Please pardon me for the lightheaded schoolgirl giddiness you’re about to read, but as you may have read in an earlier post, I recently spent a bit of time at a local living culture museum , and one of the first places I was able to visit was their costume department. And just what exactly was in this costume department that made me so giddy? A simple white long-sleeved man’s shirt.
Shortly after leaving that initial meeting, I walked to my car, picked up my phone, called my sister, and immediately started screaming “I got to hold a JAMIE SHIRT! I GOT TO HOLD A JAMIE SHIRT!” Because in my imagination, it wasn’t just any shirt. I was holding THIS shirt:
I was beside myself just being a dork. I was completely sucked into a world of make-believe and loving every second of it. But sadly, I wasn’t holding an ACTUAL Jamie shirt. Hell, the shirt wasn’t even on a damn hanger, let alone a person, let alone THIS person. Because if it was actually on this person, my sister would most likely have gotten a much different call from either a police officer or mental health worker letting her know that her little sister has lost her ever-lovin’ mind. But I digress…
This shirt, and several shirts like it, has a special connection in my memory bank joining wonderful cinematic bodies of work to the actual human bodies of who wore them and portrayed these characters so well. I’m a complete romantic. Can’t help it. Always have been. It’s impossible for me to watch or read works by Austen, Hardy or the Bronte sisters without getting swept away. And then put Outlander on the big screen? Forget it. I’m a lost cause.
I mean, just LOOK at these guys. I mean ehh, shirts. Each worn while delivering lines like, “You have bewitched me body and soul. ” d’awwww…. which was then quickly followed up with a breathless “I love you. I love you. I love you.” I mean, the poor fool just wandered out of his house and ended up in this field. Couldn’t even manage to button his shirt he was so besotted with Miss Elizabeth Bennett. Talk about vulnerable!
Or Jane Eyre’s Mr. Edward Fairfax Sexy-voice Rochester whispering “I’ve the pleasure of owing you my life.” delivered by a slightly rumpled and thankful Fassbender, which was then shortly followed by a “You would leave me then?” to a departing Jane. What? Me? Leave? Nope. Staying RIGHT here.
And Mister Smiles here? Fans of Outlander know exactly what scene this is, and guess what he was still wearing? THAT shirt! (see it? Keep looking. It’s okay.)
In fact, he was so comfy wearing nothing but that shirt that he wore it for most of the episode! Parading himself about wearing only a shirt and boots to get a plate of cheese. Pffffft… like he didn’t know that some of the tavern wenches (and perhaps a few stable boys) were going “daaaahhhhyyyyummmmm” at the site of him swaggering down the steps?
So yeah, I’ve got a thing for the plain white shirt. It’s a common denominator behind some beautiful moments. And shoot me if I’m objectifying the male form, but that plain ole shirt does a fine job of showing off the super sexy collarbone.
Yes, I said it. Collarbone. Scandalous, I know.
You all with me here? Because when your man pulls you in close, guess where your face usually hits? Yup. Clavicle Central. That damn spot probably releases more pheromones per square inch than any other part of the male body. And that’s just fine by me.
These shirts – and the rest of the costumes that cover these shirts, are the result of countless hours of research and craftsmanship done on behalf of the costume departments behind these great shows. And in a great show, these garments act like the wrapping paper on a beautiful present. Outlander fans are so lucky to have someone like Terry Dresbach leading the costume charge. Her beautiful creations made me more than once stare open-mouthed at the screen and dreamily marvel “it’s all soooo pretty!” (Seriously, Terry. Call me. I can make dorset buttons!)
And was I excited to get a chance to go behind the scenes of the Frontier Culture Museum? Yes, Yes, a thousand times Yes! Hard work, research, craftsmanship, attention to detail, and a big connection in my psyche to some of my favorite big screen moments.
A Quick History Lesson (Not Boring I Promise!)
Disclaimer: I am by no means an actual historian, and the following information was assembled with the guidance of the FCM Staff and a bit of my own research. In order to give this shirt the justice it deserved, I needed to learn more about its source material, functions, and variations and what better place to do that than the Museum.
While I heartily acknowledge my own selfish interests at the museum, it wasn’t until meeting with the staff that I realized that not only is the museum’s work relevant to people like myself, but how significant historic and cultural preservation is to all of us. While we learn about the major historical moments in school, it isn’t until one actually steps inside a 300 year old functioning building that one truly gets a sense of the goal of this type of preservation. One is immersed in it. You can’t help but compare it to 21st century life and if you’re anything like me, wonder if you could manage life in that time period.
My epiphany came while the then head of the costume department Julie Herczeg and another historian were teaching me about the shirts, buttons, and the linen trade that I realized how grateful I was to be a student of their teachings; what a blessing it was for me to be able to access their wealth of knowledge in a brief oral history lesson, so that I could then spread what I knew to whomever was willing to listen.
Professionally, I have several years of experience in environmental conservation efforts, but it wasn’t until these discussions (about shirts and buttons of all things!) that I realized the work of the staff at the FCM truly is a part of human culture’s conservation. Because in the end, this knowledge of history and culture can only truly be passed on if there is an audience willing to hear it. And I am quite frankly completely humbled by that realization. So here’s what I was able to learn.
Apart from wanting to immediately grab one of the shirts and make a run for it, I decided to educate myself a bit about the linen trade of 18th century colonial American life (linen being the source material for the shirt).
It should come as no surprise that the clothing fibers of the 18th century were made from natural materials such as linen, silk, or wool. The use of cotton for clothing material didn’t become commonplace (and in fact was forbidden in parts of Europe) until the late 1700’s, which left linen as the primary clothing material.
At this point in American history, the colonies were experiencing a rapid population growth mainly due to colonization from Europeans. During the 18th century, immigration to the colonies exploded from a population of around a quarter of a million immigrants in 1700, to over FIVE million immigrants by 1800. And as all of these millions of people required clothing and supplies, linen became one of the most important commodities traded across the Atlantic in the 18th century. Economies of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany were greatly dependent on the linen trade, and remained so until the late 18th century until its collapse as a result of the growth of cotton industry.
The American colonies played a huge part in the linen industry by growing the flax plant and exporting the seeds back to Europe for countries like Ireland, England and Germany. Linen manufacturing in the colonies never really took off simply because there was a lack of machinery available to do so. It was easier for colonists to buy imported fabric or clothing from a tailor. Most colonial farmers did not grow, spin, weave, and sew their own fibers and garments. They didn’t have the time or machinery to do so. Instead they went shopping.
The man’s shirt or lady’s shift was typically the first garment put on, the one that made direct contact with the skin, and was the one that was most easily washed and/or replaced. A person would have a few of each to swap into and out of rotation as stinkiness increased. The shirt or shift serves almost as an undergarment and would in a way protect the upper clothing layers from body oils and sweat.
And judging from how elaborately detailed 18th century clothing could be with all of the embroidery, buttons, silk, ribbons, etc, etc. keeping those layers clean from bodily oils was important.
Let’s Talk About Flax, Baby
Thanks to the fine craftsmen and women at the museum, I was taught a bit about growing and harvesting the flax plant, and how it’s painstakingly turned into fiber and finally linen cloth. So in the event that you aren’t all that familiar with linen, I now share what I’ve learned of the history of linen in the colonial 18th century. Linen fibers are a product of the flax plant, which is grown, harvested, dried, thrashed, stripped, spun, and then woven to make fabric. (And yes, this is the plant that springs from the flax seeds that we are familiar with as a dietary supplement. Many uses for one plant!)
While I’d known that the museum performs all of the various processes required to grow flax and turn it into linen fabric, it wasn’t until writing this piece that I learned that this wasn’t just for demonstrations. The museum actually USES their own fabric in the costume department. A real live-action farm-to-closet movement right here in the Shenandoah Valley. The whole process amazes me.
Seen below is museum employee and weaver Gerry Kester who was kind enough to let me poke around the loom situated at the museum’s Irish farmsite. (Someday I WILL get my hands on that loom. It may just be only a few seconds before I become so entangled that I need to call a first responder, but I’d love to give it a try.)
I learned that there two basic varieties of linen fabric. The finer quality Irish linen is made from flax plant fibers which are harvested from plants before they go to seed. This younger plant produces softer fibers, and thus, softer linen. Osnaburg linen (so named for its origins in Osnaburg, Germany), however, is made from fibers of mature plants which are harvested after the plant has seeded. Osnaburg is a lesser quality fiber, not as soft, and was commonly used for working class, servants, or slave garments, and is the type that is produced at the museum.
Here we have another museum employee Hunter Cridlin who put his Osnaburg inspired shirt to work at the museum’s American frontier site making split-rail fencing timbers. I couldn’t help but marvel that the shirt held up well, and all of that extra fabric in the shoulders and sleeves didn’t hinder the swinging and thumping one bit. And can we just give an atta-boy to Hunter for thumping the cracks into that log with the giant mallet (otherwise known as a beetle)? Made me want to go back to the loom room!
And finally we have museum volunteer Tyler Mink, showing us another variation in the cloth. While doing some heavy field work (in this case harvesting oats) farmers would often use an overshirt to take the brunt of the wear, tear and general dirty-work during the harvest, thus protecting the layers beneath. In this case, the overshirt is a woven checked cloth, which was commonly found among other patterns and stripes commonly available during the time.
This whole exploration into the linen and fabric industry of the 18th century was very eye opening to me. I guess I hadn’t fully realized that a world market was already very well established. Granted, the transportation of goods took place over the course of several months via glorified sail boats across the Atlantic and beyond, but it was happening.
I can’t help but feel that my 21st century brain should apologize to our founding fathers for my naïve look at what their lives may have been like. Primitive and uncivilized? Not a chance.
Hopefully you enjoyed my trip through the historical closet, and are inspired enough to find the time to visit this museum or one like it to observe some of this hand-made finery in person. The crafters at the site are truly passionate about their work and are eager to share their knowledge.
Want to Know More?
If you’re interested in researching historically correct versions of these types of linen or other textiles, search for these companies online: Burnley & Trowbridge; Liberty Linens; William Booth, Draper; 96 District, and Ulster Linens.
If you’re considering a visit to The Frontier Culture Museum, check out their calendar of events here.
Credits and References
Mormul, 2012. “Flaxseed and Linen” Rutgers University, as published in the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.
N.B. Harte, 1973. “The British Linen Trade With The United States In The Eighteenth And Nineteenth Centuries.” University College London and London School of Economics.
Film Photo Credits: Jane Eyre (Focus Features); Pride and Prejudice (Focus Features); Outlander (Starz and Sony pics)