Skip to Content

An 18th Century Woman Gets Dressed

Martha Washington portrait
Martha Washington

I write historical fiction based on the lives of actual women. This involves a great deal of research on the person being profiled and the world in which she lived, as well as information on events that occurred. Saxon Heroines, for example, focused on the lives of four royal women in 7th century Northumbria. Information on these individuals was sparse, and resources related to their material culture — clothing, hairstyles, medicine, diet, activities — was also limited.

My current project involves merchant women in 18th and early 19th century Salem, Massachusetts. In the process, I’ve discovered quite a bit about women’s fashions during the period. The picture of Martha Washington on the left demonstrates a completed outfit, but it took a daily investment of time to achieve that result.

Yes, it can take an entire morning to dress.

The basic and first item of 18th century women’s clothing was a linen shift. Beneath the shift, in modern parlence, women went “commando,” as did men. Above the shift, there were several layers of clothing. Getting dressed, depending on the occasion, could be a lengthy process, and might require assistance.

The shift also doubled as a sleeping garment and was changed daily. Hygiene habits generally applied to washing hands and faces regularly, and perhaps other visible areas, like the neck. Otherwise, the linens protected both body and clothing.

wool petticoat, 1888

For ease, it might be best to sit down and pull on stockings first. These were made of silk, wool, or cotton and ended just above the knee, where they were tied with ribbon garters. Ribbons and straight pins, by the way, seem to be the primary method of fastening clothing.

In the case of silk stockings for dressier occasions, there could be embroidery at the ankles. These designs were called clocks, though they don’t look like a clock.If the woman planned to walk or dance, she tied her stockings below the knee and rolled the upper part of the stocking down in order to further secure it.

Next, the dickey petticoat. This is a knee length garment that was worn for both warmth and modesty. In winter, it might be quilted. [The wool petticoat shown above is actually from 1888.]

Front & back illustration of stays

Next, stays. These created the required sillouette. They gave the wearer a flat back, narrow waist, and raised the bosom. Modern re-enactors say the stays are actually comfortable with good back and chest support. Stays were made with layers of linen and “boned” with whale baleen. They were dropped over the head, and then tied both front and back with the ribbons tied at the sides.

It’s time for pockets. These pouches could be made out of any type of fabric and were often embroidered. The wearer tied a pocket on either side of her waist.

embroidered pocket

Subsequent clothing had side slits so the wearer could reach through to the pocket. Pockets could be used for many things – calling cards, money, special trinkets, keys, or anything a woman wanted to keep with her. Sometimes the ribbons holding the pocket broke, hence rymes like Lucy Locket lost her pocket / Kitty Fisher found it / Not a penny was there in it / Only ribbon round it.

Brocade covered shoes
Decorative Buckles
Dress widened by paniers.

Before adding further layers of clothing, this is a good time for a woman to put on her shoes. These might be covered in plain silk or brocade and have decorative buckles.

Next, the paniers. These are hip pads that lift the skirts and emphasize the waist to make it look smaller. Alternatively, a woman might wear a fully padded petticoat. Either provided the wide-angle look of 18th century skirts.

quilted petticoat

Now it’s time for at least one full length petticoat. In winter there might be a wool petticoat for warmth, followed by a silk petticoat.

A fichu is added over the bosom above the shift. This provides modesty and sun protection. It could be tucked inside the gown or rest over the shoulders.

Next a stomacher. This is pinned to the stays, and fills in the front bodice of the final gown. Some are plain; some embroidered. Some are the same fabric as the gown; others are a contrast.

dress with jacket & shawl

Next the gown petticoat, lined with silk or linen. This is pinned in to place in front of the stomacher.

decorative apron worn over the skirt

Finally, the gown itself. The gown has sleeves, and will be over the petticoat in front and next to the stomacher. The gown in this illustration utilizes a short jacket

And, last but not least, a silk or embroidered muslin apron may be added as a further means to indicate status.

This, by the way, is not special occasion wear.

Dressing for a Walk in 1811

This video gives a good example of how a lady dressed in the early 19th century. Fashion didn’t undergo many changes between 1790 and 1811.

Research Results

Researching 18th and early 19th century fashion gives me a good sense of how the ladies in my current project dressed, and the length of time it took to pull oneself together. My later characters are contemporaries of the women created by Jane Austin.

It’s worth bearing in mind that all women wore some variation of these styles, and that even a “lady” had chores to do.

🎀 🎀 🎀


Martha Washington

Petticoat 1888

Corset, 1770-1790. Jacoba de Jonge Collection in MoMu – Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp, / Photo by Hugo Maertens, Bruges

Illustration of corset ties, front and back ties


Brocade silk covered shoes with straps for buckles.

Fancy buckles.

Woman’s striped silk sack-back jacket (caraco), Europe, c. 1760, altered c. 1780, and embroidered silk petticoat, China for the Western market, c. 1785. Public domain

Silk ‘wedding’ petticoat


Jacket and shawl in chintz, skirt in glazed printed cotton, 1770-1800. Jacoba de Jonge Collection in MoMu – Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp, / Photo by Hugo Maertens, Bruges

Fashion Apron

Lydia Edwards. How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th Century.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.