Colonial Peasant Dresses in the 1600s

Written by patricia neill
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Colonial Peasant Dresses in the 1600s
The Pilgrims wore black as well as bright colours. (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

When the Europeans first settled Massachusetts and other colonies in the 1600s, their new lives required hard work of them all. Clothing required a great amount of energy and skill to produce and had to last a long time. Peasant women of the time wore a simple gown composed of a bodice with an attached full-length skirt made from wool or linen. Although many working women had to dress simply, the colonists did enjoy bright solid colours. Most people had two sets of clothes, one for work and a nicer set for Sundays and social activities.


Underneath her gown, working class women wore a chemise -- a simple-sleeved garment that might have ruffles at the neckline. Chemises were made of plain, undyed linen and was worn night and day. Cotton wasn't yet a crop grown in the colonies. Upon rising, the 17th century peasant woman would don her bodice and skirt combination over the chemise. Before her gown, however, most women would tie a bolster, a thickly padded roll that was tied around the hips to create the full-skirted silhouette of the time.


A bodice was a tightly-fitted garment constructed with boning made from baleen, pasteboard or thin strips of wood on the inside to clasp the waist and support the breasts. Working women who needed to bend and move as they worked most likely didn't wear boned bodices, although they might have had one for social occasions. The bodice of the dress for a peasant woman was brightly dyed and generally matched the attached skirt.


Skirts attached to the bodice were created with many gathers at the waist to provide fullness. Peasant women of the 1600s generally wore their skirts to the ankle or the top of their shoes to avoid the skirts trailing in dust or mud. Contrary to the popular conception of Pilgrims dressed in all-black outfits, Pilgrim men, women and children dressed in bright solid colours as did other early settlers. Popular colours were brown, red, blue and yellow. Many yards of fabric went into the skirts of the time as they were full and usually pleated or gathered.


A 17th century woman, peasant or queen, usually donned at least one petticoat to wear with her gown. One style called for an open front skirt to reveal the petticoat. A petticoat worn with an open front skirt was considered a part of the gown and could be the same colour or a different colour from the gown. Other layers of petticoats could be worn for warmth. While working women of the early colonial days wore simple, durable clothing, a quilted or embroidered petticoat could add a bit of dash to the overall look.


Working women of the 1600s often tied a pair of pockets under their skirts which were accessible through slits in the skirt. Aprons were commonly worn to keep the clothes clean. A close fitting cap or coif, woollen stockings and simple leather shoes completed the outfit.

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