18th Century Linen Clothing

Linen was commonly used for shirts, shifts, functional aprons, and the linings of many other garments (including waistcoats and gowns). Linen is also used as the ground for some embroidered garments and accessories, such as women’s petticoats and pockets. Several women’s waistcoats are made of quilted and/or embroidered linen, too.

Some people recommend linen for re-enactment clothing (especially for outdoor events in hot weather), but others note the relative lack of garments specifically described as being made of linen or the lack of extant garments. See the Additional Resources on this page for some discussion and analysis of descriptions of linen clothing.

This page collects links to extant linen garments from the 18th century, along with references to linen clothing. There are sections on white linen clothing, linen clothing with embroidery, linen clothing with printed patterns, buff or natural linen clothing, solid-colored dyed linen clothing, and checked or striped linen clothing.

White linen clothing

Etienne Loys’ 1753 portrait of Guillaume Barcellon with a tennis racket probably shows a white linen waistcoat similar to the examples below. Likewise, An Edinburgh Auction shows James Graham, “wearing his accustomed suit of white linen with black stockings.” I suspect Noel Desenfans is also wearing a linen suit.

For more on white linen clothing worn in hot climates, see “For the heat is beyond your conception”: men’s summer dress in the American south during the long eighteenth-century.

Text references to white linen clothing (other than shirts, shifts, aprons, etc.)

White linen clothing with embroidered designs

Many embroidered petticoats and embroidered pockets also use a white linen ground.

Additional Resources

Of the Callico-Printer, The London Tradesman (1747)

White linen clothing with printed designs

  • National Trust 814614.11, a doll’s gown in linen block printed in red with leaf, bird foot, and triple-dot design, 1740-1760
  • In Fitting & Proper: “Woman’s gown, c. 1740-60, altered c. 1775-80, an open robe in beige linen, block printed in two shades of brown, lined with beige linen and with blue and white checked linen”
  • Fries T1957-450, a house dress or contouche in white linen printed with a red design, c. 1750-1799
  • Centraal Museum 11020, a girl’s caraco in ivory-colored linen printed with a sprinkled pattern of red and blue flowers, lined with white linen, c. 1750-1775
  • Met C.I.37.2, a coat (bedgown), American, third quarter of the 18th century
  • Historic New England 1998.5875, dress with blue copperplate printed floral pattern on cream ground, worn by Deborah Sampson, 1760-1790
  • KCI AC7621 92-34-2AB, robe à la française in white glazed plain-weave linen with a blue floral print, France, 1770s
  • Met 26.265.48, a quilted petticoat in linen with two different printed designs, France, late 18th century
  • Centraal Museum 14571, a jacket for an infant in printed linen, c. 1775
  • Fries Museum T1956-436, a printed linen handkerchief, c. 1775-1799
  • V&A T.230-1927, a gown in block-printed linen, England, 1780s
  • From Fitting & Proper: Woman’s shortgown, c. 1780-1800, “brown and off-white figured print cotton, lined with off-white linen and with brown and off-white floral printed linen in the sleeves”; also a woman’s underpetticoat, c. 1780-1800, “an off-white linen petticoat trimmmed with bands of two different brown and off-white linen floral prints, one on the inside of the hem and one on the outside”

Text references to printed linen clothing

Buff or natural linen (probably undyed and unbleached) linen clothing

Solid-colored dyed linen clothing in colors other than white

Text references to linen clothing in colors other than white

The predominant color in the text references – as in the extant examples above – is brown. However, “brown linen” may also refer to unbleached linen, like the natural/buff colored linen garments listed elsewhere on this page.

Neal Hurst, associate curator of costume and textiles at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, writes:

In Williamsburg the 2nd Virginia regiment is having their osnaburg hunting shirts dyed purple: “It is Expected that each Capt. will with all Expedition Provide Legins for his men & hunting shirts Dy’d of a purple Coulour…” (Orderly Book of the 2d Virginia Regiment, October 27, 1775)

If we continue on the hunting shirt trend, of which are generally made of linen for the continental army: In 1776, a German officer who faced American soldiers at the Battle of Long Island, described them wearing “black, white, and purple linen blouses”
Bernhard A. Uhlendorf, Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals 1776-1784 of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1957), 38.

American artist Charles Willson Peale also described a multitude of colors worn on hunting shirts in the Philadelphia area and claimed that “very often these shirts were dyed brown – yellow, pink, and blue black, any colour according to the fancy of the companies.”
Jules David Prown, Art as Evidence: Writing on Art and Material Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 170. [This page is viewable via Google Books.]

The backcountry traveler John Smyth also claimed that its inhabitants chose a wide variety of color and said “Their hunting, or rifle shirts, they have also died in a variety of colours, some yellow, others red, some brown, and many wear them quite white.”
John Ferdinand Smyth Stuart, A Tour of the United States of America (Dublin: Printed by G. Perrin, 1784), 116. [You can also read this in The English Review or The Scots Magazine.]

For more of his research on hunting shirts, see “kind of armour, being peculiar to America”: The American Hunting Shirt.

Striped or checked linen clothing

Text references to checked or striped linen clothing (other than shirts or aprons)