18th Century Women’s Short Gowns

An informal garment, usually a bit longer than hip-length, with sleeves cut of one piece with the rest of the body (though not infrequently with piecing to make up for the length of either the body or the sleeves). An early 19th century dictionary defines these as “A gown without skirts, reaching only to the middle, worn by female cottagers and servants, commonly through the day; sometimes with long, and sometimes with short sleeves.”

They seem to have been especially popular in American hot weather:

  • “The heat daily increases, as do the Musquetoes, the bugs and the ticks. The curtains of our beds are now supplied by Musquetoes' nets. Fanny has got a neat or rather elegant dressing room, the settees of which are canopied over with green gauze, and on these we lie panting for breath and air, dressed in a single muslin petticoat and short gown.” (Journal of Janet Schaw, 1774-1776; in this entry, she is in Point Pleasant, North Carolina)
  • “The women all wear short gowns, a custom so truly ugly that I am mistaken if I ever fall into it. Notwithstanding they say I shall soon be glad to do it on account of the heat.” (1786 letter from Ann Warder to her sister in London, upon her arrival in New York)

The term “short gown” in eighteenth-century documents may also include women’s bedgowns and jackets. (For example, we know from contemporary fashion plates that a casaquin is a style of what we might call a jacket, and yet an eighteenth-century French/English dictionary defines it as “a short gown.”)

Extant examples

  • KM 2463, a quilted white linen shorgown from the 1740s from Sweden
  • Visby Fornsal 28, Sweden, c. 1750-1770, with pattern; see A woman’s short gown from Visby, Sweden
  • Nordiska museet NM.0090398, a short gown (“tröja” or “kofta”) in striped homespun linsey woolsey with wide stripes in red, pink, white, and dark blue against a green background, c. 1750-1775. The two front sections are cut above the bust, but the back is cut in one piece with the sleeves. The neckline is lined with a 3cm strip of light-background calico with a floral print in pink, blue, and light brown. The lining is a rough unbleached linen.
  • HD F.235, United States, c. 1750-1800; “Woman's short gown made from a gray, blue and off-white striped plain weave linen or linen and cotton fabric … This short gown has a neckline of medium depth, oval shaped in front and squared off in the back. It fastens center front where the two sides come together and would probably be pinned. There is a peplum about three inches (3.0") long all around, which opens in an inverted V-shape at center front (continuing the opening of the short gown) to accomodate skirt fullness. There is one side seam on each side of the short gown; these side seams are the only two curved seams on the garment. There are three back seams, one center back and one on either side; all are sewn in folds of fabric. All three start from the back neckline and taper to small of back, where they are then released into the peplum, also for fullness. The two back side seams are topstitched as well. There are no armscyes. Each sleeve is cut w/ bodice, so that the fabric runs horizontal on each sleeve (typical of most 18th century sleeves anyway). There is an underarm sleeve seam on each , as well as two horizontal seams; one on each forearm (cuff) area and one on each upper arm. The garment is not lined. Self fabric patch on proper left elbow and a smaller one on proper right sleeve, under forearm.”
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1985-242, block-printed cotton, England, c. 1775-1785; see Fashions of Motherhood
    The EMuseum dates this to 1775-1815 and notes: “Unfitted gown with short skirt cut in one with the bodice. Block printed floral design in brown and red, fully lined with a different floral print in brown. Rounded neckline with drawstring in casing at back. Open down the front, designed to be worn pinned closed. Sleeves are cut in one piece with body, extended 6 1/2" with piecing; sleeves designed to be folded back to form cuffs. Bodice back has drawstring in casing above waist, (about shoulder blade level).”
  • CHS 1958.25.1, an infant's short gown in block-printed cotton calico, 1779
  • Winterthur 1954.0051.001, possibly United Kingdom, c. 1780-1802; “This short gown is made from fabric that may have been printed in England or Scotland between 1780 and 1802.”
  • A short gown found at Kallfors in Södermanland, Sweden, probably 1780s-1790s; front, back, and pattern; Late 18th Century Shortgowns from Kallfors, Sweden
  • Short gown, late 18th century, American. Hand spun and woven linen, with muslin sleeve ruffles
  • Chester County Historical Society shortgown, c. 1780-1800
  • CHS 1988.7.1, hand-stitched domestically-woven blue striped linen, c. 1790-1800
  • Meg Andrews 7300, rare short gown, c. 1810; “of roller printed cotton with a small rose surrounded by half stars in crimson, pink, yellow and green, the front with under bust horizontal seam is tightly pleated and gathered at neck with original natural linen tape, left hand side opening with three hooks and embroidered loop, the under bust front slightly flaring out, the narrow diamond shaped central back with seams and with three pale blue floss silk buttons at the waist, the lower section with centre and side pleating, the inside lined in coarsely woven cotton with a bust protector, two original tapes to secure the skirt, long plain sleeves, underarm 33 in or 83 cm; shoulder to hem 17 in or 43 cm”
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1996-95, small floral print woman's short gown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1800-1820; (from the EMuseum) - “Woman's high-waisted short gown of cream cotton, printed with all-over pattern of 3/8-inch red, pink, brown and blue floral sprigs with yellow paired dots set at angles. Low scoop neckline with casing for drawstring, opening at center front with paired eyelets; paired eyelets are worked at center back neckline, as well. Gown opens completely down front. It is fastened at the neckline and at the raised waistline with narrow linen tapes in sewn casings. Long, undecorated sleeves cut in one with the body of gown. Garment skirts flare out beneath the waist casings. Lined throughout with cream tabby linen. Sewn with plied thread.”
  • Colonial Williamsburg 2014-206, blue striped woman's short gown, Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1800-1830; “Woman's short gown of blue and white stripes, woven with cotton warps and thin linen wefts. The stripes measure less than 1/8 inch wide. The selvages are corded with gold colored thread. Gown is made to open down the front, fastened with a drawstring at the upper neck and finished with narrow hems to be pinned closed or overlapped and fastened with an apron around the waist. Rounded scooped neckline has the edge turned over to form a casing for a linen tape drawstring. Gown has no fitting darts, but is cut to shape under the arms and flare out to short skirts at the hips. Long sleeves taper slightly to the wrist, where they are turned under and hemmed.”
  • Charleston Museum (front, back), a shortgown with a waist-tie and a collar in a gridded checked pattern (h/t Alden Tullis O'Brien)

Depictions of shortgowns

It's hard to tell which illustrations are really shortgowns as opposed to bedgowns or jackets, but I think these illustrations show different styles that might have been considered to be shortgowns along the lines of the extant examples above.

These provide some ideas regarding how 18th century shortgowns fit, what to wear with a shortgown, and how and when shortgowns were worn.

Descriptions of shortgowns in 18th century runaway advertisements

These descriptions are useful for understanding how short gowns would have looked; they are taken from descriptions of runaway slaves and indentured servants, published in newspaper advertisements. (Per The Annals of Philadelphia, “All hired women wore shortgowns and petticoats of domestic fabric, and could be instantly known as such whenever seen abroad.”)

  • “a blue and white striped short gown” (Pretends to be free, The New-York Gazette, April 23, 1753)
  • “a blue and white striped short Gown” (Extracts from American Newspapers, The N. Y. Gazette or the Weekly Post Boy, May 14, 1753)
  • “a black and white striped short gown” (Documents relating …, March 8, 1756)
  • “an old Calicoe short Gown, a grey Linsey Woolsey Ditto” (Runaway Servant Ads, Pennsylvania Gazette, July 20, 1758)
  • “a dark small figured silk and thread long gown, a short calico one over it” (Runaway Servant Ads, Pennsylvania Gazette, March 27, 1760)
  • “a Homespun Short Gown with different coloured Stripes” (Pretends to be free, Parker’s New-York Gazette, February 26, 1761)
  • “three short Calicoe Gowns, one of them double” (Runaway Servant Ads, Pennsylvania Gazette, July 23, 1761)
  • “a black, red and white striped Linsey-woolsey short Gown” (1763, cited in What Clothes Reveal)
  • “a calicoe short gown stamped with red and white lines running through the same” (cited in What Clothes Reveal)
  • “a stuff cross bared short gown” (Pretends to be free, The Pennsylvania Journal, February 23, 1764)
  • “a double purple and white Callico short Gown, both sides alike” (Pretends to be free, The New-York Gazette, June 27, 1765)
  • “a black and blue striped Linsey short Gown” (Extracts from American Newspapers, The Pennsylvania Gazette, June 5, 1766
  • “2 short gowns, the one white linen, the other dark calicoe, both new” (Runaway Servant Ads, Pennsylvania Gazette, November 13, 1766)
  • “a homespun blue and white striped short Gown” (Documents relating …, The Pennsylvania Gazette, November 5, 1767)
  • “had on when she went away an India callico short gown” (Extracts from American Newspapers, The Pennsylvania Chronicle, July 17-24, 1769)
  • “a striped linsey short gown and petticoat” (Virginia Runaways, Virginia Gazette, July 20, 1769)
  • “had on when she went away an oznabrigs shift, a green half thick petticoat, a striped holland gown, and callico short gown.” (Virginia Runaways, Virginia Gazette, August 3, 1769)
  • “an old black and white striped linsey short gown” (Runaway Servant Ads, Pennsylvania Gazette, May 3, 1770)
  • “strip'd short gown” (Runaway Connecticut, Connecticut Gazette, July 20, 1770)
  • “The mother had on a short gown and petticoat of dark blue broad striped linsey, the daughter had a new shift, two tow ditto, linsey short gown and petticoat” (Documents relating …, Pennsylvania Journal, September 20, 1770)
  • “striped new linen blue and white short gown” (Runaway Connecticut, Connecticut Gazette, July 2, 1771)
  • “had on, and took with her, when she went away, a long chits wrapper, of a yellow ground, with large red and brown sunflowers the pattern, the sleeves pieced near the cuff, with red and brown spotted calicoe, and broke under the arms; and over said wrapper, a short gown, with some red and white stripes and sprigs through it, a good deal worn, and pieced under the arms with check linen, the colour much faded” (Runaway Servant Ads & Fashion of the Forgotten: Researching the Dress of Indentured and Enslaved Women, 1750–90, The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 2, 1772)
  • “two short gowns, one red calicoe, the other a darkish stamped one” (Runaway Servant Ads, The Pennsylvania Gazette, October 28, 1772)
  • “had on, and took with her, a short black calico gown” (Virginia Runaways, Virginia Gazette, October 22, 1772)
  • “had on a short striped Virginia cloth gown and petticoat, oznabrig shift and bonnet” (Virginia Runaways, Virginia Gazette, November 19, 1772)
  • “took with her two short Gowns, one striped blue and white, the other Callicoe with red Flowers” (Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls, The New York Gazette, 1773)
  • “she had on and took with her, a calico short gown” (Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls, The Pennsylvania Packet, 1773)
  • “Had on when she went away, a black and white striped linsey woolsey short gown and pettycoat” (Pretends to be free, The New-York Gazette, May 24, 1773)
  • “has on a short printed cotton gown, and striped Virginia cloth petticoat” (Virginia Runaways, Virginia Gazette, October 14, 1773)
  • “had on, when she went away, a striped short gown, two striped petticoats, a short check apron, no shoes or stockings.” (Extracts from American Newspapers, The Pennsylvania Gazette, November 10, 1773)
  • “had on a black petticoat, a callico short gown, a black bonnet, and was bare footed” (New Jersey Archives, Chesterfield, Burlington County, Aug. 7, 1778)
  • “had on when she went away a green fluff petticoat, a red and white callico short gown, a red silk handkerchief, and a black sattin bonnet.” (Pretends to be free, The Royal Gazette, September 20, 1780)
  • “she had on a red striped linsey short gown” (Runaway Slave Notices, Trenton, Jan. 8, 1781)
  • “had on a red moreen petticoat, a brown short gown, with white lining, a pair of brown rib'd stockings.” (Pretends to be free, The Royal Gazette, March 3, 1781)
  • “had on a short gown and petticoat made of linsey black and white stripes” (Pretends to be free, The New Jersey Gazette, June 6, 1781)
  • “a short purple callicoe gown and pink petticoat” (Pretends to be free, The Royal Gazette, June 27, 1781)
  • “she had on when she went off, a homespun short gown and petticoat” (Pretends to be free, The Royal Gazette, July 21, 1781)
  • “a white short gown and a cotton petticoat” (Pretends to be free, The Royal Gazette, July 25, 1781)
  • “had on when she went away a dark callicoe short gown and homespun petticoat, without cloak or hat.” (Pretends to be free, The Royal Gazette, January 9, 1782)
  • “she had on a pale green callimanco petticoat, a red short gown, a scarlet cloak with a hood on it” (Pretends to be free, The Royal Gazette, February 9, 1782)
  • “She took with her two short gowns, and two petticoats, one striped bottom short gown and a yellow ground callicoe one” (Pretends to be free, The New-York Gazette, August 18, 1783)
  • “short gown, with a black stripe round the back” Runaway Slave Advertisements During the Revolutionary War Era, Maryland Gazette, November 13, 1783)
  • “striped short Gowns” (Runaway Connecticut, Connecticut Courant, June 22, 1784)
  • “She had on when ſhe went off, a printed dove ground ſhort gown, or orange coloured ſhort gown and petticoat” (North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements, North Carolina Gazette, June 4, 1791)
  • “her dress when she ran away consisted of a tow cloth short gown and petticoat” (Runaway Connecticut, Connecticut Courant, September 5, 1796)
  • “a brown flannel short-gown” (Runaway Connecticut, Litchfield Monitor, November 14, 1798)
  • “had on when she went away a black new fashioned paste-board bonnet, trimmed with black ribbon, a blue handkerchief on her neck, dark callico short gown, purple worsted petticoat” (Virginia Runaways, October 2, 1800)
  • “She had on when she went away, a blue cotton and yarn short gown, a white hummums petticoat and a white handkerchief round her head” (North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements, The North Carolina Minerva and Raleigh Observer, October 6, 1808; and again on October 27, 1808)
  • “She wore away a light tow-colored short gown, a brown Skirt, and a straw Bonnet” (Runaway Connecticut, Connecticut Courant, March 15, 1809)