Clothing Forum.

edited by Ralph & Mary Briggs

Shirt wristband widths

(NOTE: shirts have wristbands, not cuffs)

We have been working on shirt research for producing patterns, and as seen in our recently published pattern of a man's shirt for the second half of the Eighteenth Century, the wristband is a finished width of a little less than one inch, based on directions published in 1789 in the book, Instructions for Cutting out Apparel for the Poor (original in Kannik's Korner library). Similar directions, published in 1808, produce a finished wristband of two and three-quarters inches wide (pattern to be published soon). Our research of paintings, etc., and original shirts, seems to confirm this change at the end of the century, due to the changing coat fashions. The wrist of the shirt sleeve is an important part of the fashion in the middle of the century, including the Rev. War era, but as coat sleeves narrow and become longer toward the end of the century, the shirt wrist looses its importance. Collars become wider in this period, and it follows that the wristbands were wider, as well. It is difficult to date shirts which are not marked with a date, or which can not be documented to a person whose birth and death are known, but the wristband width is a clue.

Too many people assume that items pictured in books which refer to periods such as "1750-1820", which do not specify, or which imply a period, such as the book Tidings from the 18th Century, are items appropriate for use in Eighteenth Century living history interpretations. The photos are very helpful in understanding the items, but unless they are dated, may not be appropriate documentation for their use in a specific time period. As always, multiple documentation is helpful!

Fritz and Kathleen Kannik

Heart Reinforcements?

Q: We are looking for primary documentation for placing the heart shaped re-enforcement, used at the bottom of the bosom slit on the outside of the shirt. Please send to the Clothing Forum, and to Kannik's Korner, P.O. Box 1654, Springfield, OH 45501 or FAX to 513-325-8397.

Women's shifts

Shifts vary with ethnic origin. It seems that the painting in question, Lace Vendor (Une marchande de dentelle), by Gabriel Gresly ( Grèsely), is of French characters, since Grèsely (b.l712 - d.1756) is considered a French painter. There are many variations of shifts, according to ethnic origin and period, and it is very common to see shifts which close high at the neck, with a bosom slit.

Neck closures may be ties, a metal fastener (breast broach), or as it appears to be in this painting, a button (it appears that this neckline may be torn). Sleeves are also commonly finished with a "wristband" -- so named even though the sleeves are usually mid-forearm to below elbow in the Eighteenth Century. Some of these wristbands are round, with no closure, and some are put on as for a man's shirt, with a slit. These are usually closed with ribbons passed through button-holes made in each end of the wristband.

There are many drawings of shift styles available in books which describe specific ethnic clothing, such as Hessian, Bavarian, Russian, Bohemian, Burman, Polish, Croatian, etc. So, what ethnic background do you have, ladies?

IF YOU have any information on any of the questions posed here or in earlier columns, have some tidbit to contribute, or are looking for help yourself, please write us at 1537 31st, Des Moines, IA, 50311 or contact us by e-mail at or We can use your name or not, your choice.

Katcher, Philip, Uniforms of the Continental Army, George Shumway, Publ., York, PA, 1981

Montgomery, Florence, Textiles in America 1650-1870, W.W. Norton & Co, NY, 1984

Gigun, Beth, Tidings from the 18th Century,

Shift or Chemise?

Which is the correct term for describing the common women's undergarment in the 18th-century -- shift or chemise ?

Actually, Both are correct!

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, shift began to replace the word smock for describing the universal undergarment -- women's or men's -- around 1598. The term was still in common usage as recently as 1927 in referring to a type of straight-bodied women's dress.

Chemise originated several centuries earlier, was in common usage by the thirteenth century and is still in use today.

Incidentally, the term Chemise was also used to describe certain parts of a fortification -- perhaps it depended on the woman wearing it?!