This week, we delve into our collections to investigate some fascinating fashions from across the centuries. London Fashion Week took place late last month while today marks the final day of Paris Fashion Week. Just as they do in the 21st century, those two cities represented cultures that helped determine the height of fashion in the 18th century. To us today, fashions of the past may consist of strange terms, foreign garments, or archaic customs. In this post, Lives & Legacies contributors come together to salvage some fashions from the pages of history in an appreciation of both them and of the people who wore them.
To most of us today, the term “petticoat” refers to a ladies’ undergarment – a fabric support for a skirt, intended to give the skirt more fullness or volume. Petticoats have essentially disappeared from our modern wardrobes but, for 400 years, petticoats were a staple of female dress and weren’t always hidden under skirts.
The earliest references to petticoats show up in the Middle Ages. Only they weren’t worn by women. And they weren’t skirts. A “petty coat” referred to a short (“petty”) robe (“coat”) that was padded and worn under a knight’s armor or chain mail. Eventually, the term “skirt” was used to describe the tails of men’s petty coats (“the skirts of his petty coat hung so long they touched the ground”), and was also used to describe typical women’s attire, just as we use it today. By the 16th century, somehow women’s skirts and men’s petty coats became synonymous, and as time went by and men ceased wearing petty coats, the word “petticoat” referred entirely to a woman’s skirt. Petticoats could be worn as stand-alone skirts, or under open-front robes, creating a two-part dress. By the mid-19th century, petticoats were no longer seen and became an undergarment worn under an all-encompassing dress, mostly to add structure to the voluminous skirts that had become popular by then.
In the 1700s, women often wore quilted petticoats under those open-front robes or as stand-alone skirts. In either case, the quilted petticoat was intended to showcase intricate handiwork in the quilted pattern. Geometric patterns, birds, flowers and even pastoral scenes were all common themes for quilted petticoats, which had an added bonus of providing extra warmth.
One quilted petticoat dating to approximately 1760 survives in our collection. Made of peach satin silk with wool batting between the two layers, it is quilted in a chevron pattern above an undulating band, below which is an assortment of flowers and leaves. Although it appears that this particular petticoat was made over several times in its life, there are indications that it was originally intended be worn over a dome-shaped hoop skirt, which probably means that it was worn under an open-front robe for a more formal dress. The wearer would have been at the height of 18th century fashion!
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
Corsets have been a fashion mainstay in women’s clothing throughout history. Like petticoats, they have changed their shape, material and purpose but, unlike petticoats, they have always been a very personal and private garment. From the 15th to the 18th century, corsets contained a small sliver of stiff material called a busk or busk board. The busk was made of wood, ivory, or bone and measured between 12 to 16 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide. They were inserted into a special narrow pocket in the front of the corset to keep the garment straight and upright.
Given the intimate location of the busk they were often given as tokens from lovers and contained elaborate carvings. Hearts, cupids, and initials were favorite and common motifs inscribed on the busk. The board in our collection is made out of wood in a long rectangle shape with round end. On the surface are etched a pinwheel, a fleur-de-lis, six flowers petal enclosed in a circle, and a square with a diamond carved design all surrounded by a cross-hatched edging. At the end is inscribed “B.L. 1785” with a sprig of leaves.
Perhaps, unlike pretty petticoats and busk boards, when we today think of footwear in the colonial era, we often think of pedestrian black leather. This might have been sufficient for the puritans of New England, who were typically adverse to bright colors and flashy clothes. Here in Virginia, however, where London fashions were king, the style conscience demanded something more. Much like today, there were shoes meant for work and shoes meant to impress. Linen shoes, like the ones in our collection, would have certainly impressed.
In our collection we have three versions of 18th century ladies’ shoes: black shoes from the late 1770s which have a pointed vamp and an Italian heel; a silk and linen pair from the 1760s; and, finally, an embroidered linen pair with a white rand and leather-covered English heel. All were the height of fashion in the 1700s and perfect for showing off at a fine evening of dance, a Sunday at church, or even at home while company was visiting. Like all shoes in the 1700s, a trained shoemaker made them by hand. Although there were journeyman and master shoemakers in the colonies, the finest worked in London and shipped their merchandise across the Atlantic. While certain elements of these shoes are ubiquitous such as the thin leather soles, wooden heels, straps for fine buckles, and a linen base, eighteenth century shoes were like the shoes of today varying in style, color, material, and purpose.
Personally, my favorite aspect of these shoes is how contemporary they truly are. While they seem like a foreign footwear from a bygone era, anyone who has splurged on the perfect pair of boots, fashionable flats, or even stylish sneakers can relate to the original owners of these beautiful artifacts.
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services
“Pink Lightning”! Meteorogically speaking, it is a distinctive type of lightning that is exceptionally loud and generates a unique purple-pink color. But in the world of fashion, “Pink Lightning” was the color name created by Revlon for a line of beauty products in 1944. Face powder, nail polish, and lipstick were available in this shade for women who wanted to sport a distinctive, high voltage color on their lips and nails.
While most of this post has focused on 18th century fashion, both Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm have long histories beyond the 1700s. We often unearth objects that span 300 years during archaeological excavations. Indeed, during the summer of 2014, an intact tube of 20th century lipstick was excavated. The product label – “Revlon – Pink Lightning”- was still legible on the base of the wartime-inspired bullet-shaped casing, and remnants of the crème lipstick still surprisingly survived inside the tube. Someone, sometime, pulled out her lipstick tube, dabbed ‘Pink Lightning” on her lips, and promptly dropped it on the ground to be lost for nearly 70 years.
Lipstick is the ultimate fashion accessory. As the very last beauty product applied before heading out the door, it is usually the finishing touch to an outfit. The world of fashion is not only about clothing, but just as much about the hair and makeup created to complement and highlight fashionable outfits. Wearing “Pink Lightning” lipstick would certainly suggest a fashion image that was “electrifying!”
Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor
 Baumgarten, Linda. Eighteenth Century Clothing at Williamsburg. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986.