Women’s dress and lifestyle in the 18th century in New France would have been less restrained than their European counterparts. Their skirts were shorter, the colors and prints were much bolder, and many times a woman on the frontier would (horrors!) let her stays show while working. The basic rule of propriety was that a virtuous woman kept her head covered out of reverence to the Lord and her elbows covered out of deference to custom and a Frenchman’s lust. It mattered not that her skirts were hiked up to walk through the mud, her bodice was cut revealingly low or her ankles showed, as long as her head and elbows were covered. A list of women’s clothing follows below.
Infants wore a chemise which was open at the back and held closed with straight pins or ties. The cut-out piece in the front, where the opening was cut for the head, was left attached and hanging and used as a bib. Babies wore various caps on their heads, also. Little girls and boys less than five years old wore a chemise cut like a woman’s chemise, with a jacket or robe over it. These would be made of cotton, linen, or wool. Girls and boys would also wear stays, believe it or not! These were deemed necessary to give support to their young, growing bodies, and encourage proper posture. Once the child reached the age of five or so, they would begin wearing miniature versions of their parents’ clothing. For good information on making garments for children, refer to Suzanne and Andre Gousse’s Costume in New France From 1740 to 1760, and to Beth Gilgun’s Tidings From the 18th Century.
Men’s civilian clothing included a shirt or smock of linen, hemp, or cotton, usually white, with narrow cuffs, short collar, and reinforced shoulders; breeches of wool or linen, made with a button front; or a wool breechclout worn with wool or leather leggins (mitasses); a sleeved or sleeveless waistcoat or mantelet; a camisole/gilet, which can be sleeved or sleeveless, and is worn either under the shirt or over the shirt; neckerchief or fichu of black or colored silk; and a capot. They might also wear stockings or hose, and straight-last shoes, wooden shoes, or center- seam moccasins. On their head they would wear a red wool knitted tuque, a linen cap, or sometimes a beaver-felt hat.
In addition to the clothing listed, you’ll definitely need a period cup, eating utensils, and a plate and/or a bowl. Also a good idea are an oil lamp, a period bottle, and one or two solid-color wool blankets (blue, white, black, or red are best). These items aren’t required, but are recommended, and can all be acquired over the course of the first year or two of participation.
Chemise (Shirt): White or off-white, cotton or linen, 3 yards.Sleeves can be gathered into a cuff, can have a drawstring, or can be long and narrow, and must cover the elbows completely. Necklines are low, and are not gathered at the neck like an English chemise, even if the neckline is so wide that it drops off your shoulders somewhat. The neck can be trimmed with a small ruffle called a tour de gorge, which is be made from the selvage of the fabric. The chemise can be made in the French style, which is good for small or average size women, or the English style, which is better for larger or more mature figures. The chemise is required for the first 3 events.
Petticoats or jupes: Two are usually worn, depending on weather and fabric. Stick with solid colors at first. Cotton, linen, or wool, 2.5-3 yards. The petticoat should come to about mid- shin. The skirt is straight, and the waist can be drawstring or gathered onto a waistband.The petticoat is required for the first 3 events.
Apron, bib or plain: Aprons range from white to very dark colors, white being reserved for dressy occasions. French women frequently wore aprons of medium to dark colors of coarse linen or wool so they wouldn’t show dirt as well. Use cotton or linen, 1.5 yards, slightly more if you want a bib. A bib is simply a piece of fabric that comes up from the skirt of the apron, and is pinned to the front of the outer garment, over the jacket. The apron usually has a drawstring top, although a bib apron may be gathered and have sewn-on ties. The apron is required by the end of the first year.
Kerchief: This is a square of fabric, anywhere from 20x20 inches to 60x60 inches, hemmed, and folded in half diagonally to make a triangle. This is worn over the shoulders and tied, pinned, or tucked in front. The point falls in the middle of the back, and the kerchief covers the shoulders. Cotton or linen, white (most common), or any other color. Again, stick with solids at first; you can make a printed, checked, or striped neckerchief for special occasions later on. The kerchief is required by the end of the first year.
Jackets/Gowns: There is some debate over whether shortgowns were in use in the 1750s by the French, but the Manteau-de-Lit or bedjacket is definitely period. This is a loose garment with loose mid-length to long sleeves. The bedjacket is mid-thigh length, and rather full around the bottom. The front is closed with pins, or held shut by the apron. Fabrics are wool, linen, or cotton, lined or unlined, in a variety of colors and patterns. Bed jackets were mostly undress wear, but might have been worn on the streets by commoners. This is a good easy-to-make starter garment. You’ll need 1.5 to 3 yards, depending on the design, plus the lining. For a very authentic bed jacket pattern based on the French Garsault design, go to Kannick’s Korner. Also worn in the 1750s were mantelets and justes, a short, fitted garment with tabs in front and back, closed in front with hook and eye or lacing, and gowns such as the casaque or pet-en-l’air. For a good jacket pattern, visit J.P. Ryan and look at “A Fine Collection of Ladies’ Jackets for Undress Wear.” The jacket is required for the first 3 events.
Cap: These are always white or off-white, cotton or linen. There are many styles available; look for one with lappets hanging down the sides, not a “mob” cap, which is a circle with ruffles all the way around it, which have not been documented as being worn in our time period. The cap is required for the first 3 events.
Footwear: The most period thing to do is go barefoot. Shoes were very expensive and hard to come by; they would have been saved for special occasions. In winter, habitants, men and women alike, would wear wooden shoes, and/or Indian-style center-seam moccasins. There are period shoes available, but do your research first before spending $100-200 on a pair which may not be appropriate. Moccasins are easy to make, and comfortable. ( Center-seam pucker toe moccasin pattern) Wooden shoes cost about $25, and worn with your moccasins, will protect your feet from cold and rain. Footwear is required by the end of the first year.
Hose: If it’s cool enough to wear shoes, you’ll probably want hose or stockings. These are readily available from merchants for about $7-10 a pair, in a variety of colors, and in cotton or wool. These are not exactly what was worn in the 1750s, but without extensive research and the ability to knit your own, you’re stuck with them. Stay with solid colors at first; stripes may or may not be appropriate for the 1750s. Hose are required by the end of the first year.
Corset or Bodice: Under your outer garments, on top of your chemise, you might wear pair of stays, jumps, corset, or bodice. These range from fully-boned figure-forming garments which lace up the back, to lightly boned and fitted vests. They can have sleeves which attach at the shoulders with ties. Women of middle- to high-class would almost always wear stays under their clothing to give support, and to give the proper line and fit to their fine garments. Lower-class women may not wear stays at all, especially if out working, or in hot weather. Fort Toulouse was very much a frontier fort, and the dress of the habitants was not quite up to par with that of the habitants of the cities. Women, if they wore the stays, may even wear them alone over the chemise, without putting on their jacket. Women on the frontier, working in and around their house, would be more likely to “dress down,” and wear the equivalent of jeans and t-shirt. If they were going out or having company, however, they would certainly wear a jacket over their stays and chemise. There has been much said about the “farby” (inappropriate) short, sleeveless French bodice/vest, which many women wear as their outer layer in public at F-and-I events. A true bodice or stays is not a waist-length garment; it has tabs or short skirts that are hidden by the petticoats. While it may be fine to wear the stays alone at home while working, it would not be seen at a market fair!
Pockets: The petticoats did not have pockets sewn in, so women would wear one or two pockets on a string around the waist, under the petticoats. These are reached by a slit in the side of the petticoat.
Gowns: While the above garments are the basic and most simple thing to put together, French women also wore gowns. These would be more difficult to make, and would be made of much finer fabrics. A stomacher would be worn with them to cover up the stays. Sometimes a bum roll would be worn underneath around the waist. Do your research, if you’re interested in wearing a gown. Keep in mind that they’re not really appropriate to the frontier, although a woman might have one stored safely away for special occasions.
Cloak: Women wore cloaks or mantles with hoods, not coats with sleeves. This would be made of wool, usually dark blue, brown, or grey. Cloaks are cut in rectangles, with triangles sewn in for fullness, and gathered to a hood. They should be a bit shorter than your petticoat. You’ll need 3.5 yards of 60” wool, or 4 yards of 45” wool.
Eyewear: If you wear glasses, you may want to consider contacts. If you have to have glasses, you should search for period frames and have your prescription set into them. The frames can run upwards of $100, but there is really no substitute. Period eyewear is required by the end of the first year.