromatic herbs and spices for perfuming clothing in storage drawers, similar to sachets today. The purses were sometimes called "sweet bags" for their sweet-scented contents.

Purses constructed in techniques that gave elasticity, such as knitting, knotting, netting, crochet, or sprang, were called "stocking or long purses." The tubular bags had lengthwise slits for dropping coins inside, closed by sliding one or a pair of rings to secure the compartments. Later, the bags came to be known as "miser's purses." This colorful name seemed appropriate because the two ends of the purse separated the coins inside, and a miserly person could not spend all of his or her money at once without deliberately sliding the rings from one end to the other. There is no evidence that the bags were called miser's purses in the 18th or 19th century. Men as well as women used these purses.

Women's Workbags

Explore workbags

Women often carried their handwork in decorative bags when they went out visiting. Workbags were used to carry sewing or embroidery materials, knitting needles and yarns, and knotting shuttles.

Explore objects

Buckles & Buttons

Explore buttons

Men wore a variety of specialized buckles and buttons, not only for status and decoration, but also for the functional purpose of fastening clothing on the body. Zippers were not invented until the middle of the 19th century and were not widely sold or used until the early 20th century. Before that time, men's clothing had to be fitted with a series of buckles, buttons, and ties.

Shoe Buckles

Explore buckles

Shoe buckles were designed to be easily removed and transferred to different pairs of shoes. Shoe buckles can be identified by their curved or arched shape designed to fit over the instep, as well as by their fork-like fittings for buckling the shoe straps tightly around the foot. Because of their expense and beauty, shoe buckles often came in their own specially made cases.


Explore neckwear

For dressy and formal occasions, men wore strips of fine white linen or cotton around their necks. Stocks were gathered or pleated to tabs that buckled or tied at the back of the neck. One of the tabs typically had worked buttonholes that lined up with the knobs or prongs of a removable metal stock buckle. Stock buckles can be identified by their knobs along one side for slipping onto the stock's tab. The longer tapered tab of the stock was pulled through the buckle and cinched tight.

Stocks came in several styles. Stocks with hanging linen bands, called "short bands," were worn by clergymen, barristers, and academics. These stocks became symbolic of the learned professions.

Most stocks were sewn by women in the home for their husbands or sons.


Explore spectacles

Early efforts at magnification can be traced to the ancient Egyptians. By the second quarter of the 18th century, corrective lenses worn on the face were relatively common.

Benjamin Franklin is often credited with inventing bifocals to avoid having to switch between two pairs of glasses, one for near and another for far vision. Although Franklin's claim to the invention cannot be proven, he did popularize the wearing of bifocals, especially in America. Blue and green tinted lenses reduced glare and were thought to correct vision problems; they were not generally used as sunglasses until the 20th century.



Explore caps

For casual wear, work, or at-home occasions, men often removed their wigs and wore soft caps on their heads. Although they were considered informal, caps were sometimes highly decorated and adorned with embroidery or lace. Some decorative caps may have been made as gifts.


Explore wigs

Wigs were an important accessory for men and a few women. Men's wigs went out of fashion late in the 18th century, but continued in use for symbolic reasons by barristers, judges, and gentlemen appearing at the royal courts.

Walking Sticks

Explore walking sticks

Walking sticks were popular accessories, even when a man did not need assistance in walking. The elaborate gold, silver, or gilt heads were held in the hand where they were readily visible for display. The canes sometimes came with functional cords and tassels to loop over the wrist.

Whitework & Metallics


Explore whitework

In an era when laundry was done by hand and textiles had to be ironed without the benefit of electricity, snowy white accessories were signs of gentility and status. Gentlemen wore white stocks around their necks and shirts with delicate ruffles at the front and on the cuffs. Ladies accessorized their clothing with pristine sleeve ruffles, fine linen or cotton kerchiefs around their shoulders, and elaborately embroidered white-on-white aprons that were never intended for cooking or working.


Explore metallics

People of the past wore glittering accessories for beauty, fashion, and status. Although some people wore items made with genuine silver, gold, and precious stones, many others owned accessories that achieved a brilliant effect less expensively, with substitutes such as paste, a type of hard and brilliant glass stone, colored enamels, and metal coated with a thin layer of gilding, rather than solid gold. Gold and silver threads were usually constructed of thin strips of the metal wrapped around a core of silk or linen. These metallic threads were more flexible for stitching or weaving and required less of the expensive metal than solid wire.

Accessory Timeline


Explore accessories from the 1600s

During the 17th century, costume accessories became increasingly available from shops and milliners. Accessories were made by men and women who specialized in a particular type of object or even one small portion of an object: lacemakers made collars and ruffles to be sewn to shape by seamstresses or housewives, shoemakers made shoes of fabrics woven by silk weavers, buckles for fastening the shoes were made by silversmiths and goldsmiths, and fan decorators painted leaves of fans, while the sticks were carved by a different local craftsperson or imported from overseas.

The 17th century was a period of expanding worldwide trade. Goods from as far away as India and China were brought into Europe, England, and the American colonies.


Explore accessories from 1700-1750

Women's gowns during the first half of the 18th century had cuffed sleeves ending around the elbow and full skirts. After a period of high hairstyles around 1700, hair was eventually worn close to the head. In addition to their basic garments, women of all social levels relied on accessories to add function and style to their ensembles. Shoes could be plain sturdy leather or delicate brocaded silk with high heels and pointed toes. The ribbon-like garters used to hold stockings up might be plain or embellished with woven decoration. Although some aprons were made of plain linen to keep the skirts clean while a woman was working, others were made of gossamer textiles edged with lace, such as that worn in the painting of Deborah Glen (1964.100.1). Because of their beauty and expense, the more decorative accessories were preserved—and some eventually entered museum collections—while the everyday accessories were typically used up.

During the 1730s and 1740s, short decorative aprons were especially popular accessories. This was the period when women's fashionable skirts were at their widest, extended out from the hips with extra supportive hoops. The woman in the print (Carwitham Floor Decorations) wears a fashionable apron layered over her full skirt. Obviously not intended for cooking or cleaning, these aprons were made of silk embroidered with silk or precious metal threads.

Accessories such as jewelry, lace, and fans were important status symbols. Jewelry for the wealthy was made of genuine precious stones. Less well-off people chose paste, a type of hard and brilliant glass. Stomachers, the triangular inserts at the fronts of gowns, were perfect places to display jewelry or metallic needlework designed to resemble jewelry. Lace was handmade by professional lacemakers from extremely fine linen threads. Expensive and elegant, the delicate lace required extra care to keep it clean and in good condition. Fans made of expensive ivory or less expensive bone were painted in a variety of subjects. Some women carried fans that commemorated current events to show their solidarity with a cause or to display their knowledge of the day's news.


Explore accessories from 1750-1800

During the 1750s to 1770s, fashionable gowns usually had ruffles sewn to the elbows, instead of the earlier style of cuffs. Ruffles typically matched the gown, but were then underlined and emphasized with additional tiers of removable white ruffles that were loosely stitched, pinned, or buttoned inside the gown sleeves. Ruffles could be embroidered with white threads on very fine fabrics or made entirely of lace. Some people referred to sleeve ruffles by the French term engageantes.

Miniature portraits of loved ones were often worn as bracelets or pendants on ribbons.


From the late 1770s to the early 1790s, women's fashion called for hair frizzed out in wide, tall styles with corresponding large caps and hats, sheer kerchiefs puffed up at the chest, and full skirts held out at the back by rump pads. The whole effect was one of overblown fullness yet with a feeling of buoyancy because lightweight textiles had come into fashion. Some stylish women were the first to wear neoclassically inspired white cotton dresses during this period. Embroidery and painted designs on accessories often incorporated swags of flowers and bowknots.

Accessories responded quickly to changes in fashion. Their modest size meant that people could update an older ensemble with the addition of a few new accessories. As hairstyles got larger in the late 1770s, hats and caps changed in response. One innovation was the large calash, or collapsible bonnet, which was satirized (and exaggerated) by printmakers. Women's shoes continued to be fastened with buckles, although shoes were cut lower to reveal more of the foot. Shoe heels were shaped and curved.


Explore accessories from the 1800s

Fashions changed dramatically around the end of the 18th century. Women began wearing slimmer gowns made of lightweight textiles that draped more closely to the body, sometimes without the benefit of heavy stays underneath. The waistline gradually rose to just under the bust. Although the styles appear graceful and modest by modern standards, they seemed shocking to some who were accustomed to 18th-century gowns with full skirts and covered bodices worn over layers of underwear. Traditionalists criticized the "naked" appearance of women's clothing and the warned against the danger of catching cold in such light garments. At the same time, most women continued to wear underwear, cloaks, and accessories to keep them warm. Shawls, which had not been used much prior to this, became a practical and elegant accessory. Hair was dressed more closely to the head.


Most women's clothing from 1800 to 1820 still had high waistlines and relatively slim silhouettes, though not all gowns were white. Ruffled white collars, sometimes called frills, were especially fashionable accessories; the extensions were tucked down into the neckline, similar to modern dickies. In the 1820s sleeves and skirts gradually got fuller and the waistline dropped once again. Throughout the period, older and more conservative women avoided fashion's extremes, covering themselves with accessories such as shawls, kerchiefs, collars, and caps.


From the mid 1820s to the late 1830s, women's dresses had long sleeves that were very full and wide at the shoulders, but then narrowed sharply toward the wrists. The wide sleeves served as a broad palette for displaying beautifully embroidered white collars or capes, called pelerines. Calash bonnets stiffened with whalebone or reed hoops to keep from the bonnet from flattening the hair returned to fashion. Many women lavished time and skill embellishing their accessories with embroidery, stenciling, artificial flowers, and beadwork.

By 1830, waistlines were at or near the natural waist and skirts were full, in contrast to the previous era when waistlines were high and skirts slim. Hair was worn with curls or waves around the face and high buns positioned at the crown of the head, often ornamented with tortoise combs to emphasize the height and hold the bun in place. Shoes were flat and cut low on the foot, revealing lacy knitted stockings. Small but decorative embroidered handbags were popular accessories.

From the mid 1820s to the late 1830s, women's dresses had long sleeves that were very full and wide at the shoulders, but then narrowed sharply toward the wrists. The wide sleeves served as a broad palette for displaying beautifully embroidered white collars or capes, called pelerines. Calash bonnets stiffened with whalebone or reed hoops to keep from the bonnet from flattening the hair returned to fashion. Many women lavished time and skill embellishing their accessories with embroidery, stenciling, artificial flowers, and beadwork.


Images and information for this online feature come from the "Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe: 1600 to 1840" exhibit, as well as the 2002 "The Language of Clothing" exhibit highlighting Colonial Williamsburg's 18th- and 19-century clothing collection.

About the Accessories exhibit

This exhibition features costume accessories from the late 17th through the early 19th century. Women and men enhanced their appearance with the addition of hats, purses, jewelry, shoes, and more. These objects kept pace with change in fashion and present a visually rich overview of the period. The exhibition is made possible by Mary and Clinton Gilliland of Menlo Park, Calif., and the Turner-Gilliland Family Fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
January 28, 2011, through December 31, 2012, DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.