Shifting Garment Styles, 1750-1790: What Research and Sketching Have in Common
I roll over this analogy in my mind as I work with my study of 1,000 runaway indentured and enslaved women and their 6,000 garments, which I’ve cataloged in a database. See my Textile History article on the Runaway Clothing Database project and a post featuring repeat runaway Eleanor Farrell here.
The data shows that for the whole period 1750-1790, gowns were worn in equal amounts to all other shorter garments. But when you compare 1750-60 with 1780-90, it becomes apparent that shorter garments become more popular with working women toward the end of the focus period.
Now for a parade of pie charts! As a reminder, the populations represented in this study are overwhelmingly mid-Atlantic, with a good showing from the South. Less than 5% of the samples are from New England (the area did not participate heavily in the indentured servant trade and suffered a labor shortage in the late 18th century). I’m not going to get into a discussion here about garment terminology, but do note that “gown (short)” indicates those garments described “short [modifier] gown,” such as “short red Gown.” Note that many shorter garments had different regional labels (wrappers, josies) even if they might have been the same bed gown-like garment. Please note, if you would like to use this data, please quote me and the Runaway Clothing Database. (it helps to talk to me too, if you want more info!)
Upper Body Garments, 1750-1790, from the Runaway Clothing Database. Rebecca Fifield. The “other” category contains a very few sacks, and josies, which were bed gown like garments worn primarily in New York.
Upper Body Garments 1750-1760. Note the higher prevalence of gowns compared to the overall1750-1790 sample. Also note how infrequently the term “short gown” is used. Runaway Clothing Database, Rebecca Fifield.
Upper Body Garments 1780 to 1790. Note the significant shrinkage in the amount of gowns worn compared to short gowns and jackets. Interestingly, notice how bed gown as a term becomes less used, while the usage of the term “short gown” has increased 30% from the 1750-60 sample. Runaway Clothing Database, Rebecca Fifield.
While the two samples for 1750-60 and 1780-90 are small, they are somewhat similarly sized. Interestingly, comparing indentured and enslaved populations also provides contrasts that enhances what we know about the assignment of clothing to enslaved women. European servants wore more full length gowns, while African enslaved women wore almost 30% more jacket length garments.
This data can be analyzed infinitely, and as every historian knows, the variables and inconsistencies can drive you mad, but it’s a start to using that finer brush to study how working women made choices about their dress.