How-To Wear Civil War Era Dresses
Dressing In A Victorian-Style Gown
Dressing in a Victorian-style gown is a fun and feminine way for women of all ages to get to play "dress-up". It's particularly exciting if you are attending a Civil War reenactment where everyone else is in costume too!Credit: upickme91 via Ebay
From the beginning of last year until 2015, reenactors from all over the country will come together to remember the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War. It's an exciting time, and if a gal has the means to deck herself out in a pretty gown, then all the better!
This lens includes my personal thoughts on reenacting, examples/descriptions of Victorian dresses, 10 steps on how to dress in period-correct clothing, a short video about Civil War fashion, polls, opinions, resources, and more.
So if you're ready for an exciting journey into the past, let's get started!
Victorian Ladies In Beautiful Day Dresses
I first became involved in Civil War events in 1997-98, when I attended the 135th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Gettysburg. These were both large events, with many reenactors and spectators present. The battles were huge and very realistic. The cannons' roar was very loud, as were the sound of hundreds of rifles firing. Smoke from the black powder they used as ammunition in those days filled the air. Men on horseback raced across the field of battle, firing their sidearms at the enemy. These "live" battle reenactments are choreographed to be fought in the same manner as they were during the actual war, though on a much smaller scale. It's exciting to watch, and gives you a real sense of history coming to life right before your eyes.
At the above events, I only had one dress to wear. It was a pretty blue day dress, with a huge hooped skirt, matching jacket and hat. Although it was very hot, I had a lot of fun wearing my costume. Men will tip their hats at you...it's very cool the way men treated women in those days. They were true gentlemen and it makes you feel very feminine.
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Have You Ever Participated In A Reenactment or Living History?
Nurse Reenactors On The BattlefieldCivil War reenactor is for two reasons: First, knowing how vicious and bloody this war truly was and the huge number of lives that were lost, gives me the desire to honor the men and women who were involved in it. Second, it really is a lot of fun, and a great way to escape the stress of the modern world for a short time.
Attending a Civil War event is like nothing you've ever experienced before. It feels like you have literally stepped into the past. The locations are in rural areas and everyone is dressed in period costumes. The reenactors live, talk, and act the same way folks did back in the 1800's. It's amazing. There are no modern conveniences to be seen anywhere. No cars, no modern clothing, no cans, plastic, or bottles--nothing. The reenactors cook over open campfires, sleep in period-correct tents, and go about their day the same way that their ancestors did. All in all, Civil War reenacting is a great hobby for those who love history and have the means to support it.
Most Victorian era gowns are made in two pieces--the top and the skirt. If you have the know-how (or have a friend who sews), making the bodice yourself is to your advantage. The measurements will be perfect and the bodice will fit you like a glove...the way it should. If you order a dress online, it might not fit as well as making your own. Just don't forget to take your measurements with your corset on!
American Girl Dolls are so popular that I thought it would be nice for you little girl's doll to have a beautiful Victorian gown. It's a great way to teach her about history, and if you ever attend a Civil War event as a spectator, I guarantee that the reenactors will get a kick out of your period-dressed doll....at least the ladies will ; )
THE DAY DRESSThe above are examples of the type of dress that a woman would wear during the day to go out. A wealthy woman would wear a more embellished day dress; along with a hat, gloves, reticule (purse), and a parasol (umbrella). A day dress was worn whenever a woman left the house--to go calling on friends (visiting); to wear to tea; to attend a ladies' sewing circle or book club; to go shopping; or to wear to Sunday church.
The day dress had a 'jewel' neckline (close to the throat) and long sleeves. There were two reasons for this: one, it wasn't proper for a woman to expose too much skin (as only ladies of ill-repute would do this); and two, it was very much the style in the 19th century to have pale, alabaster skin. The long sleeves, bonnets, hats, and parasols protected a woman's delicate skin from the sun.
THE CAMP DRESSThe camp dress is the plainest gown a woman would wear. It was made simply, using less expensive--but sturdy--fabrics. I believe it got it's name because women who would follow their men into war and "camp" with them, would wear very simple dresses. After all, what's the point in wearing a nice dress that would just get dirty from the hardships of camp life? Also, the military traveled by foot back then; many, many miles. It would've been impossible for a woman to carry her entire wardrobe with her.
Camp dresses were also worn at home while doing the daily chores. And believe me, daily chores were much more strenuous than they are now! A woman in the 1800's would have to take care of the entire household; cleaning, cooking, laundering, mending, sewing new clothing, caring for the children...all without the modern conveniences that we now take for granted. They also did outdoor chores, such as gardening, feeding chickens & gathering eggs, perhaps milking cows and goats, if they were fortunate enough to have them. So again, no need to muss up a good dress for these things!
THE BALL GOWNAhh...some of the most stunning gowns ever created were made during the Victorian era. They used the finest fabrics, such as silk, satin, and muslin. The above 3 examples are indeed beautiful, but there are so many more to see! Attention that was paid to the smallest of details was the hallmark of an expert seamstress or dress-maker; often it took anywhere from 5 months to one year to complete a single evening gown. I love seeing gorgeous ball gowns at reenactments or historical events, but truth be told, only wealthy women could afford to have a ball gown in their wardrobes.
As you can see, ball gowns (also called evening gowns) were the only Victorian-period dresses that allowed for short sleeves and deeper necklines. White, wrist-length gloves were a must-have accessory for this outfit. Other accessories included decorated hand-held fans, elaborate hairstyles, embroidered hankies, smelling salts, and expensive jewelry. Ball gowns were only worn for balls, soirees, and dinner parties--events normally hosted by the upper-class (the elite), so it wasn't likely that the average woman would own such a gown. But they sure were pretty and are absolutely luxurious to dress up in!
NOTE: Most of the photos and links in this section are from real seamstresses and companies that specialize in making 19th-century custom-fit gowns. Feel free to check them out if you're thinking of having one made for yourself.
"What A Woman!"
Rhett Butler in 'Gone With The Wind'
In addition to the seven undergarments I will describe here, I have also added three more steps to getting dressed which would complete a woman's ensemble. Images have been added when I could find them.
- CHEMISE: The chemise was the first layer and was worn next to the skin. It provided a barrier between the skin and the rough fibers of the corset, while simultaneously protecting the rest of the clothing from body oils and perspiration. It looked like a long nightgown that went down to about the knee, and was made of cotton or linen so it could easily be laundered.
- DRAWERS: Also known as bloomers or pantalets, this undergarment looked somewhat like current-day capri pants, except they were wider and more roomy. Since women in this era didn't wear panties like we do now, drawers had a split in the crotch area so that ladies could use the necessary room without removing their underclothing. This undergarment also assisted in keeping the thighs from chaffing. Drawers were usually made of cotton and decorated along the hems with lace or crocheted designs. For younger women, drawers would end just below the knee or mid-calf, while older women sometimes wore them almost to the ankle.
- CORSET: Next came the corset. Contrary to popular beliefs about this undergarment, it's purpose was not to enhance the bust or cinch in the waist to a dangerous extreme. It's purpose was to give the woman a straight and smooth line from bust to waist. Because whale boning was used to construct the corset, it also supported the back, helping a woman to stand straight and tall. The corset was made of tough fibers, usually horsehair, which could be scratchy and uncomfortable. Thus, the purpose of the chemise is more clear. No one wanted a rough corset rubbing against their skin!
- CAMISOLE: This undergarment was also called the corset cover and it's purpose was exactly that. It was worn over the corset to prevent it from becoming soiled and to prevent the fabric color from rubbing onto the corset. Back then, corsets were difficult to clean and precautions were taken to keep them in good repair.
- UNDER PETTICOAT: This was worn under the hoop to prevent dirt from getting on the lady's undergarments and to protect her modesty. Don't forget that a woman's drawers were split, so she had to be careful about that area not being seen!
- CAGE HOOP: Hoops were what made a woman's dress puff out into that nice bell-shape. The hoop shown here was constructed of a special kind of fabric that was very stiff, and sturdy enough to hold the weight of the other petticoats and of the dress itself. The original cage petticoat was made of metal wires and really did look like a cage!
Women enjoyed wearing the hoop though, because it gave them much more freedom of movement underneath it...compared to later fashion eras where only slips were worn under the dress, and the skirt styles were slimmer; hugging the woman's hips and legs, and making it difficult to walk easily (think of Rose's gowns in the movie, Titanic). The hoop shown here is red, but most cage hoops were white. This one reminds of the red petticoat that Rhett Butler gave to Mammy in . "Gone With the Wind"
- PETTICOAT: Petticoats were worn over the hoop to give the dress more fullness. Believe it or not, women would sometimes wear up to 6 or 7 petticoats under their skirt! But this was done only during the winter months for warmth. In the spring and summer months, the average woman would wear 2-3 petticoats. This undergarment varied in style and thickness. Some of the petticoats would often have flounces or ruffles for added fullness. They also prevented the hoops from showing through on the dress. The one shown here is pretty in it's simplicity, trimmed only with a bit of lace.
- SHOES: Women during the Victorian era wore three main styles of shoes. The first one, shown here on the top, was a work boot and were called "brogans". These were made for both men and women, and were worn because they were comfortable and sturdy. A woman would wear brogans to do her housework and outdoor chores in.
The second type of ladies' shoe was the "granny boot", shown here on the bottom-right. This style of shoe was worn when a woman left her house to go visiting, shopping, or whatever. There were different styles of granny boots, and depending on what a lady could afford, she would choose a pair that matched her day dress the best.
The third type of shoe (not shown) was simply the "slipper". Slipper shoes were only worn with evening gowns (or ball gowns), and looked very much like ballet slippers. The had no heels which made them easier to dance in, and often would be decorated with ornamentation according to the lady's personal preference.
- VICTORIAN HAIR STYLES & ACCESSORIES: During the mid-1800's, women's hair styles were fairly severe-looking. Although there were variations depending upon a woman's age and type of hair, generally women wore their hair parted in the middle and pulled up in the back; sometimes woven into a bun or chignon. A lady never wore her hair down loose and free, except in the privacy of her bed chamber. Only 'women of the night' would wear their hair down. The top photo at right is a picture of Clara Barton, a Union nurse who is famous for starting the American Red Cross organization. As you can see, her hair is parted and pulled back neatly.
Women accessorized their hair by using pretty combs (usually made of tortoise shell), ribbons, flowers, and decorated hair nets. However, these accessories were normally worn only when going out--otherwise, most women wore their hair in a plain bun placed close to the nape of the neck. Hats were not really the fashion during this time period, but many women would wear bonnets when going out to protect their face from the sun. An example of a bonnet is shown here on the bottom-right. Bonnets had a wide range of styles, colors, and fabrics for a lady to choose from.
- THE DRESS: The last article of clothing a woman put on was the actual dress itself. It would have taken another female to assist a woman in dressing, as you would have had to slide it down over your head in order to cover the hoop and all those petticoats. Also, some gowns with a fitted bodice would fasten in the back using hooks and eyelets, making it impossible to fasten alone.
As you can see from this list, women in the 19th-century had a lot of work to do in order to get dressed properly! But I think the end result is gorgeous, despite any discomfort from wearing so many layers of clothing. While I wouldn't want to dress in this fashion every day, it's definitely different, and is fun to do for a weekend event. Victorian dresses also make great costumes for Halloween, prom, and even wedding dresses.
Civil War Fashion "On The Homefront"
This is a nice, short video by the Kent State Museum promoting a Civil War Fashion display they are having. I chose it because you can see in the video some of the beautiful gowns that women wore during that time period.
Two Excellent Related Lenses...
- Great American Vacations: Travel to Gettysburg Civil War Battlefield
This is a great lens about vacationing in historic Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Home to one of the largest battles in the American Civil War. The lensmaster does a great job of describing points-of-interest, places to eat, and overnight accommodations.
- Women Spies of the Civil War
This lens is absolutely fascinating. It reads like a book, leaving you wanting more. Considering the conservative nature of society at that time--especially regarding the role of a woman--I consider the women described in this lens to be heroines. Th
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Take A Peek At These Online Shops
Victorian Period Clothing Stores
Check out these sites to find the perfect period-costume. Or just browse through them to see photos of more beautiful gowns and accessories. Sometimes it's fun just to look!
- Abraham's Lady
Civil War era clothing & accessories for women. Reasonably-priced and very good quality. The best value for your money.
A professional dress-making company that creates exquisite period-reproduction clothing. This company's clients include movie producers, broadway shows, reenacting companies, and the general public.
- The Graceful Lady: Women's 1860s Clothing
The website of an exceptional seamstress; very expensive, but she creates authentic, perfectly-fitted, and one-of-a-kind gowns for her customers.
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