A Lady’s Habit Shirt
When putting on my new riding jacket for the first time, something occurred to me. The elbow-length sleeves of my usual shift were hard to control under the long, tight sleeves of the riding jacket. It started me wondering if women wore a different type of garment with their equestrienne costume. After all, they wore hats and waistcoats similar to men’s. The riding jacket itself was based on the man’s frock coat. Why would they wear a female shift underneath it?
So I picked up my trusty copy of Cunnington’s “History of Underclothes” and opened it to 1711-1790. The pages practically fell open to a section entitled “Habit-Shirts”! A comtemporary account (Diary of a Country Parson, April 24, 1782) gives us some idea of how much fabric went into a habit shirt. The Parson bought “4 yards of long Lawn at 3/6 per yard for Nancy to make her riding Habit Shirts and ½ yard of corded Muslin for Ruffles at 9/ per yard.”
There are actually three examples of habit shirts in the City Museum, Hereford. The museum dates them circa 1780. These fine shirts are identical in design and made of fine cambric. There is a fourth shirt in the Sanderson Collection at the City Art Gallery in Leeds. This shirt differs in design from the three at Hereford and is thought to date to the early part of the 18th century. For now, we will focus on the shirts that are more or less contemporary with the riding jacket described elsewhere on this site.
The fronts of these shirts are 15″ long and the backs 11″. The shirt is open in center front to the hem and 12″ long 2″ wide frilled ruffle surrounds this opening. A collar 2″ wide and 14″ around closes with two Dorset thread buttons. The sleeves are 21″ long and 8½” wide at the elbow (it is not known if the sleeves taper at all but the assumption is that they are the same width from attachment to cuff). There is a square gusset at the armpit, a triangular gusset at the corners of the neck opening, and linen reinforcement strips along the shoulder ridge as is commonly seen in men’s shirts of the period. The wrists are surrounded by a 1″ wide ruffle that travels up the 3″ slit at the end of the sleeve. This frilled cuff closes with a single button. The only difference between this shirt and a man’s shirt of the same period (except for the length) is a long tape attached at the back for tying around the waist. This presumably keeps the short back of the shirt in place which would otherwise be difficult owing to the lack of shirttails.
For my reconstruction, I cut my linen to 24″ wide, which was a common width of linen during the 18th century. I cut the body piece 30″ long, marking the middle of the length so that I would end up with a back 13″ long and a front 17″. I cut two lengths 24″ and 12″ wide for the sleeves. The underarm gussets are two 5″ squares and the neck gussets 3″ squares. &nsbp; The reinforcing bands for the shoulder ridge are cut from the remaining scrap.
I started by sewing one side the underarm gussets to the sleeve and attaching the center point of each sleeve to the fold line of the body. I then continued around until the sleeve was joined to the body and attached the other sides of the gusset to the body and sleeve. Then I closed the sleeve seam and what was left of the side seam of the body. I then flat-felled all seams.
- C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington. The History of Underclothes 1992: Dover, New York.
© 2002, 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.