The Millinery Shop: Teaching the Historic Trades

Everything was turned inside out during our visit to the Milliner’s Shop at Colonial Williamsburg—not just the eighteenth-century clothes but also our assumptions about them. My classmate Matthew Skic, himself a seasoned practitioner of historic tailoring, has commented that the tradeswomen in the millinery shop “really love what they do,” and their passion for the craft of dress was on full display. Sarah Woodyard and Abby Cox demonstrated how garments were layered and constructed with respect to function as well as fashion.

1 Fine-stitching

Note the tight precise stitches on an eighteenth-century linen shirt cuff.

Particularly enlightening was the lesson on Colonial undergarments. As the foundation for additional layers of expensive printed cottons or silk brocades, they served as a line of defense between the indignities of the body and the precious show surface. These hierarchies played out in unexpected ways. Needleworkers labored over less costly linen and cotton gowns, chemises, and shirts in minute detail to render them more durable while the ostentatious textiles of the mantua were held together with mere running stitches. At first it seems counterintuitive to devote more energy to the construction of unseen clothing, but the reversibility of stitching on the expensive textiles made it possible to adapt them as fashion dictated, maximizing returns on the investment.

2 Sarah in her stays copy

Sarah shows an early nineteenth-century undergarment to illustrate the contrast with her own eighteenth-century style stays (image from 2010).

With the benefit of lived experience to substantiate their claims, Abby and Sarah also proposed knowing insights on the logic of eighteenth-century undergarments. Their stays had molded to their own figures and thus became a familiar extension of their physical experiences. One woman’s stays were not like another’s. Working through the humid Virginia summers, these journeywomen can attest that linen underclothes wick moisture (and the concomitant odor) from one’s person, mitigating damages to both the body and its presentation. The honest pride Abby took in having created and lived in her own baleen-boned stays was palpable. As an agent of discipline, it is also worth noting why these are called “support garments.” As I write in my stuffed chair, stooped in the shoulders and weak in the core, a pair of stays sounds positively delightful.

3 Before cropped

Emily in stays as Abby cuts out fabric pinned to the bodice.

A highlight of the Williamsburg trip is the opportunity for one lucky lady to volunteer herself as a model for mantua construction. Emily Pazar nobly accepted the challenge. Watching Abby sculpt the fabric, with respect to bias and straight cuts, to Emily’s individual contours displayed the intimacy and personalization that eighteenth-century clothing offered. The process was worlds apart from the generic and alienating size systems of the present. If there was nothing else I learned in Williamsburg, people sure looked better.

4 After


By Amy Griffin, WPAMC, Class of 2016

We invite you to delve further into the wondrous world of eighteenth-century clothing on the milliners’ website:

3 responses to “The Millinery Shop: Teaching the Historic Trades”

  1. Logan says:

    The first thing to acknowledge when choosing an off-the-rack suit is that you’re buying into a prototype that has been designed to fit the masses. This prototype might never fit you as well as a made-to-measure or bespoke suit.

  2. Anna says:

    How much did things cost in this millinery shop?

    • kfitzger says:

      Dear Anna,

      Thanks for your question! We would suggest contacting the Millinery Shop at Colonial Williamsburg for more information.

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