DISTAFF GUIDELINES

Although we portray two regiments of Scottish Highlanders, our primary loyalty is to the British army. While we might be Scottish women, we should keep in mind that much of what we, in the 21st century, view as evidence of Scottish heritage came from the Victorian era, or from the media’s portrayal of ancient Celtic culture. The concept of “clan tartan” is one from the 19th century, and is not appropriate to our portrayal, nor are clan badges or the like. In general, we should reflect the accepted dress of 18th century British working woman. 

Clothing Basics

1. Cap
Women wore caps to keep their hair clean and covered while working. There are a wide variety of styles, but caps were nearly universally white linen. Check with the chief distaff for appropriate patterns. Note: bangs on women were rare, and in general, the cap should be worn so as to cover the majority of the hair. 

2. Shift
The shift is the basic undergarment for women. It is worn for sleeping, for bathing, and taken off only to change into a clean shift.  Shifts are white or a very light beige (due to being made of homespun). Linen is preferred, but muslin is acceptable. If muslin, use white. The “natural colored” muslin sold today is not the right color. Sleeves should be just below the elbow. This length keeps them from sliding down too far if the drawstrings come untied, and interfering with your work. Keep in mind, fabric was costly. The fuller the sleeve, the more fabric. Working women should have enough fullness for comfort, but a “billowing” sleeve is a safety hazard. A wealthy woman might have lace or ruffles at the neck and sleeve ends. However, lace “eyelet” is a 19th century Victorian style and not 18th century correct. The shift is generally mid-calf in length.

3. Pockets
18th century clothing was not constructed with sewn in pockets, so most women wore either a single pocket, or a pair of pockets tied at the waist.  Pockets were worn underneath the petticoat and reached through slits in the garment.

4. Petticoats
Today, we would refer to this as a skirt, but in the 18th century, women wore petticoats, usually more than one, over the shift. Petticoats can have either a fixed waistband or a drawstring, have slits at the side seams for accessing pockets, and are generally anywhere from floor- length to mid-calf in length, Petticoats should be full enough to work comfortably in them. Two lengths of fabric 50 to 60 inches wide can be simply stitched together along the selvages and then gathered into a waistband, concentrating the fullness toward the hips. Fabric 35 or 40 inches wide should probably include three or more panels for the necessary fullness. When working around a fire, wearing petticoats at ankle length or a little shorter is safer.  Think of carrying a child, or a load of firewood up a hill or stairs, and recognize you won’t have a free hand to hold up the edge of your petticoat. Remember too that it was a Victorian attitude that one’s ankles should not be exposed, and that 18th century women would be more concerned with safety, or perhaps showing off new shoe buckles! When it was cold, a woman might wear several petticoats. Frequently, the top petticoat was worn “hitched up” on the sides or pulled through the pocket slits. 

5. Gown
The gown consists of a fairly fitted bodice and sleeves just below the elbow with “skirts” of varying lengths. Working women often wore a short gown which is a little longer than hip-length. A caraco has skirts of knee length, often with the skirts tied up on the sides to create the width that was fashionable at the time. Gowns are fastened together in the front using pins, ties that tie inside the garment, or hooks and eyes. Buttons were not used. A bed jacket or bed gown is a more loosely fitting gown around knee length worn for “undress.” Undress refers to informal “at home” wear or working wear. Again, linen is preferred, although gowns for more formal occasions might be printed cotton or silk.

6. Apron
Aprons are an essential component of the working woman’s clothing. A camp follower’s apron is sturdy and functional; a wealthy woman might wear a lacy or delicate apron. Aprons were often white, but can also be striped or checked. They were often made to be reversible for greater wear, and are knee-length or longer. Linen is preferred, but muslin or homespun cotton is acceptable. Ties should be long enough to wrap around the back and then bring forward to tie in the front. When carrying heavy loads in the apron, this method distributes the weight more effectively.

7. Kerchief
Women usually wore a kerchief around the neck for warmth or protection from the sun. The kerchief can be of many styles: a large square of fabric (35″-40″ square), folded into a triangle, and tied around the neck or tucked in the front of the gown, or a large rectangular cloth that crosses in front and tucks into the waistband. Often white, kerchiefs can also be of other colors or checked. As always, linen is preferred, but homespun cotton is acceptable.

8. Hose
Hose are generally a solid color, and are knitted of cotton or wool. Hose often reach to mid-thigh, but can be secured with garters of leather or ribbon either just above or just below the knee, whichever is more comfortable.

9. Shoes
Camp followers wear sturdy shoes of rough leather with rounded toes and lower heels. Shoes can be fastened with buckles or tied with a cord or piece of leather. The purchase of historically correct shoes is a large expense, and improperly fitting shoes can make a camp follower’s life miserable. It’s best to consult with a knowledgeable member of the group before purchasing shoes. In some cases, it may be possible to adapt modern shoes to create an acceptable impression.

10.  Stays
Women of all classes wore stays for support and shape. A woman of fashion and leisure wore tightly laced, fully boned, and highly decorated stays designed to produce a rigid cone-shaped torso. Working women wore stays which were less tightly laced, and perhaps only half- boned. These stays are helpful for support in lifting heavy cooking pots or carrying loads of wood. Stays could lace either in the front or the back, or both, and could be strapless or with straps, although current research notes that working women usually wore strapless stays. The purchase of stays is another significant expense, and constructing one’s own stays is time-consuming. Again, consultation with knowledgeable women in the group is advised. It is important to remember that stays are a part of a woman’s undergarments, and should generally not be worn without a gown or other covering.

Useful Extras

1. Gloves or mitts
Mitts are fingerless gloves and were often used When finger dexterity was needed. Remember that even houses were poorly heated, so mitts were not just for outdoor use.

2. Eyeglasses
Nothing destroys a good 18th century impression like a pair of modern, plastic eyeglasses. Contacts can cause problems around a smoky fire, so women who must have vision correction to be functional will need historically correct frames fitted with their prescription. Frames should be small, silver or gold in color, and have straight temple pieces. Usually, the temples are hinged, and end in an open loop through which a ribbon can be threaded to keep the glasses on the face. Flexible temples with curved ends which hook around the ears are a 19th century style more appropriate to the Civil War.

3. Hat
A broad straw hat is essential for keeping the sun off your face and shoulders. Modern sun block is a good idea too! Appropriate hats had full brims and very short crowns, and were often decorated with ribbon and tied behind the head. Hats are worn over a cap.
Current research shows that silk bonnets were more plentiful than the straw hat for women of the time period. 

4. Cloak
A warm cloak is useful for colder events, although a folded blanket pinned around the shoulders is perfectly acceptable. Note that the term “cape” refers to the collar or small piece of fabric that covers the shoulders. A cloak, made of wool, can range from hip length to full length (think working length, however!), and was often red, gray, brown, or blue. Full hoods were common, and the cloak could be lined with silk.  

5. Moccasins
The correct style for this time period is a plain, often wool lined, leather moccasin with a center seam. Moccasins with fringe or beads or with a seam encircling the foot are not correct. Moccasins can be great to slip into at the end of the day or at night to make a trip down to the “necessary.” They can also be a good alternative to expensive shoes for children. 

Not Recommended

1. The “Bodice”
Although you will see them everywhere, there is really no historical documentation for the sleeveless vest-like garment that laces up the front. A garment of a similar construction, but boned, might have been worn as a substitute for stays by a pregnant or nursing woman, or by a woman engaged in hard labor, but it would have been properly worn under a gown or other garment, not alone. “Ye Olde Colonial Wench” look with a sleeveless, low-cut bodice and off-the-shoulder shift is simply not historically correct, nor is a similar look using what would ordinarily be perfectly acceptable stays, but worn without any other covering. Let us simply say that the proper wives of British soldiers would not be walking around camp in their underwear.

2. The “Mobcap”
Again, you’ll see this item on “Ye Olde Co1onial Wench” and on hundreds of docents at historical sites, however, the round “shower cap” style cap with a drawstring (or worse yet, elastic) to tighten it around the head, is also not historically correct.

3. Print Fabric
Working women were much more likely to wear plain woven fabrics or simple stripes or checks. Prints were usually created on silk or cotton using a block printing method that was expensive. For camp wear, stay away from prints. For dressy wear, research prints carefully.  Prints were often large, and anything resembling a small calico is not appropriate to the period.

 

RESOURCES ON WOMEN’S CLOTHING