The 18th Century Short Gown.

By: Victoria Brady, aka thehistoricfoodie

I’d like to introduce the 18th century short gown.  Short gowns could be very plain for doing hard work or made of nicer fabric and even trimmed with ruffles or ruching for wear in any, other than very dressy/formal, occasions. Judging from the mentions found in early writings they seem to have been especially popular in America where the weather could get quite hot.

In 1786, Ann Warder wrote a letter to her sister in London when she arrived in New York in 1786.  “The women all wear short gowns, a custom so truly ugly that I am mistaken if I ever fall into it.  Notwithstanding they say I shall soon be glad to do it on account of the heat”. 

An inventory Jamieson quoted from contained “Item ane schort gown of sad cramasy velvott”.  Other descriptions included:  a red short-gown, striped; a silk skirt and a white short-gown, ruffled all round; white as a snow-drift; pretty short-gown with its crimped ruffles; “…her short-gown was rather coarse, but she had worked a vine down the front and ruffled it all round”.

“…the cook gave me money to buy her two yards and a half of cotton to make her a short gown: I asked Sarah Ryley for two yards and a half of cotton…” Proceedings of the Old Baily, Feb 24, 1748.

“a Homespun Short Gown with different coloured Stripes” (Parker’s New-York Gazette, February 26, 1761)

“three short Calicoe Gowns, one of them double” (Pennsylvania Gazette, July 23, 1761)

“a black, red and white striped Linsey-woolsey short Gown” (1763, cited in What Clothes Reveal)

“a calicoe short gown stamped with red and white lines running through the same” (cited in What Clothes Reveal)

“a stuff cross bared short gown” (The Pennsylvania Journal, February 23, 1764)

“a double purple and white Callico short Gown, both sides alike” (The New-York Gazette, June 27, 1765)

“a black and blue striped Linsey short Gown” (The Pennsylvania Gazette, June 5, 1766

“2 short gowns, the one white linen, the other dark calicoe, both new” (Pennsylvania Gazette, November 13, 1766)

“a homespun blue and white striped short Gown” (Documents relating …, The Pennsylvania Gazette, November 5, 1767)

“a striped linsey short gown and petticoat” (Virginia Gazette, July 20, 1769)

“had on when she went away an oznabrigs shift, a green half thick petticoat, a striped holland gown, and callico short gown.” (Virginia Gazette, August 3, 1769)

“an old black and white striped linsey short gown” (Pennsylvania Gazette, May 3, 1770)

“two short Gowns or Jackets striped” (The Boston Gazette, June 25, 1770)

“strip’d short gown” (Connecticut Gazette, July 20, 1770)

“The mother had on a short gown and petticoat of dark blue broad striped linsey, the daughter had a new shift, two tow ditto, linsey short gown and petticoat” (Pennsylvania Journal, September 20, 1770)

“striped new linen blue and white short gown” (Connecticut Gazette, July 2, 1771)

“two short gowns, one red calicoe, the other a darkish stamped one” (The Pennsylvania Gazette, October 28, 1772)

“had on, and took with her, a short black calico gown” (Virginia Gazette, October 22, 1772)

“had on a short striped Virginia cloth gown and petticoat, oznabrig shift and bonnet” (Virginia Gazette, November 19, 1772)

“took with her two short Gowns, one striped blue and white, the other Callicoe with red Flowers” (The New York Gazette, 1773)

“had on a short gown and petticoat made of linsey black and white stripes” (The New Jersey Gazette, June 6, 1781)

Short-gowns were worn by trades women, farm women, tavern keepers, and any woman who wanted comfortable clothing.  “Always” and “never” usually have no place in historic writing, however, in the following case they were penned during the eighteenth century making them worthy of attention.  “All wives of tradesmen wore short-gowns of green baize – the same their daughters too”.  They are sometimes found in advertised descriptions of runaway slaves or indentured servants.  – Gehret.

John Jamieson said in his Scottish Dictionary and Supplement, 1825, a short-gown was a gown with short skirts worn by female cottagers and servants.  He said it was commonly worn through the day, sometimes with long, and sometimes with short sleeves.  He went on to say a curtoush was a bed-gown, as worn by females of a higher rank. 

Edwin James wrote of Missouri Indian women wearing a garment he called a short-gown.  “A few are covered by the more costly attire of coarse red or blue cloth, ornamented with a profusion of blue and white beads:  the short gown of this dress has the addition of wide sleeves descending below the elbow; its body is of a square form, with a transverse slit in the upper edge for the head to pass through…”.  – “An Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains”.  1823.

Seminole Indian women were also noted wearing, “a petticoat and short gown, like the white women.  The cotton of which they are made, is manufactured by the whites; but they are their own tailoresses.”

Sally Wister was a Quaker from a well to do family in Philadelphia, but seems to have been much more concerned with her appearance and clothing than most un-worldly Quakers.  She wrote in her journal about being frustrated when an officer rode up unexpectedly and she was wearing a greenish skirt and dark short gown during the Revolution. 

John Russell Bartlett’s description was, “a short gown with hardly any skirt, worn by women when doing household work, as washing, &c.”

In researching short gowns, we find they weren’t always short meaning hip lengthThey were sometimes almost knee length and frequently termed bed-gowns.  Very short, waist-length, versions are post-Revolutionary War era and much more suitable for the 1812 period.

The one common denominator seems to be that they were cut out of one piece of fabric and then fitted to the body with pleats and/or drawstrings.  There might also be gussets to add volume to a hemline or under arm area. As such, there is a fair amount of variation among these garments.

Because period fabric wasn’t quite as wide as that of today, it was common to piece the sleeves when long sleeves were desired.  The term short gown is found from 1750 into the 19th century.  Sometimes the jackets were cut larger and pleated in back to add interest.  I’m wearing a short-gown and petticoat in this photo.  The only seam is up the front and that was split after the garment was cut out.  There is a box pleat from neck to waistline in back that can’t really be seen in the photo.  The fabric is cotton calico.  Notice there are few colors in the fabric, and it is not overly detailed.  The design is repeated.

Here’s why the short gown is the perfect starter garment and will continue to serve well throughout time:

Ease of sewing.  This garment is the easiest there is to make.  If you can sew a straight seam, you can make a short gown.  It is often not lined which in itself simplifies construction.  Anyone can sew this up by hand almost as quickly as using a machine.  I will be happy to explain how to fold the fabric so that it comes out in one piece.

Accuracy:  This garment is accurate for the Rev War period.  You can wear it any time and know that you are authentically dressed for the time period we represent. 

Expense:  This is also the least expensive upper garment you can make.  It takes very little fabric.  Appropriate fabrics are linen, wool, cotton, or a blend like linsey-woolsey.

Dressed up or down:  The short gown can be very simple and made out of sturdy cotton fabric or made out of a nice period calico (flower or stripe).  It can be plain or trimmed with a ruffle, have long or shorter sleeves, etc.

Last, but certainly not least – COMFORT:  It closes in front with two simple ties that are run through a casing which also gather it for a better fit.  Equally correct, it can pinned shut with large straight pins easily found from historic traders.  A thorough examination of these garments reveals no evidence of buttons, buttonholes, snaps, hooks-and-eyes, or zipper.  How simple can it get?

The pattern is laid on the folds so that the one long side is on the lengthwise double fold line, and the sleeve is on the top (across) double folded line.

The following are all original garments from the 1770s-1790s.  I chose them to illustrate the diversity of making this jacket.  

V&A Museum Collection

Published by thehistoricfoodie

I write articles for various magazines and books about foods and cooking techniques. My work centers primarily around historic foods and I travel throughout the country doing cooking demonstrations at various local, state, and national venues and teaching an occasional period cooking class. I've done cooking demonstrations on national and local television, including Chicago's WGN.

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