I was asked this year to demonstrate how gentlemen prepared and dressed for the 12th Night as part of Pottsgrove Manor’s Candlelight Program.  Clearly for many of the people who come consider 18th Century attire to be somewhat alien but the theme suggested in the program was that dressing in the 18th Century was more elaborate and complex.

Now clearly, for women this is true but is it really all that different for men.  We tend to be very practical in our attire and surely, 18th Century men’s attire was driven by the fashions of the day and hence more decorated with ruffles. Lace, and frills but is it more complex.

I am sitting today in Quebec City, in December, so the climate I prepare to enter is somewhat similar to that of 18th Century Philadelphia during the winter of 1770 (our “little ice age”).  Lets compare what I will wear to that of a typical Philadelphia gentleman of the day:

Men’s Attire in 21st CenturyMen’s Attire in 18th Century
BVDs and undershirtNo undergarments
Tailored Oxford Shirt with buttonsLong tailed gusseted shirt with ruffles (no buttons)
Wool TrousersWool Breeches
Crew socksOver the Knee Stockings
Oxford Shoes with lacesStraight last shoes with buckles
(Vest is sometimes worn)Wescot (ALWAYS!)
Necktie (sometimes)Cravat or neckstock (always)
Sport JacketFrock Coat with tails
(NO WIG – EVER!)Wig (for formal occasions)
FedoraTricorn Hat
OvercoatCape or Watchcoat

The styles are different but the layers and number of individual garments is the same.  With the exception of ditching the cursed wig and adding the comfort of undergarment,  a gentleman of 1770 would not find my modern attire all that alien.  The buttons have moved (in fact my modern attire has just 2 fewer buttons than my 18th Century suit), the tailoring is different (modern clothes are looser), but the biggest difference is just style.  Sure, I would feel like a bit of a Pomeroy wearing ruffles and lace today and an 18th Century gentleman might feel my clothes are a bit austere.  In another two hundred years we are likely to see the same differences but I’ll bet the garments and layers don’t substantively change.

What makes us feel 18th Century attire is complex is not what we wear in similar situations.  The climate has changed.  We live today in man-made security and comfort so we don’t dress for the weather.  When we do, its for a much warmer world and we wear fewer, lighter clothes.  If the gentlemen of the 18th Century had had that option, they might have adopted something similar to our shorts and t-shirt attire as well.  

Come to Candlelight at Pottsgrove this weekend:

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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