Uniforms of the American Revolution

American Revolution uniforms
Photo showing recreated Patriot Militiamen of the American Revolution in various states of undress. John W. Penney. 2011.

A Primer to the Clothing the New England Patriots of 1775 Wore

A suite of clothing which consisted of a coat, waistcoat, and breeches was often a “ditto suite.”

The Patriots who fought at Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775), Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775), and the Siege of Boston (April 19, 1775 – March 17, 1776) came from all walks of life, and unlike their British counterparts had little to no uniform. Some wore their finest suits of clothing, while many others wore their work clothes. The clothing worn by the Patriots during the first year of the American Revolution was simply a cross section of the different fashions and styles of civilian clothing worn by New Englanders with all levels of society being represented. Some uniformity did exist in the more affluent militia companies on the eve of the American Revolution, and following the Battle of Bunker Hill attempts were made to uniform the Patriot forces, but the majority of the Patriots that served in 1775 wore their own civilian clothing. Because the New England militia and minutemen of 1775 wore civilian clothing, in reality, they wore clothing no different from any other New England males at the time. The clothing detailed here is the typical dress of what men living in New England wore in the 1770s.

Clothing and Style of the 1770s

american revolution style view gallery The clothing and style of the 1770s is worlds away from that of today. Men’s clothing during the American Revolution was extremely form fitted and individually tailored to fit the wearer’s body. A suite of clothing which consisted of a coat, waistcoat, and breeches was often a “ditto suite.” A “ditto suite” was when all of the pieces of the suite were made of the same color and fabric. It was also common for just coats and breeches to match, and for coats, waistcoats, and breeches to be worn which were made from completely different materials and colors.

Hunting Shirts During the American Revolution

The garment was synonymous with the American frontier.

The ubiquitous hunting shirt worn by American forces during the American Revolution was an unknown garment to New Englanders prior to the arrival of William Thompson, Daniel Morgan, and Michael Cresap’s famed frontier riflemen (from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland respectively) at Cambridge Camp in July and August of 1775 during the Siege of Boston. The linen hunting shirt was a backcountry garment which came about on the American frontier in the years prior to the American Revolution. The garment was synonymous with the American frontier. By August of 1775, the army George Washington commanded at Cambridge Camp was destitute, lacked proper clothing, and was in no way uniformed in a traditional military sense. In an effort to cheaply and effectively clothe his troops Washington attempted to outfit the newly formed Continental Army with hunting shirts, but the hunting shirt was not adopted as a uniform of the Continental Army until 1776. The Cambridge Camp General Orders dated August 7, 1775 stated: “…the General has hopes of prevailing with the Continental Congress to give each man a hunting shirt…” Washington would later write in a General Order dated July 24, 1776, “No dress can be cheaper, nor more convenient, as the wearer may be cool in the warm weather and warm in cool weather by putting on under-cloathes which will not change the outward dress, Winter or Summer – besides which it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person (so dressed) is a complete marksman.” Hunting shirts were not worn by the New England Patriots who fought at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and the Siege of Boston. The hunting shirt was not adopted as a uniform for New England regiments serving in the Continental Army until mid-1776.

Professional Tailoring in the 18th Century

gallery of professional tailoring in the 18th century
The sewing machine and power tools as we know them today had not yet been invented and did not exist during the time of the American Revolution. This was before the Industrial Revolution and all clothing was hand tailored and hand sewn. As with every other aspect of a garment, button holes were hand sewn. Professional tailoring in the 18th century was a male dominated industry. Equipment and weapons were also made by hand: leather cartridge boxes put together and hand sewn by skilled leather artificers; canteens crafted by skilled coopers; swords forged by skilled blacksmiths; guns built by skilled gunsmiths; and the list goes on and on for all the items used by the Patriots which were skillfully produced by colonial craftsmen. Since the Patriots came from all walks of life and represented all levels of colonial society, some of the clothing (or materials used), weapons, and equipment of an individual Patriot militia or minuteman might have been imported from England or the European continent.

Facial Hair in England and the American Colonies

facial hair during the revolutionary war
Facial hair (with very few exceptions) was a societal taboo in the 18th century English speaking world. During the American Revolution, facial hair was not in fashion nor was it accepted by civil society in England or the American Colonies. Facial hair was not acceptable in civilian life, nor was it in the military. Soldiers and sailors in the service of King George III or the Thirteen Colonies (Continental Army) under military regulations were expected to shave and to be clean shaven every three days. There were exceptions to these regulations which occurred during protracted military expeditions or campaigns where proper sanitation was not available and soldiers were sometimes forced to go a few days (if not weeks) without having a proper shave. Examples of this are Benedict Arnold’s 1775 expedition to Quebec, and the 1781 race to the Dan River between Nathanael Greene and Lord Cornwallis. In civilian life, men typically shaved on a daily basis or up to every three days. Even in the lower classes of society men made every effort to shave on a regular basis. A clean shaven face was the accepted norm in civil society during the American Revolution. With the exception of a couple days stubble growth, the Patriots who responded to the Alarm of April 19, 1775 and fought at Lexington and Concord would not have had facial hair.

Not every item of clothing worn by the Patriots during the first year of the American Revolution is discussed in this brief guide, but this is a good introduction to what they would have worn when they went off to war in the Spring of 1775, and the types of clothing civilian men wore in the 1770s.

Not every item of clothing worn by the Patriots during the first year of the American Revolution is discussed in this brief guide, but this is a good introduction to what they would have worn when they went off to war in the Spring of 1775, and the types of clothing civilian men wore in the 1770s.

Headgear

photo of headgear in the american revolution
Contrary to popular belief, hats during the American Revolution were not called or referred to as “three cornered hats” they were simply referred to as “hats.” Civilian hats ranged from the very simple and cheap to the extravagant – trimmed in gold or silver lace, dressed with a cockade, and sometimes adorned with ostrich feathers. In some Patriot militia and minute companies cockades of different colors to designate rank were worn in the hats of officers and non-commissioned officers. Civilian hats were cocked (shaped/formed) or un-cocked in a wide array of styles during the American Revolution. Some styles of hats seemed to defy description with brims bent up in awkward ways, cocked up on only one side, etc… Most hats during the American Revolution can be described as a “cocked hat” or “round hat” depending upon the style. The majority of hats were made out of wool felt or beaver fur and dyed black or white, round blocked, and had a liner on the inside made of linen, silk, or similar material. An alternative to a hat were the ever common caps: knit wool caps, such as the “Monmouth” style, were often worn in cooler weather, whereas a linen cap might be worn in warm weather. Most men in the 18th century owned both a hat and knit cap, and in many cases owned multiple hats and caps.

Shirts

gallery of american revolution shirts
A man’s shirt during the 18th century was considered his underwear. In public, a shirt was rarely worn without a waistcoat or jacket over it. A man dressed in public only wearing a shirt without a waistcoat or jacket over it was considered “naked” by 18th century standards. Some aspects of military service required men to strip down to their shirts to comfortably perform manual labor, such as the Patriots working on fortifications during the Siege of Boston in the summer of 1775. The length of shirts tended to be long, about mid-thigh to just below the knee in length, because a shirt was not just worn in the day but also doubled as a nightgown. Additionally shirts were made long because for many men a shirt was their only form of underwear. On August 27, 1765, the morning following the Stamp Act Riot mob attack on Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion, Hutchinson showed up at court only wearing a torn shirt – “naked” by the standards of the time. The angry mob had destroyed all of Hutchinson’s clothing and other personal belongings. Hutchinson apologized and addressed his fellow judges regarding his “naked” appearance: “Excuse my appearance, I have no other garment,” and he broke down and cried. Shirts during the time of the American Revolution were made of a variety of different fabrics and were made full and wide for maximum comfort and ease of movement. The majority of shirts were made of plain, checked, or striped fabrics. Shirts made of linen, cotton, light-weight flannel, and fabric blends were the most prevalent in New England. Men’s shirts of the 18th century were all cut in same manner from rectangles and squares, the only difference between the shirt of a laborer and that of gentleman was the quality of the fabric and attention to detail of how it was constructed. A shirt made for a gentleman would have been constructed of fine cotton or linen bleached white, ruffles may have been added, and the quality of the craftsmanship and hand stitching would have been top-notch and surpassed that of a common working class shirt. Shirts during the American Revolution tended to have narrow wristbands (cuffs) closed by wrist buttons (cuff links). Collars varied in height but tended to not be as high as later 1790s or early 19th century shirts when high collars were all the rage. Shirts were pullover style and only closed at the collar and did not have plackets or buttons down fronts like shirts from later time periods. Shirts were closed with buttons, linen or thread ties, or combination of buttons and linen or thread loops. Buttons were made from a variety of materials and tended to be on the smaller side around 1/2″ or 7/16″ in diameter. Common types of buttons used on shirts tended to be made of thread, horn, cloth covered, metal, or leather. Shirts always were one of the first clothing items to wear out and fall apart during active military service especially in the warmer months. For the thousands of Patriots who took part in the Siege of Boston clean new shirts were a seldom seen luxury to replace their dirty ragged ones.

For the thousands of Patriots who took part in the Siege of Boston clean new shirts were a seldom seen luxury to replace their dirty ragged ones.

Neck Coverings

gallery of neck coverings during the american revolution
A man needed to wear a neckerchief or neck stock around his neck (which was worn over the collar of the shirt) to be considered properly dressed by 18th century standards. Neckerchiefs and neck stocks were the 18th century version of the modern necktie. Neck coverings were an essential part of 18th century menswear, and in most cases if either a neckerchief or neck stock were not worn in public it was considered “naked” by 18th century standards. Neckerchiefs were made of solid or printed silk, linen, or cotton and typically made of a triangle or square of fabric with rolled hemmed edges. They were folded diagonally and tied in a square knot at the neck. Neck stocks were typically white or black and made of linen, cotton, or silk. Unlike neckerchiefs, neck stocks were fastened around the neck with ties or a buckle. Unlike military neck stocks of the American Revolution, civilian neck stocks were not made of leather or horsehair.

Knee Breeches & Trousers

photo gallery of breeches and trousers in the american revolution
The Patriots who went off to war in 1775 wore either knee breeches or trousers with a “fall front” closure, called a “full fall” or “half fall,” as opposed to the earlier older style “fly front” button closure. The “fall front” eliminated fly buttons and created a smooth fit across the front of the breeches that when wearing a full suite of clothes eliminated the visibility of buttons and created the silhouette of smooth lines. The 1770s was a transitional period in regards to where the waistband sat and in 1775 it either was placed to ride on the hip bones or just above the natural waist. Breeches worn by New Englanders commonly were made of leather, wool, linen, velvet, silk, or fabric blends. Leather breeches where quite common among New Englanders and made of dressed and sometimes dyed buckskin, elk, or sheepskin. Breeches went down below the kneecap but no lower than the top of the shinbone, and were closed at the knee with ties or buttons. The kneeband was closed with a buckle, button, or drawstring pulled through the casing of the kneeband and was tied off. Breeches were tailored to closely fit the body and were form fitting. Trousers were a popular garment among the working class and sailors, and typically in length went down to just below the calf or above the ankle. Commonly trousers were made of linen, wool, cotton, or fabric blends. Trousers were usually tailored looser and baggier than that of the fit of breeches. Trousers were quite common with American militiamen and soldiers during the American Revolution especially during the warmer months. Common buttons on both breeches and trousers were cloth covered, thread wrapped, metal, leather, or horn. The backs of the waistbands on breeches and trousers were adjustable with a gusset and lacing.

Trousers were a popular garment among the working class and sailors, and typically in length went down to just below the calf or above the ankle.

Waistcoats

waistcoats view gallery
A waistcoat (the 18th century equivalent to a modern vest) was the part of a man’s clothing worn over the shirt and under the coat or jacket. Waistcoats were made with and without sleeves. A waistcoat without sleeves was the most common style worn with a full suite of clothing, although in colder weather sleeved waistcoats were favored. It was considered a social taboo in the 18th century for men to go in public showing their shirt sleeves. Men would almost never be caught in public just wearing a shirt and an un-sleeved waistcoat with no coat or jacket worn over. Sometimes in warm weather men would strip down and work in their shirtsleeves and waistcoat but this was only confined to the workplace such as a farmer plowing his field or a blacksmith working in his shop. The Patriot militia and minutemen would have never reported for military service wearing only an un-sleeved waistcoat with no coat or jacket worn over it. In warmer weather it was socially acceptable for men to wear in public a shirt and sleeved waistcoat, which was often considered a jacket. Waistcoats were either single or double breasted and constructed of wool, linen, velvet, silk, or fabric blends. In a suite of clothing typically the buttons on a waistcoat matched that of the coat, and sometimes the fabric and color of the waistcoat were of a contrasting color, design, and/or texture to the coat and breeches. Common buttons on waistcoats were cloth covered, thread wrapped, metal, leather, or horn. On the eve of the American Revolution waistcoats ranged in length from the older styled mid-thigh length of the 1750s-60s to the more common shorter skirted style just below hip level of the 1770s. Waistcoats featured a button front, and the neckline was high and rounded. Typically waistcoats had pockets which were located at waist level. Waistcoats were tailored to closely fit the body and were form fitting. Waistcoats were tailored to cover the waistband and the edges of the “fall front” of the breeches. In cold weather underwaistcoats where worn. These were waistcoats made primarily of a light-weight warm wool, and worn under the standard waistcoat, or sometimes under the shirt. The pattern and construction of underwaistcoats differed from that of standard waistcoats and tended to be shorter in length. Underwaistcoats were typically closed down the front with cloth ties or lacing through hand worked grommets opposed to buttons and buttonholes.

Coats & Jackets

photo of american revolution coats and jackets

Coats and jackets were the types of outer garments worn by men in the 18th century. Coats and jackets were worn over the shirt and waistcoat. Typically, coats were constructed of wool, linen, velvet, silk, or fabric blends. Jackets were considered a working class garment and were commonly made of wool, linen, or fabric blends. Common types of buttons on both coats and jackets were cloth covered, thread wrapped, metal, leather, or horn. Both coats and jackets were tailored to closely fit the body and were form fitting. The length of coats varied from mid thigh to knee length. During the 1770s there were two types of coats men wore. The frock coat was worn by men of all social classes. The dress coat was a formal garment constructed of the finest materials, finely tailored, and was often reserved for the social elite. Both types of coats had cuffs, and depending upon the style may or may not have had a collar. Typically a frock coat had a single or double breasted button front, the neckline was high and rounded, and had functioning pockets. On the other hand, dress coats typically were not cut to have a functioning button front. Instead, they had faux buttonholes and buttons purely for decoration. Many dress coats fastened down the front with hooks and eyes, or had a couple functional buttonholes at the top of the coat. The neckline of dress coats was high, and typically the pockets on dress coats were not functional. Jackets are best described as a waistcoat with sleeves or a shortened version of a coat. Jackets had a single or double breasted button front, the neckline was high and rounded, and had functioning pockets. Depending upon the style, jackets may or may not have had a collar and cuffs. There were different styles of jackets in the 1770s; one of the more common styles among the working class was the “sailor jacket,” which was the style of jacket worn by many mariners during the time period. As with all civilian men of New England, the Patriot militia and minutemen of 1775 wore a mix and variety of styles of both coats and jackets depending upon their social status.

Farmer’s Frock or Smock

A frock or smock was an overshirt sometimes worn by men over their clothing (i.e. a full suite of clothing) to protect their clothes while working in the fields or performing similar tasks of manual labor. These were oversized shirts constructed in the same exact manner and out of the same materials as standard body shirts. Frocks/smocks were primarily made out of stout and durable linens. During the Siege of Boston, Patriots wore frocks/smocks over their clothing while performing fatigue duties such as constructing earthworks.

Greatcoats or Surtouts

view gallery of greatcoats
The greatcoat/ surtout was a stout wool overcoat worn by men over their clothing in cold weather. Typically reaching to below the knees, greatcoats/surtouts had a collar, a cape (or capes) to shed the rain, large cuffs, and a slit in the back to allow for riding a horse. Greatcoats/surtouts were often closed by a button front, tabs that went across the opening and buttoned, or tied shut with cloth ties.

Stockings & Socks

Stockings were primarily knit and made of wool, cotton, linen, silk, or fabric blends.

Stockings, or hose, were worn with both knee breeches and trousers. Socks were worn with trousers. Stockings came up over the knee and were secured with cloth or leather garters that either tied or buckled. Stockings were primarily knit and made of wool, cotton, linen, silk, or fabric blends. For the most part stockings were knit on machines, although still many were knit by hand. Machine knit stockings were manufactured in two flat pieces, then in the factory hand sewn together up the back creating a “back seam.” Stockings made of thread, or cut and sewn cloth were common among the poor and working class. Socks were shorter than stockings and did not go over the knee. Socks were made from the same materials as stockings with the exception of finer materials such as silk, and the process for making socks was different but very similar. Stockings and socks were available in a plethora of different solid colors, but bleached and shades of white were the most common.

Shoes

The style of mens shoe common to the time period of the American Revolution were low quarter, rough or smooth side out black leather shoes with buckles or ties (laces). Most shoes of this time period were straight lasted – no defined difference between shoes made for the right or left foot. Lace up ankle high half-boots were also worn – favored by gentlemen hunters, horsemen, and military officers. The shoe industry was thriving on the eve of the American Revolution in the Thirteen Colonies and shoes could have been bought readymade “off the rack,” or custom made from local shoemakers. Shoes were also imported from England. Shoes were butt stitched together, made from vegetable tanned leather, and typically had rounded toes (but depending upon style and maker sometimes had pointed or square toes). For men engaged in prolonged and hard military service shoes wore out rather quickly.