The 17th Regiment of Infantry in America may have had followers attached to the regiment during their 1775 – 1784 campaign. We do know that many men and women followed the British army during the American Revolution. In the standing orders there were a number of women and children listed with the 17th, however they were left behind when the regiment moved south to Virginia. According to Nancy K. Loane’s Following the Drum, “Early in the war the British carried about one woman for every eight soldiers; in 1781, the New York troops reported one woman to every four or five British soldiers”.
Camp followers filled an important role for both the British and the Continental troops during the American Revolution. To name a few of the daily tasks followers executed, they washed laundry, cooked meals for mess groups, did mending work, and tended cattle and gardens if the conditions were appropriate. Some followers were sutlers – vendors who sold goods to the soldiers. Sutlers would sell candles, baskets, soap, vegetables, bread, chocolate, coffee, pottery, and many other imported or hand-made items. They received half-rations and were subject to military discipline. Followers chose this lifestyle for a multitude of reasons: Seeking safety from the enemy, following their family, and looking for opportunities to make some money and improving their lives. These followers were an integral part of the army during the American Revolution, yet their stories are often overlooked. The 17th is committed to bringing these stories to light through the contributions of our followers. Our unit caters to the modern hobby and appreciates the participation of its followers and their useful research. For the sake of historical accuracy, the knowledge of a trade, and a greater understanding of late 18th century material culture, all of the clothing we wear is hand made for each individual. With consideration to our impression and to progressive living history, research and documentation for the 17th Regiment of Infantry Followers is ever continuing. Not only did the army have regular Followers, but it also included the countless number of visitors that came by camp to sell their goods and services in efforts to help the infantry and the royal artillery. There would often be members of the town rolling through with wheelbarrows and carriages with different kinds of fruits, vegetables and other food groups not readily available. There would also be Sutlers that supplied alcoholic beverages, which helped boost morale within the camp.
As fashion history continues to demonstrate, clothing styles change frequently. And although 1775 – 1784 is a relatively short time period, our follower impression calls for specific attention to those few years in regard to style, material, and construction. Here is a list of clothing descriptions for women’s fashion in the mid-late 18th century.
Like the men’s shirt, a shift is a long white linen dress designed as a base layer to protect the skin from all other layers of clothing and vice versa. Some of the finest stitching in original 18th century clothing is found in shifts and shirts because of the extensive laundering they underwent. A women would have at least three shifts with her on campaign, changing them every day or every other day. A note on construction: Shifts have gathered cuffs, a rolled hem, a rolled neckline (no drawstring or collar), and finished seams. The shape is distinctly A-line, with further details in our construction guidelines.
Stays/Jumps: Stays – commonly referred to as “corsets” in the 19th and early 20th centuries – are the figure-defining garment that is worn around the torso immediately following the shift. It will provide strength and rigidity to exterior garments and would act as a buffer taking the weight of the petticoats off of the hips and onto the tabs of the stays that splay over the hips. Stays are fully or partially boned with reed, wood splints, or baleen (if available). Jumps are worn like stays but do not have the rigid structure of stays. They are unboned and have shoulder straps, but function like stays in a supportive direction.
Pockets: Like modern pockets, 18th century women’s pockets are designed to carry items close to the body. But instead of being sewn as part of a larger garment, they are sewn as individual bags and connected by linen or cotton tape. Pockets are often made with patterned or printed materials and range in size based on material available and personal preference. For durability, the edges and opening of pockets are commonly bound in tape. Pockets are worn tied around the waist over the stays and under the petticoats.
Petticoats are the external 2-4 layers of skirts worn tied around the waist. They can be found in any variety of linen or wool material, color, or stripe. Standard length for a camp follower’s petticoat is between upper and lower calf. (Floral-printed petticoats were not worn except with a matching gown, and then only by middle to upper class women.)
Apron: Like modern aprons, 18th century aprons were made out of an absorbent material – most commonly linen – and tied around the waist, covering the outermost petticoat. Aprons are found with stripes, in solid colors, and especially in white.
Bed Gown: A bed gown is a versatile garment that can be worn with or without stays, to bed or to work. However, it is considered to be a garment worn in the “state of undress”. Based on personal preference and climate, a bed gown can be made from linen and remain unlined, from linen lined in linen or worsted wool, and from wool lined in linen or worsted wool. There are commonly slits at the side seams for access to pockets.
A gown consists of a bodice and skirt, with the bottom front open to reveal the petticoat beneath. Closure for the gown is either center-front or over a stomacher. A center-front closing gown has a bodice which meets in the center and is pinned to the stays. A stomacher-closing gown uses a trapezoidal flap of matching material from the gown and is pinned to the stays. Gowns can be made from linen and worsted or flannel wool.
Cap: The cap is a three-piece white linen head covering worn over the hair. Caps are commonly ornamented with silk ribbons and various styles of ruffles. Like shirts and shifts, a cap has fine stitching in matching white thread. Caps are starched for a full and crisp appearance.
Stockings: Stockings are either machine or hand-knit and will always have a seam along the center-back of the leg. The standard construction detail is the foot knitted separately from the leg. For women, the stockings are tied above or below the knee by silk ribbon or wool tape. Although stockings come in various colors, the appropriate colors for British followers are white or natural wool or cotton. Light wool stockings can be ribbed.
Shoes: Women were sometimes issued men’s shoes, so plain black leather shoes are appropriate. Other acceptable options are shoes with covered heels and wool or leather uppers. All shoes are fastened with fitted buckles or ties.
*Wives, Slaves, and Servant Girls by Don Hagist is a prime source of numerous runaway ads from the years 1770-1783 of various women in various ranks, and carrying various objects with them in their flee.
*All of the above guidelines are designed for our use as a camp follower unit. Middle and upper class 18th century impressions have other guidelines appropriate to their status.
The 17th Regiment of Infantry Followers have joined forces with the ladies and gentlemen of “Followers of the British Army”. With the help of Jenna Schnitzer, a follower of the 62nd Regiment of Foot, we have created a hive mind of people that are willing share their knowledge and experience in the efforts to help up and coming male and female followers.
“We will be providing scholarship and encouragement to outside units who need support and guidance. British Followers can be a home for women who are freelancing, tired of the same old follower programming or are looking for a more progressive home for their impression. We will be taking individuals as all membership is individual. Membership is accepted on a person by person basis. We will be doing in house workshops and research on a regular basis. We will serve all areas where we have membership. ”– Jenna Schnitzer on the British Followers Guidelines