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Colonial American Dress Codes

The period between 1600 and 1800, when European settlers established themselves in the continent of North America is known as the colonial period. This period ended with the revolution that ended with independence of Americans from the British rule. Clothing worn by colonial Americans ranged from the simple to most elaborate. The attire they wore depended entirely on their religious beliefs, social class and area of residence.

During this period, the affluent, middle class or the poor did not really have the freedom of choice we have now as far as clothing was concerned. They all had to follow the dictates of their time that specified certain strict colonial American dress codes.

Dress codes were created by a combination of status, occupational requirements, social expectations, fashion trends and economics. A ball in Norfolk during the mid 1770s saw women dressed in skirts with very small or no hoops. During this formal occasion, conservative and time-tested and honored styles replaced the prevailing daytime fashion rules.

Ball gown predominantly followed a set pattern. Being formal attire, they were made of the best, soft and finest silk. Great effort was taken to ensure that low-cut bodice was fitted with care over the corset undergarment made of bone. Sleeves were intricately designed with multiple ruffles that elegantly cascaded over the elbows.

Long flowing skirts extended on all sides using yards of fabric was attached to this. Most gowns had their fronts opened out to skillfully show up the inner skirt or petticoat that was again worked upon to match the gown.

Men who normally wear plain, yet stylish wool pants and coats changed over to conservative suits that featured bucked knee breeches and powdered wigs for formal events. Suits worn for balls and other formal occasions were made of shimmering silk and embellished with intricate and elaborate embroidery, mostly a floral design.

Suit coats were complemented with knee length pleated skirts which were worn on top of a vest or waistcoat. The breeches were given extra fullness as they were usually tightly bucked under the kneecap. This allowed men to move around with ease and sit in a comfortable manner. Men wore stockings made of fine linen thread or knitted silk.

Household servants of the affluent had a dress code to follow too. They were usually clothed in elegant suits that enhanced the status of the employer. They had to wear liveried suits that were very stylishly designed. These suits had contrasting colored collar and cuffs and were attractively embellished with attractive buttons and braid trimmings.

Slaves and plantation workers had fewer clothing options. Men wore inexpensive and practical clothing, usually breeches and jacket made of woven or spun fabric. The jacket worn by them required lesser amount of fabric and allowed for greater movement essential for laborers.

Similarly, women laborers and slaves wore basic, functional clothing that included a patched petticoat and closely laced jacket.

Costume worn by sailors reflected their occupation. Sailors wore mid-thigh length sailor jackets that had attractive prints, were collarless and were buttoned in front. Instead of cuffs, the jacket's long sleeves had plackets that were buttoned. Dressier suits with long skirts were impractical for laborers and seamen and therefore they wore pants or trousers.

Clothes during the colonial American period were therefore carefully chosen based on people's status, personality, occupation and wealth. Apart from the design and style, the intricacies of fabric, accessories, trimmings and tailoring effectively spoke on their behalf.