Something to Wear: a man’s 18th century linen shirt

March 13, 2014 in Resources and Research, Society of Friends: Quakers by M C

Six months ago I bought six yards of linen.  It’s a decent quality linen, and six yards of it, at 64″ in width, is a gracious plenty of linen.  Enough, more than enough since that was the plan, to make a woman’s 18th century shift and a man’s 18th century shirt.  Twice over, since I anticipated, with my limited skills, certain pieces might need to be cut twice.  I tore the length in half, laundered it to make it more 18th century authentic (sizing to stiffen the fabric likely wasn’t something the seamstresses of the day got to use very often) and I prepared myself to cut..

A New England Example by Rhonda McConnon: A white cotton shirt found in New England

Making a Man’s Shirt: translated from taken from Garsault’s L’art du tailleur, published in the 1760

Judith Wicker’s Practical Guide to Making a Man’s 18th Century Military Shirt

There are more than a handful of sites dedicated to the authentic reproduction of 18th century garments and in very short order I ran smack into an insolvable problem: the fabric is modern width.  Why, you may ask, is this a problem?  It’s a problem because garments of the period used the width of the fabric for the main body, which means the sides, which will be seamed together, are made up of the selvage edge of the fabric.  This it turn means no extra stitching or seaming need be done to keep the edges from unraveling.  Thus less bulk under the arms, and along the side of the body.  Mind you, both men and women will be stuffing a garment roughly 60″ in circumference into their close fitting outer garments, so a little extra bulk seems a minor issue, but this seemingly minor issue knocked my plans into a cocked hat… and so the linen languishes, waiting for me to come to terms with its inauthentic width.

Watch Colonial Williamsburg’s Video on making a woman’s dress from authentically reproduced silk fabric (video: Dress in a Day p. 1)

I’d just about decided to go ahead and cut, even if I can anticipate a fair amount of waste (I can always make the extra width into dish towels) when Fiona McCade announced she did, in fact, have something to wear.

McCade, writing for the Scotsman, titled her piece “Lighter wardrobe way to a man’s heart,” which rather misses the point of the piece, since the man in her life very much wanted to buy her a dress.  But like most of us McCade doesn’t just have clothes in her closet.  She has a lot of clothes in her closet.  And has discovered some scary statistics when it comes to women and their clothes.  Apparently the average Western woman now owns 400 per cent more garments than her counterpart did 30 years ago.  Thirty years ago? That’s 1984.  A good 40 years after the rationing of WWII and the privations of the Depression.  1984 is a time of relative prosperity, so the statistic isn’t skewed by war or an economic collapse.  We now have 400% more clothes in our drawers and closets than we did 30 years ago.

Furthermore, according to the Scottish McCade, women need to find room in their closets for four-and-a-half stone’s worth of new clothes every year.

In translation? If my math is correct 4.5 stone is 65 pounds of new clothing purchases every year.  Year after year.  Between the ages of 20 and 40 the average woman purchases more than half a ton of clothing. No wonder there is an entire industry devoted to building ever larger closets with more cubbies, poles, and drawers, for clothing storage.  And another growing industry dedicated to doing nothing but removing and recycling clothing from those very closets.

Now, I have an issue with shoes.  I’ve spent a lifetime looking for comfortable shoes and finally, when I turned 50, I discovered the secret to comfortable shoes: you pay a fortune for footwear and likely you’ll find the shoes fit, the leather is appropriately flexible, and you’re not spending half your day thinking about your aching feet.

As a consequence of my late discovery of decent footwear I have an entire shelf full of shoes I can’t bear to throw out.. and I won’t wear.

As a further consequence I have another shelf of footwear, many more pairs of shoes than I can expect to wear out in my lifetime, of shoes which do fit and I love wearing.  Having discovered footwear that fits I find myself going a little crazy every time the company posts a sale.

Even so, I can, with a twinge of smugness, state with some certainty I don’t buy 65 pounds of clothing a year, even if my shoes are included.

That said, I’m quite certain I have blouses, skirts, slacks, sportscoats, suits, sweaters… well in excess of life expectancy.  I tend to buy myself a little something when things go on sale.  Over time?  That adds up.  It adds up to, in a word, excess.

In two words: excess consumption.

I have a fashion habit.  The fact that my habit runs to the button down conservative Brooks Brothers oxford and sweater set look instead of something by H&M isn’t relevant.  I have the same shopping addiction Fiona observed when she peeped into her own closet and discovered she does, in fact, have something to wear.


Fashion, cheap fashion, has become a resource consumptive nightmare, an excuse for third world labor exploitation, and this addiction to fashion, especially cheaply made fashion, explains the collapse of the American (and UK) textile industries.  We’ve become, inundated by the cheap as we are, ticket adverse.. why buy one piece of Harris Tweed when we can pay a third that for a wool/poly blend imitation?

True, the jacket will look tatty before the end of its first season, whereas if you’d bought the Harris Tweed your daughter will be coveting it a dozen years from now, but you can have three jackets, instead of one.  And perish the thought.. what if you get bored with the one? We can’t have that now can we?

I’d like to think I’m not part of the problem, a careful consumer, but I am part of the problem.  And now I have a pile of linen here I fully intend to turn into a shirt or shift I will likely wear once.  For a photograph.  And perhaps not even for that if the material is as transparent in a garment as I think it is.  And then it will hang in my closet until some poor sod is tasked with emptying the house after I’ve turned up my toes and am fertilizing the daisies.

As a Quaker I am called upon to embrace simplicity and “plain dress.”  Friends abandoned strict plain dress (although the Amish, Mennonite, and other coservative Christian sects continue to wear plain garb) a very long time ago, but I, and a good many other Quakers, remain leery of ostentatious dress. It isn’t precisely proscribed, but it isn’t something which fits into my vision of myself as a Quaker. For almost two decades my only jewelry has been my wedding band.  I recently added a bracelet as a tribute to my grandmother, and a silver ring to support another Outlander artist, The Author’s Attic.

And yet my closets and drawers are crammed with clothing.  Conservative clothing, but enough clothing so I’m a little frightened to pull it all out and throw it on a scale lest I discover I have, in fact, acquired on average 65 pounds of clothes a year over the past couple of decades.

From a problem of fabric width my 18th century shirt challenge has morphed into a question of consumption, excess, and conflict with the simplicity I’m called upon to embrace in my life.  All in a pile of white linen.  Or, as my husband put it watching me fold and unfold the linen “this is why there are only two of you Quakers left in the whole county… nothing is ever simple with you.”

I think he missed the irony there.

Alexis de Toqueville, writing his observations after traveling in New England in the 1770s, remarked on New Englanders “they will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful and insist the beautiful be useful.”  Beautiful as a white linen 18th century shirt or shift might be, it isn’t going to be useful.

What would you make from this linen which reflects 18th century style and is both useful, and beautiful?

Read more about modern Quaker thought on plain dress: My Experiments With Plainness   or Crossroads Friends Plain Friends Page

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