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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Colonial Clothing for the Common Person by Cynthia Howerter

What type of clothing did common people wear during Colonial times?  A visit to Colonial Williamsburg gave me the opportunity to observe and photograph several local folks.

While walking down Duke of Gloucester Street, I encountered a blacksmith (photo below) taking a break from his hot forge.  He wore a traditional white linen shirt that could also serve as a nightshirt.  In addition to breeches and coarsely knitted stockings, the blacksmith sported a thick leather apron tied around his waist for protection from flying sparks.

Note that his black felt hat has a round brim rather than being tri-cornered, and his feet are shod in simple black leather, low-heeled shoes with a brass buckle for tightening.

A colonial blacksmith

How did colonial men (and women) keep their stockings from falling down?  A single leather garter near the top of the stocking held the stocking in place.

Leather garters with buckles

Further down the street, I met a man who said he'd come into town on business.  While his clothing is more refined than that of the blacksmith, his crude walking stick – made from a tree branch – lets us know that he's from a more rural area.

A visitor from the countryside comes to town

The man's hat is tri-cornered, and at his neck, we see a hint of a white shirt with a plain collar.  Covering his shirt is what we might call a vest, but in colonial times, it was referred to as a “waistcoat.”  A plain beige coat is worn over the waistcoat.  Like the blacksmith, this gentleman is wearing breeches and stockings.  A leather-encased flask and a black leather pouch are strung under his shoulders. 

Because colonial men's clothing had few, if any, pockets, men had to use leather pouches or cloth haversacks - like the ones someone hung on a fence below - to carry their personal items, such as keys.

Haversacks made from fabric

Colonial women's clothing also lacked pockets, but the ladies were quite inventive.  Their pockets were attached to a fabric belt that was tied around the waist and allowed the pocket to rest against the woman's hip.  Women's pockets were worn under the outermost skirt - better known as a "petticoat."  The petticoat had a slit in the side seam allowing the woman to reach inside to her pocket. 

A woman's pocket

Sometimes women wore a pocket on both hips as two pockets served to make the woman look more, ahem, symmetrical.

This woman is wearing a pocket on each hip which makes her look symmetrical

Near the edge of town, I met two laborers who were on their way home after a long work day.  The young man is dressed similarly to the blacksmith except that he’s wearing a waistcoat over his plain white shirt.  The woman is clad in simple loose clothing.  A white cap covers her head, keeping her hair away from her face and from being exposed to dirt.  Both workers are wearing crude leather shoes fastened with ties rather than buckles.  When working, ties did a better job of keeping a shoe on a foot. 

Colonial laborers on their way home after work

Perhaps on a future visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I'll find some shop keepers and gentry, and we'll be able to look at their outfits.

All photographs ©2013 Cynthia Howerter

Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter loves using her training in education, research, writing, and speaking to teach and inspire others about a time in America that was anything but boring. A member of the Daughters of the American revolution (DAR), Cynthia believes history should be alive and personal.

Visit Cynthia's website: Cynthia Howerter - all things historical 


  1. I enjoyed your post, Cynthia. It always impresses me how these folks will wear the same type and material of clothing as was worn in the colonial period even on hot summer days.

    1. Some of the people told Cynthia and me that they were comfortable, Janet. Those natural fabrics can be more wicking than some modern ones!

  2. Wonderful article, Cynthia! I love the pictures and the descriptions. Thank you for this personal tour of Colonial Williamsburg!

    1. Cynthia is Mother of the Bride this week and unable to comment so I am her pinch hitter. We have so much fun when we go there, together, Joan. I think we spend a lot of time laughing as well as doing research!

  3. Thank you, Cynthia, for an informative, interesting post. I haven't been to Williamsburg in 20 years when I chaperoned my son's high school trip. But I daydream about going back. Wouldn't it be fun if the CACW ladies could have a "road trip" there and maybe combine it with our own writing workshop?

  4. Oh, this is a delightful post. You even have a picture of DAVE! I love how helpful they are with costumes and information in Colonial Williamsburg. Thanks for the info!


    1. Jessica, tell us more about Dave! We had such fun talking with folks the day Cynthia and I visited CW for an article that we could quickly get up for the Mother of the Bride, Cynthia. We were supposed to do one about King's Arms Tavern but I got sidetracked this past week by a bunch of drs. appointments and sweet Cynthia did this great article!

    2. Dave was fascinating and so much fun to talk to. He educated me how to seal my letters with wax, the alphabet during the 1800's (J and U didn't exist back then. The legendary Jester who is the basis for the Hotch Potch dolls and cards who make all the letters). How to master some of the traditional toys that always seem so daunting and an abundance of other things.
      CW is one of my very favorite places on earth, and as a writer who hopes and dreams of this time period who hopes to write in this genre someday, I just love the articles on this blog!
      If you ever get a chance to talk with Mrs. Vobe (the keeper of The Kings Arms Tavern) she is a delightful woman (who also does an amazing job doubling as Martha Washington! OH DELIGHTFUL DELIGHTFUL DELIGHTFUL woman to talk with). Here is a brief post (should you happen to be interested) from my latest trip to that delightful city.
      Thanks for all of the delightful posts!

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  5. It was a lot of fun running around Colonial Williamsburg with you Cynthia! Do you think we'll ever get our tavern article written? Or will we keep having to go back for more research? Blessings!

  6. Loved this post!! Thanks for sharing, Cynthia! :-D (And to Carrie for standing in on comments!)

  7. I have always wanted to visit there! Someday. :) Great post - so interesting to see the outfits. I don't know that I would like so many layers, though.

  8. Enjoyed the post - interesting! I love touring Colonial villages, haven't been to Williamsburg (someday, maybe), but have been to others. Thanks!

  9. Love this! Since most of the characters in my novels are plain folk, I appreciate you sharing their traditional garb by roaming the streets of Williamsburg and clicking photos. It was quite informative. And congrats on being Mother-of-the-Bride!!


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