Ordinary women in the 18th century had a lot of work to do. There were no washing machines, dishwashers, ultra modern kitchen equipment, and other conveniences that are available for a female today. So, working women or peasant women wore comfy but modest clothing. At the same time, their daily outfit was elegant, despite its simplicity and plainness. Let’s have a look at how the 18th-century working woman dressed up.
The layer worn next to the skin was the “shift”. This was made from linen – and washable. It also served as a night dress. Cleanliness mattered – the shift was changed as often as was practical. And women would usually have two shifts as a minimum. A simple daily wash was probably usual.
Drawers were not necessary for privacy as the petticoats were many, long, and hung close to the body.
Socks and shoes
Women wore knitted stockings that drew up over the knee. They were sometimes embellished with a design called “clocks” which helped conceal the seam at the ankle. A simple garter was tied beneath the knee to hold them in place.
Shoes were low and practical. It was important to put on the stockings and shoes before the stays, as they made it difficult, once laced, for the woman to reach her feet with ease.
The purpose of stays in the 18th century was to support the bust rather than to restrict the waist. The stays created a fashionable outline, which also mattered to the working woman. Working stays were plain, had less stiffening, and could lace up both front and back – for ease of dressing and movement. These stays were sometimes called a “pair of bodice”.
The addition of a stomacher at the front, concealing any gap, made them seemly, should the woman need to remove layers due to heat or hard work.
Pockets were bags, worn singly or in pairs, tied about the waist by a cord or ribbon. They could be accessed through openings in the side of the petticoats.
The petticoats were very simply made from two rectangles of fabric, gathered or pleated into a waistband front and back, with long ties. Gaps were left at the sides to reach into the pockets. This style of the petticoat was adjustable and would cope with pregnancy and the return of the figure without new clothes being required.
The outermost petticoat was hardwearing. It may have been made in a brighter color wool, or even a printed linen or cotton.
In winter, a quilted petticoat was often worn.
The petticoat hem finished above the ankle, at a height which allowed a woman to climb or descend the stairs with her arms free for carrying.
Hairdos and neckerchiefs
Hair was usually brushed back and tied up and out of the way at the back of the head.
A neckerchief was worn to cover the low neckline, for warmth, or to protect the skin from the sun. This could be tucked into the stays at the front to keep it in place.
A jacket or short gown was worn over the stays and petticoats. This could be simply and safely closed with straight pins that wove through the fabric with the point tucked inwards, towards the sturdy stays. This was another adjustable garment that could cope with a changing figure. The jacket sleeves were short ending at a practical below-elbow level.
In winter, long fingerless knitted gloves were worn to make up the gap left by the short jacket sleeves.
An apron was a vital part of working dress. It helped to keep the clothes clean, offered a place to wipe hands, and protect them when carrying hot pots. Aprons also provided a means of carrying bulky spillable goods, such as vegetables or logs.
A white linen cap was usually worn in public. It was kept in place by ties or, if the woman could afford it, a pretty colored silk ribbon tied into a bow at the top of the head.
Hooded cloaks or riding hoods were the usual outdoor wear for all women. From the mid-18th to the early 19th century, scarlet wool cloaks became so popular with English country women that they are the closest England came to a traditional dress. The cloak was sometimes called a “cardinal” because of its bright-red color.
The cloaks are also immortalized in the nursery tale Little Red Riding Hood.