Skirt: Correct Terminology for the Rev War Period?

By Sue Huesken

Using correct terminology for period garments is a goal for which all re-enactors and living historians should strive. The best documentation for these terms comes from primary sources. One example is "skirt," meaning the garment worn by a lady on her lower body.

The period dictionaries checked do not define skirt as a garment. Today, a person speaking the word "skirt" is often corrected to use the word petticoat instead. While petticoat is the more common term, there is ample documentation that skirt was clearly understood and in common usage. Chester County, PA inventories researched by Margaret Schiffer show use of the term after 1780, but here are earlier examples:

From the Pennsylvania Gazette:

Runaway Rose O'Brian (October 19, 1769) has a new blue durant skirt.

Runaway Eleanor Armstrong (April 2, 1772) took with her "a new camblet skirt, of a deep blue, and one old ditto, of a light blue colour."

Runaway Mary Cortney (November 13, 1775) had on and took with her a brown skirt.

Runaway Catherine Carr (December 18, 1776) is wearing "a black calimanco skirt and green ditto under it."

Runaway Jenny Stevenson (December 16, 1783) took a green skirt.

From the Pennsylvania Evening Post:

Both runaways Mary Brine (June 20, 1775) & Judith Kennedy (Oct 15, 1775) are wearing green skirts.

Runaway Sarah Clark (June 1, 1776) has a black calimanco skirt.

Thief Polly Welsh (February 27, 1777) is wearing a "blue skirt, much worn."

A green camblet skirt was stolen from Mary Mills on March 10, 1777.

The inventory of Elizabeth Grimes (February 1, 1775) from Burlington, NJ lists three camblet and calimanco skirts and one old petticoat.

Sally Wister from Philadelphia talks about wearing her "dark shortgown and green skirt" in her journal entry dated June 3, 1778.

Edward Brooks, Jr. had for sale in his shop "Blue, brown and stripped duroys suitable for women's gowns and skirts." His shop was located in Bordentown, NJ, and he advertised in the Dec 22, 1779 issue of the New Jersey Gazette.

This list of examples shows five of the skirts being GREEN! The color green has been frowned upon as costly and not appropriate for lower class portrayals. As new documentation comes to light, some old myths can be put to rest.

NOTE: In searching primary sources, I have not found the words chemise or fichu in any English language documents. These two terms are very common among the re-enacting world, but I have not seen them in primary sources (except in information translated from the French or a later period). If anyone has any sources, would they please share?

Copyright © 1998 Sue Huesken. All rights reserved.