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What to Wear—Historical Clothing of Colonial Virginia

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What people wore 300-plus years ago in Virginia tells us a lot about how they lived. But historic sites in the state face a challenging task in accurately depicting the clothing that was used in colonial times.

Curators from Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum Yorktown recently discussed how they make sure the costumes worn by staffers who portray early settlers and indigenous and enslaved people are as accurate as possible.

An online presentation on 17th and 18th Century clothing was led by Samantha Bullat and Chris Daley, museum clothing curators. Gwendolyn Moss, an AARP volunteer, hosted the webinar as part of the monthly Virginia Treasures Series from AARP Virginia.

At Jamestown, site of the first permanent English settlement in North America in 1607, researchers used a variety of sources to learn about the clothing of the settlers, the Powhatan natives they encountered and the enslaved Africans brought to Virginia beginning in 1619.

At the American Revolution Museum, the focus in on creating the costumes worn by those portraying soldiers and others at Yorktown, site of the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War in 1781.

Researching the fashion of the settlers was the least challenging of the three groups because of their link to England, where there are ample records in art and the remnants of some surviving clothing of that time.

The research of indigenous people of Virginia and enslaved Africans was more daunting. Because of “the biases of the Englishmen who were interacting with the other cultures…It's not often that we have written, firsthand accounts from those cultures themselves,” said Daley of the historical clothing division of the Jamestown Settlement.

The Powhatan and other indigenous people of the area relied on nature for their needs, including animal hides for clothing.

Children who visit the Jamestown site can participate in demonstrations of the methods used to prepare the hides to be worn -- the skinning, the tanning process and the softening of the hides.

Daley provided a mini-lesson in the chemistry of softening the raw hide by explaining how utilizing animal brains to make “a slurry or a slush….and rub all the brains into the hide itself, and the fats and greases from the brains would actually soften the leather.” He compared the process to the modern-day use of oil-based lotions on our hands and skin to soften them.

The leather mantles or aprons, as the English called them, that the Powhatans wore, were augmented by skin decorations of tattoos, using inks and dyes they made from plants. The men shaved their faces with sharpened shells and plucked the hair on the sides of their heads with two clam or oyster shells.

Enslaved Africans were often stripped of their clothes, with very little if anything upon arrival in Virginia. “They were basically stripped of all their own culture when they got here, so they wouldn’t have been wearing the clothing they wore back in their homeland,” said Bullat, who researches and creates historic clothing at the Yorktown museum.

“So we decided to highlight one of the amazing African queens who was ruling [in West Africa] during the early 17th Century, Queen Njinga,” said Bullat. The skirt was based on a watercolor piece of art of the queen, with the type of vibrantly dyed fabric highly prized by the elites in West Africa at the time.

Daley and Bullat underscored the importance of detail in creating the fabrics of the time, using linen, wool, cotton, silk, leather and other natural fibers. Daley emphasized that all the outer visible layers of garments are hand-sewn, as were the garments of the period. But what could not be seen in the underlayers is sewn by machine.

The curators also discussed the hygiene and laundering techniques of the period. Daley acknowledged that hygiene as we know it with baths or showers did not exist, at least among the English. He explained that linen was a wicking fabric and absorbed body fluids like sweat and oils.

Men wore shirts, usually of linen, under their outer garments and women wore nightgown-like shifts under their outerwear. The undergarments could then be washed for some measure of hygiene.

After learning of the labor-intensive laundering procedures used, an attendee of the webinar, Julie Habara of Reno, Nevada, commented in chat, “Hmm, I’m thinking that I’ll no longer complain about loading up the Kenmore.”

The hygiene habits of the Powhatan natives were more like ours today. They bathed “pretty much every morning…in the river…So very different from the English,” said Ballat. The English, she said, “were very concerned about opening their pores to what they thought might be invading diseases or catching colds.”

AARP Virginia offers the Virginia Treasures Series on the third Wednesday of each month at 2 p.m. EST. You may check out future sessions of the series and register for the sessions at

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