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Colonial Fashion Trends: What the Founding Fathers Wore

The United States has undergone tremendous changes in fashion since the days of the Founding Fathers. Nowadays, men keep their hair cropped short, and women wear pants - both ideas that were simply unheard of during the colonial era. So the question remains, what did the Founding Fathers wear?

Powdered Wigs
John Hancock's Powdered Wig

Powdered Wigs

The concept of the powdered wig emerged in France the mid 17th century. King Louis XIII was the man first responsible for the trend, as he wore a wig (original called "periwig") to cover his premature balding. As the trend began in royalty, they developed an upper-class, conservative status. People who wore them were among the "elites" in society.

Ralph Earl in Breeches

The first wigs were made from goat and horse hair, and because they were never properly washed they smelled quite terrible, and tended to attract lice.

To combat the unfortunate odor and unwanted parasites, the wig-wearer would "powder" his wig. The powder was usually made up of finely ground starch and scented with lavender.


Emerging in the twelfth century, breeches simply meant "garment for the legs and trunk." They were the staple of men's fashion in the late seventeenth and entire eighteenth centuries. The breeches worn by the Founding Fathers were knee length and attached with buttons or draw strings. They are still worn today for equestrian related activities and fencing.

John Singleton Copley in Waistcoat and Frock Coat

Waistcoat (Wisket)

Nary a day would pass when an eighteenth century gentleman would leave his house without his waistcoat (wisket/vest). The waistcoat is a sleeveless garment worn on the upper body over a dress shirt. It was often worn beneath a frock coat. It is still a prevalent piece in mens' formal wear today.

Frock Coat

The Frock Coat was worn over the shirt and waistcoat and typically reached down to the knees. This style emerged during the late eighteenth century and would gain popularity throughout the nineteenth century.

Stockings and Shoes

Three-pointed Hat
Beaver Skin Tricorne Hat

Gentleman, along with breeches, typically wore silk or woolen stockings along with lowheeled leather shoes with buckles. Unlike modern footwear, colonial shoes were not fitted for the curvature of the human foot, but instead were straight and, as a result, quite uncomfortable. Shoe buckles were made of polished silver. Although the men did wear boots, they were often for riding, and not seen in public society.

Tricorne Hats

Although gentleman tended to wear their powdered wigs unadorned, the tricorne hat did gain popularity throughout the Revolutionary War Period. The turned up portions of the hat not only shaded the wearer from the suns rays, but served as rain gutters that directed water away from his face as well. They were made using materials like felt or beaver fur.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Share-Alike License 3.0

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