The Lady Civil War Reenactor: Part V

In the first part of The Lady Civil War Reenactor, I gave an introduction about what should be expected at most reenactments for women, why people choose to participate in reenactments, and a list of vocabulary commonly spoken by people in the reenactment community.  In the second part of The Lady Civil War Reenactor, I talked about building the impression (persona) that you use that reenactments and what should be avoided.  I also put up a short questionnaire designed to help you build your impression.  In the third part of The Lady Civil War Reenactor, I got into more of the specifics in each type of impression that a female reenactor can do, broken down into basic economic and social structure in both the Union and the Confederacy. In the fourth part of The Lady Civil War Reenactor, we talked about the basic fashion items you’ll need to get started.

Today, in the fifth part of The Lady Civil War Reenactor, we’ll talk about some specifics with your impression from a fashion perspective. This series does focus a lot on fashion, but it’s important because you have to look the part in order to not only get deeper into what 1860s people lived through but also to teach tourists correctly. Think of it this way. Two hundred years from now, people might reenact aspects of the 2010s. It wouldn’t look right if they were building their fashion impressions from the 1960s or 1970s. Sure, you could tell approximately what period it was but it wouldn’t be right either. That’s why it’s important to look the part of the late 1850s/early 1860s and not fudge things because you might like something from the 1830s or 1880s better. Nothing irritates me more than seeing people show up to Civil War reenactments wearing bustles or dressed like they’re ready to board the Titanic because they find those clothes prettier. Bustles, wide Titanic hats, skinny skirts, etc., came well after the Civil War, so bringing “future” fashion into it is highly inappropriate. You will be stared at and sometimes shunned by other reenactors if you go down that road. Fair warning.

So you’ve gotten all of your undergarments mentioned in the last part of this series and now you’re either ready to make your first dress or buy it from someone else. Standard sizes were not yet common in the 1860s, so clothes were usually made to order by whoever was going to wear them. For that reason, clothes made by seamstresses or ordered from different shops were pretty expensive because everything was custom made. Most women had enough sewing skills to make their own clothes, which was time consuming. Sewing machines were on the scene by the Civil War but they weren’t very sturdy and constantly sent back to the manufacturers for repairs (I have seen several references to this in period letters). The cost of new clothes combined with the time it took to make them made them costly and therefore, most people didn’t have closets full of clothes like we do today. The majority of American women had a few dresses in their wardrobes: one or two everyday dresses made of durable materials for working in the home, perhaps a slightly fancier dress for daytime social occasions, a ballgown or some other dress suitable for nighttime social occasions, and a church dress, which was often used as a wedding dress too unless she could afford an actual wedding dress. Sometimes women kept a black dress for mourning on standby while other women ended up dyeing one of their everyday dresses black if a death in the family occurred.

There were three basic bodice shapes for the Civil War period, known as the V, Y and O bodices. The letters correspond to the shapes of the bodices if you lie the letter on top of the bodice. The V bodice was the most popular shape for the majority of women between 26 and 65. It was highly fitted to the figure, creating the V shape from shoulders to waist. The O shaped bodice was loose and gathered at the waist, creating a slightly poofy look that would resemble an O. Garibaldi blouses were common with the O bodice shape. The O bodice was mostly worn by younger women between the ages of 15 and 25. Elderly women tended to favor the Y shaped bodice, which was super tight around the waist and fanned upward to the shoulders. The reason why Y bodices were favored by older women was because they were popular in their generations prior to the war (1840s and 1850s). Depending on your age, the shape of your dress will be affected. Pictured at right is a woman wearing a blouse of an O bodice shape. It would be mostly correct if she bothered to wear a corset. Also, the white blouse with a colored skirt really didn’t come into fashion until after the war. Dresses during the war were the same color or pattern from top to bottom for the most part whether they were two pieces or one piece.

Sleeve shapes also determined the age of the woman. There were a few basic sleeve shapes of the period. Straight sleeves were the simplest and universal as they fit loosely around the arm and gathered in a cuff at the wrist. Bishop sleeves and coat sleeves were a bit more complicated, still gathered at the wrist by a cuff, but with an exaggerated width at the elbow that created the illusion of the arm being gracefully bent. The most complicated sleeve was the pagoda sleeve. It was tighter around the upper arm and below the elbow, it fanned out into a wide open wrist. For the sake of modesty, the woman would have worn undersleeves to cover bare skin. Pagoda sleeves were pretty much only used on fancier dresses and favored by women who were a bit older to have been through the height of popularity in the 1850s. Short sleeves were extremely rare in daylight (I have seen some among the lowest classes but not enough to encourage it) but the ballgown would have been off-the-shoulder with short sleeves, sometimes tight and sometimes puffed.

The neckline and collar of the dress was more uniformed than other components. High necklines were universal in daylight hours. Collars were almost always detachable (they were pinned in place) and made of white cotton. Sometimes they could be trimmed in thin lace if they were for fancier dresses. A good way to date photographs from the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s is by the width of the collars, which progressively became simpler and narrower as the decades progressed. In the Civil War, the general rule is collars should be no wider than 2 1/2 inches. Older women tended to cling to the fashions of their youth, so a young woman might have had a simple, narrow collar during the war but her mother might have clung to her wider lace collars from before the war.

Fabric choices were dependent on the type of dress as well. You wouldn’t just pick any pretty fabric for any pattern. Modern shoppers have to be careful not to buy man-made fabrics like polyester or silk dupioni that would not have existed back then. Plain cotton, plain wool, plain silk, cotton gauze, cotton/wool blends, silk/wool blends, linen, silk taffeta, watermark silk, crepe silk, etc., are acceptable fabrics. Additionally, patterns should not have more than three colors in them because manufacturers weren’t capable of more complicated color palettes. Do not use neon colors. At all. Once I saw a woman show up in a neon electric blinding Barbie Corvette pink dress with obnoxious trim and it was painful to watch. This is not to say colors should be boring but the rule is if you can’t create that color from nature, they shouldn’t be used. Colors also reflected the woman’s age and marital status. Younger, unmarried women wore lighter colors and lighter fabrics. As she grew older and got married, her colors and fabrics went darker and heavier. The size of the pattern depended on the wealth of the woman because larger patterns meant more fabric was wasted in cutting to match up the pieces.

Fashionable patterns were plaid, small floral, and geometric. Fashionable colors were browns, coppers, greens, blues, grays, dark reds (the red in the picture would have been considered too bright or flashy), etc. It is a myth that women only wore black when they were in mourning. An ensemble deemed for mourning had many other attributes besides black. A young lady would have favored ivory or pastels for balls in order to be seen in candlelight.

Work dresses were made of fabric that wasn’t so expensive and it had to be durable and functional. Cotton in the warmer months and wool in the warmer months, for the most part. Most women also aspired to have at least one good “silk” or a fancier dress meant to be seen outside of the home. A simple pattern appropriate for a work dress would not be paired with silk material just like a fancier day dress pattern would not be paired with cotton material. Silk of the period was meant to be thin and have a rustling, crinkling sound as the woman walked. Since it was thin, she could buy wool/silk blends for fashionable taste while still keeping warm. Specialty fabrics would have been cotton gauze (I think it was called voile in the 1860s) for sheer summer dresses worn by younger women and black silk crepe for mourning dresses in all age groups.

Here are a few examples of patterns. The first pattern would be paired up with functional, durable fabrics like cotton or wool, while the second pattern was meant to be a silk or some sort of silk blend, while the third pattern was meant to be used with sheer fabrics.

Let’s review what we’ve learned so far.

Younger, modern women of the period (say, under 35) would have favored dresses made with a V or O bodice, with straight, bishop or coat sleeves, with collars no wider than 2 1/2 inches. Her fabric choices would have been lighter or darker depending on her age and marital status.

Older, traditional women of the period (say, over 35) might have favored dresses made with a Y or V bodice, and they would have been okay with somewhat outdated pagoda sleeves and wider collars. Her fabric choices would have been darker, heavier and more sedate to reflect her age and marital status.

Need some inspiration? This is a video of mostly antique dresses from the period. A few are reproduction.

5 responses to “The Lady Civil War Reenactor: Part V”

  1. Eilfie says:

    I’ve been really enjoying this series about where to start in being a Civil War reenactor.It is much more then wearing pretty dresses and swishing about with umbrellas on the battlefield. Been learning many things that I never knew before to be quite honest, and that is what’s great. This seems to be something that can be either a seasonal hobby or a year round hard core lifestyle. Not only do you invest in many wonderful items to be as authentic as possible, but you also become a teacher while enjoying living history.
    Thank you for writing this series.

  2. I stumbled across your article today as I was looking for images to use in a ‘what not to wear’ program I am presenting very soon. Imagine how surprised (and happy) I was to find that was not you in the white shirt/floral skirt photo (which is the one I found) and equally delighted with your article. It was clear, concise and very well written. Brava!

  3. Molly says:

    Hey there, I am looking into starting to reenact. I have several male friends who already do this, and they can tell me quite a bit about how most things work, but I think they might be mistaken about certain things having to do with the women folk. One of them has been telling me quite a bit about what I should do when making a ball gown, he says that I need to wear full length gloves that cover my elbows, because it is period correct, however when I look up reenactment photos, or even authentic images of women in their fanciest, they are only wearing write length or forearm length gloves. Also, I am not a married woman, so I would be going into it as a single girl with no husband, is this taboo? Are there women that go as say an heiress who inherited her money before she got married? Or perhaps just a daughter who just happens to not attend these events with her parents? Any and all help would be appreciated!

  4. Thank you so much for all of your information. I am just getting started in reenacting(about a year) and the information is not only great but also very helpful.

  5. Angie Lamb says:

    I’ve been a re-enactor for a number of years and I’ve also taught a few classes (one of which was based on the book, “Sex and the Civil War”) with extensive research done (a ladies only class by invitation only, over the age of 18).

    The dark colored you meanted for mourning were achieved from blackberries, blueberries, tea, coffee or anything that the ladies could reasonable “experiment with” to achieve the desired coloring. I have found one mistake women who re-enact are not aware of…batenburg lace (especially those lace umbrellas/parasols) which they were not invented until the 1870s. I’ve also observed that many women have the impression that a woman would have worn a diamond ring. I see these vintage rings from the Victorian era that are actually from the 1940s & 1950s. Diamonds were not readily available, even to those of means until the late 1860s. Seed pearls, rubies, emerald, sapphires, etc were available or even painted glass. The way I explained it to women when it came to jewelry was, “Look at what was available in the days of Cleopatra. That is the readily available jewels.” I found your page very informative for someone who wishes to partake in this great hobby. I always hear that $$ is the big issue; yes, it can be costly, especially when you consider your tenting gear but if you can find someone who’s willing to maybe “recycle” some of their gear, clothing, etc. you will find a very fulfilling hobby which then becomes an educational experience which is worth it’s weight in gold.

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