New online exhibit:
Historic Threads: Three Centuries of Clothing
Tailor Mark Hutter, left, and apprentice Neal Hurst, right, measure interpreter Christine Diffell for stays.
The art of cutting
The word “tailoring” means “the art of cutting” in many languages, and indeed, it is the cut of the fabric that makes a garment fit the body to perfection. A tailor’s skill in measuring an individual’s body and making a pattern from those measurements determines how well a garment fits. Tailors made clothes for both men and women. Shirts, stockings, hats, and capes were ready made, but coats, weskits, breeches, stays, and gowns were custom made for individuals. So, no matter what a person’s social or economic status, everyone was a potential customer of a tailor.
The tailoring trade originally included gown making or mantua making. In 1675, mantua making became a separate trade – not because gowns were worn only by women, but because of the skills necessary to make a gown. Mantua making required the skill of draping, while the tailor made flat patterns.
Stays promoted proper posture
Tailors had very young customers, too, because tailors made stays – the boned body supports that gave structure to the bodices of the clothing of women and children. In 1775, it was imperative that proper English children learned to stand, sit, and move properly, so boys wore stays until they were three or four years old. Stays helped perfect the posture and allowed a broad, open rib cage for proper breathing, thus ensuring good health. Baleine taken from the roof of the mouth of a whale was a perfect material for the “boning” material in stays.
Stays “bestow a good shape where nature has not designed it,” wrote Richard Campbell in The London Tradesman in 1747. Adult men did not wear stays. Weskits and coats gave a man support and structure for the rest of his life.
Clothes for men and women
Women’s clothes made by tailors included stays, riding habits, Jesuits, Brunswicks, and hoops, but the real bread and butter of the tailoring trade was in the making of men’s coats, weskits, and breeches.
Tailors also made cloaks, Newmarkets, hunting coats, great coats, wrapping gowns, and banyans – a type of loose fitting coat with origins in India – which men often worn at home, or in a tavern or gentlemen’s club. In the sultry weather of Virginia, the banyan served as a comfortable replacement for tight fitting clothing men normally wore. Colonial tailors also made Sherryvallies – overbreeches made of cotton, linen, brown denim, or leather that buttoned from knee to hip. These utilitarian breeches protected a man’s finer clothing from dust, dirt, and horse sweat. Thomas Jefferson was known to wear Sherryvallies.
Fabric made the difference
The tailor’s customer ran the full social gamut – from the wealthy and elite to field slaves, and all the folks in between. The only discernable differences in the clothing for rich or poor was in the quality of the fabric. There was less difference in the quality of construction than in the type of fabric, since there was basically the same workmanship in a shirt for a slave as there was in a gentleman's fine silks. Most tailors did not sell fabric, so people selected fabric from a merchant in town and brought their own fabric to the tailor. Of the 16 or so tailor shops known to have been in Williamsburg in 1774, only two of those were merchant tailors – Prosser and Nicholson, located at opposite ends of the street.
Tailoring in Williamsburg today
Today, the tailors working in The Revolutionary City literally search across the world to find the threads and fabrics they use to interpret the trade. From existing 18th-century household and commercial records, we have evidence of thousands of fabrics – some of which have not changed. Corduroy is a popular and versatile fabric still in use, although a broader variety of corduroy was available in the 18th century than we have today.
Myths and misconceptions
Contrary to popular belief, most cloth was not woven in colonial America. Cloth was the single largest import in the 18th century, and tailoring was the largest trade in any metropolitan area until the 20th century. And, yes, men sewed. Almost every other colonial trade also used a needle. Almost every other colonial trade could stitch: blacksmiths patched bellows, shoemakers and heavy-harness makers used boar bristles instead of needles, light-harness makers and saddlers used needles to make finer harness and saddles; enlisted men in the military had to maintain their uniforms.
Tailors were almost always men. There is one reference in Williamsburg to a female tailor who was paid for her work, but she never advertised as being a tailor, and no other reference was made to her, leading historians to surmise she was likely the widow of a tailor who took up his trade when he died.