As a graduation present, my mom took me to go see the musical Hamilton in London’s West End last summer. It was, predictably, fantastic. I had written about the musical as part of my Doctorate of Fine Arts project, which looked at (among other things) how contemporary fiction writers represent the American Revolution. So it was a fitting PhD grad gift! We had fabulous seats and we laughed, cried, and cheered with the rest of the audience. I also managed to keep my singing along to a minimum, which I’m pretty proud of.
Afterwards we got a drink and my ever-tolerant, encouraging mother listened to all my reflections on the show: the set, the costumes, the characterizations etc. I went on and on about how I liked the choice of using mostly period-appropriate clothes and I made a joke about how I hoped they were wearing 21st century underwear though.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked with confused laughter.
It was then that I explained what precisely the real Alexander Hamilton would most likely have been wearing as underclothes and it surprised her so much that I thought I’d do a whole post about it here!
When it comes to visualizing clothing of the past, it’s always helpful for me to look at videos, drawings, and (if possible) real life historical artifacts in museums. But since we can’t all go to a museum together, let me direct you to National Museums Liverpool’s very helpful video ‘Getting Dressed in the 18th Century – Men’.
In this video, you will see that the gentleman’s first layer of clothing is a big white shirt with voluminous sleeves (imagine like a pirate shirt?). Then he puts on white stockings, which go up over the knee. A gentleman might wear drawers (which are like short trousers made of thin linen) but it’s not necessary because the white shirt was really long and you just tucked it between your legs when you put on your breeches (which are short ‘trousers’ for those in the UK, ‘pants’ if you’re in the US) and the shirt acted as modern men’s underwear would!
So basically, the ‘underwear’ or base garment for men was just a long shirt! The quality and consistency of this shirt of course varied. A gentleman might have ruffles at the wrist, a laborer’s might have had stripes. But basically, as far as I could tell, our modern concept of men’s underwear (i.e boxers, briefs etc.) didn’t come about until around the 1930’s.
So Hamilton would have been wearing something under his outer clothing, it just probably wasn’t what you would have expected!
So what were women wearing as a form of undergarments? Let’s save that for another post…
‘Underwear in the 18th Century’ from The Macaronis
‘A Colonial Gentleman’s Clothing: A Glossary of Terms’ from the Colonial Williamsburg site
‘Getting Dressed in the 18th Century – Men’, YouTube video from National Museums Liverpool
(Today’s Featured Image is of none other than, you guessed it, Alexander Hamilton! It’s from the 1805 portrait of him by John Trumbull, accessed via the Wikipedia Commons.)
Madeira Mondays is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!