The Cognitive Shift, or 18th Century SHIFTS,
WHAT I KNOW AND HOW I LEARNED IT
© Sharon Ann Burnston 2005, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2017, 2018


Introduction
Choosing Suitable Materials
Cut and Construction
Patterns You Can Use
How to Fit a Shift to Your Body
Shift Neckline Woes
Sewing the Shift
Stroke Gathers
Ruffles
Monogramming a Shift
FAQs
Replica Shift


CUT AND CONSTRUCTION

 

The cut of an 18th c. shift is a marvel of simplicity and economy, a clever arrangement of squares and triangles, a winning combination so successful that it remained unchanged for nearly a thousand years. From roughly 1000 AD to c 1810, this basic cut for an undergarment remained in use with only minor variations in sleeve shape, neckline shape and seaming-techniques.


tunic of St Louis c 1000 A.D. as seen in "Cut My Cote"

Every 18th c. shift I have been able to study was cut virtually the same, except for variations in the shape of the sleeves and the neckline. It was this observation that allowed me to first begin to see that it might be possible to develop a chronology whereby shifts could be dated. Since many of the garments I have studied I do not have permission to publish, I am simply going to offer here my conclusions.

You need only look at 18th c. portraiture to recognize that stylistic elements of clothing tend to get narrower as the century progresses. Among these elements are gown sleeves, and with them, shift sleeves. Having looked at enough shifts, including some which have specific dates associated with them, I observed more specifically that earlier in the century, shift sleeves are wider than they are long. By the end of the century, shift sleeves are longer than they are wide. But 18th c. shift sleeves are square (the cut piece of fabric for each sleeve measuring as long as it is wide) at just about the mid 1770's. So if you are making a Rev War shift, you would want to determine how long your sleeve needs to be in order to just cover your elbow, add 1" for two seam allowances of 1/2" each, and then cut your sleeve as a square of that dimension. If this seems huge or bulky to you, then you are probably using a fabric that isn't fine enough.

These full sleeves are gathered into a narrow band cuff, as will be discussed under "Sewing the Shift". I will state here that without exception, I have never seen any 18th c. shift which did not have its sleeves gathered into a cuff, except for shifts from the very end of the 18th c., when shift sleeves become so narrow that they don't need to be gathered, and the cuff is dispensed with. Drawstrings in the sleeves were simply never used. And over the years I have come to understand the logic of this: a drawstring wears out the sleeve fabric; a cuffed sleeve lasts longer.

As far as I have been able to determine, the date at which shifts begin to be made with sleeves so narrow that they do not need to be gathered to a cuff, and only a simple hem at the bottom, is somewhere c 1790. The 1789 sewing manual Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor says:

"The sleeves with wristbands. Half a yard and a nail is the length of the two sleeves, the width of the Irish [Irish is a linen fabric, previously stated as 35" wide] makes one pair, (a quarter and half, and a nail wide) taking the wristbands out of the middle of the breadth... wristbands an inch and a half wide... a quarter of a yard and an inch long each." (p. 29)

Translating the archaic length terminology (quarter = 9", half-quarter = 4.5", nail = 2.25"), this means that as late as 1789, standard shifts for the poor were to have sleeves which were to be cut 20 1/4" long x 17 1/2" wide, and gathered into wristbands, or cuffs, which were themselves to be cut 10" x 1 1/2". Narrower sleeves without cuffs are not mentioned.

After 1800, as gown sleeves shorten, shift sleeves finally do also. The Lady's Economical Assistant, or Art of Cutting Out and Making The Most Useful Articles of Wearing Apparel (1808) is the first instruction manual I know of which mentions short sleeves for shifts; it suggests they be cut 6" long (p. 20).

I realize that this assertion for the later dates for narrow shift sleeves and then for shorter shift sleeves flies against much of what is offered as dating for objects in some important museums (and from some important pattern companies), but it is consistent with all the evidence that has gone into my developing a shift chronology. It is also consistent with my understanding of the primary role of the shift as protecting the gown and the body from each other. Shift sleeves cannot get shorter until gown sleeves do, or else the shift isn't able to do its job.

The other change through time in the cut of 18th c. shifts is in the neckline. To understand why this should be so, one need only look again at American portraiture. If we look closely we can notice changes in the shape of the necklines on 18th c. gowns. As gown bodices tighten and seams are crowded towards the back, the front neckline becomes broader and more horizontal.

Early in the century, the necklines seen on gowns in American portraits are long ovals. See for example the two women in Smibert's The Bermuda Group (1730)


The Bermuda Group, detail (1730)    Source



or his portrait of Mrs. James Gooch (c 1729)    Source


See also the women of the Isaac Royall Family by Robert Feke (1741)


Isaac Royal Family, detail    Source
 

A shift neckline that followed the contours of these gowns would also have to be something like an oval.


John Greenwood's portrait of Mary Atkins (1750) shows a neckline which is only a slightly flatter oval...


Mary Atkins, detail   Source
 

... and here are three portraits by Joseph Badger which show how the gown neckline evolved from ovoid to flat:


Mrs Isaac Smith (1746), detail   Source



Mrs John Haskins (1759), detail    Source



Mary Croswell (1763), detail   Source
 

Later yet in the 18th c., women's gown necklines become almost horizontal, as can be seen in Copley's portraits of Mrs. Daniel Sargent (1763) or Mrs. Richard Skinner (1772)...


Mrs. Daniel Sargent, detail   Source



Mrs. Richard Skinner, detail   Source


... or in this 1784 Ralph Earl portrait of Sophia Drake

 

Sophia Drake, detail   Source
 

And so, as I began to study enough shifts that I could notice and track differences in neckline shape, it became apparent to me that a chronology of shift dating would incorporate a gradual transition from necklines which were a long-axis ovoid, to ones which were a broader oval, to necklines which were more squared off and horizontal across the front. This conclusion was supported by the correlation, among the shifts I studied, between this evolution of neckline shape and the gradual evolution of shift sleeves from wider to narrower.

Time line of shapes, shift necklines
c 1730

c 1750

c 1775

c 1790

click on individual images for larger view.


Shift Neckline Woes
 

I should add that whatever the shape of the neckline on an 18th c. shift, it was finished with a narrow hem, and sized to fit without a drawstring. I have seen at least one shift with a drawstring in the neckline, so I would not say these "never" existed, but the drawstring was not there for fitting purposes. It might have been used for minor adjustments to accommodate different gowns with slightly different necklines, but in truth it isn't readily apparent what purpose it served. The vast majority of shifts don't have any drawstrings.

 


SLEEVES TOO!

But eighteenth century shift shapes changed in another significant way too, in the shape and size of the sleeves. This is more difficult to document than changes in shape of necklines, because portraits don't reveal the form of the shift sleeves as clearly they do the changes in necklines. Some portraits that do show the shift sleeves, or appear to, are fancy dress or allegorical, and must be considered with caution. Furthermore, the fullness of 18c shift sleeves was often controlled by elaborate pleats ironed in by the laundress, which can make a full sleeve look deceptively narrow. In many of the images, it is difficult to recognize when this is the case.

Nevertheless, as I hunted down and examined enough original extant shifts, a pattern did begin to emerge for me. Shift sleeves were much wider in earlier specimens than they were in the later-century examples. Shift sleeves, on the whole, grew steadily narrower. They started out in the first half of the century roughly twice as wide as they were long. In the period circa 1760-1780, shift sleeves were essentially squares, as wide as they were long. They ended up in the 1790's being cut longer than wide, and by this point some were narrow enough that they needed no gathering and no cuff. As with the changing form of shift necklines, these changes in the shape and length of shift sleeves reflect the evolving forms of gowns, the sleeves of which also grew narrower, tighter, and longer over the same span of time. By the end of the century, however, although earlier shift sleeve shapes and proportions still lingered, fashionable shift sleeves were beginning to grow shorter, mirroring the emerging fashion for short sleeves on gowns circa 1800.

Here is a sampling of dated images that show the shapes of shift sleeves and how they change over time.
 



1670 Nell Gwynne by Sir Geoffrey Lely - detail




1690 - 1700 Lady Clapham's shift, doll V&A




1721 Maria van Allen byTthe Schuyler Limner - detail




1730s Lady Undressing for a Bath by Gerardus Duyckinck - detail




1743 Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs. Jewkes and Mr. B, by Joseph Highmore - detail




1757 Indolence by Jean Baptiste Greuze - detail




1759 Simplicity by Jean Baptiste Greuze - detail




1772-3 The Old Free Method of Rouzing a Brother Sportsman - detail




1776 The Hen Pecked Husband Lewis Walpole Collection - detail




1779 Actress at her Toilet John Collett - detail




1784 The Stay Maker - Making a Pleasing Circumference - detail




1792 The Last Shift Carrington Bowles - detail




1794 Old Maid in Search of a Flea - Thomas Rowlandson - detail

 

 



Introduction
Choosing Suitable Materials
Cut and Construction
Patterns You Can Use
How to Fit a Shift to Your Body
Shift Neckline Woes
Sewing the Shift
Stroke Gathers
Ruffles
Monogramming a Shift
FAQs
Replica Shift
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