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How to Get Started as a Lady Civil War Reenactor
I've always been something of a Civil War geek, and I'd seen Civil War reenactors in movies such as Glory and North and South, but I always thought that was something you had to go to school for, or at least have some sort of prior experience in, before you could participate.
I found out how wrong I was about that in 1993, when during a trip to Gettysburg, PA I and my sister came across some reenactors 'camped' outside the Civl War Wax Museum.
After chatting with them, I discovered that all you needed to be a reenactor was a passion for the Civil War, and a local group to join. I picked up a copy of the Camp Chase Gazette on the same trip, and listed in the back was a calendar of nationwide reenacting events - and one was very close to where I lived at the time.
The rest, as they say, is history. Da-bum-bum.
Now in 1993, much like today, I had no money, but if you're intrigued by life as a civilian lady Civil War reenactor, let me assure that a. you can do it on the cheap and b. it's a great way to meet guys! :-)
So, what do you need to get started? Here's a list, nonscientific, just based on my own personal experience:
1. The first thing you need to do is find out if there's a reenacting unit in your area. In 1993 the Internet didn't exist so I had to hunt around a little, but lucky you, these days finding a unit is just a mouse click away. Try Googling 'Civil War reenacting [your city] and see what pops up.
2. Once you've found a unit, find out whether they accept civilians. Some units don't; the ones that do are usually called "family units". The quality of civilian participation varies also; in some units the women primarily just cook and clean, others have active civilian roles as members of the "Sanitary Commission" (sort of like the Red Cross), women's rights advocates, and other impressions. The unit I joined had a few civilians, but we built the civilian contingent from the ground up, including a few guys who wanted to reenact but didn't want to be soldiers.
3. Once you've found a unit and figured out what role you want to play, you'll need a wardrobe. Fortunately, this can be done very cheaply. You don't have to worry initially about being hyper-authentic; all you really need is one nice white long-sleeved blouse, a wide floor-length skirt in an era-appropriate pattern (you can't go wrong with plaid) and a ballgown.
Now, when I started reenacting I couldn't sew worth a darn, but quickly learned that making a Civil-War era skirt was VERY easy. It's basically seven A-shaped pieces of fabric sewn together and hemmed. You can buy the pattern online here: http://www.abrahamslady.com/period_patterns.html (1860's gored skirt) and trust me, you will use this pattern a LOT. It's also handy for making Halloween costumes!
As far as a ballgown goes, let me just say this: the thrift shop is your friend! When you've been reenacting for a while you can concentrate on being 100% 'authentic' with your clothes, but to start out just go to your local thrift shops and find the prom gown section. There you'll likely find at least one dress that will work for a ballgown. It should be made of satin or silk, have short puffy sleeves (no sleeveless), and have a skirt that's wide enough to go over your hoop.
Ah, yes, the hoop! The mainstay of any reenactor's wardrobe. What goes under your clothes is as important as any dress or blouse, and many serious ladies spend $$$ on authentic undergarments. But never fear, when you're starting out you can do what I did: I found a pair of white clamdiggers, trimmed them in lace, and used them for pantalets (long undershorts, you probably glimpsed them in 'Gone With the Wind'); and bought a plastic-boned hoopskirt from a bridal shop for about $50.
The hoop width for the Civil War era was about 6-8' in circumferance, so make sure your hoop can go that wide. The individual hoops, or 'bones', in the skirt are usually adjustable.
This should get you started in the wonderful world of Civil War reenacting. Below are some links to books I've found invaluable to my impression, and I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to learn more.
Photos from my Civil War Reenacting Albums
Valuable Tools for Civilian Civil War Reenacting
- Abraham\'s Lady - Civil War era clothing & accessories
Civil War era clothing & accessories, including dress and bonnet patterns - very EZ to use!! Take it from someone who does NOT sew!!
- Civil War Reenactor's Discussion Forums
Includes Civilian discussion - ask questions to get started on your impression.
- Camp Chase Gazette
THE Journal for Civilian Civil War reenactors. Highly recommended! Includes listings for nationwide reenactments of all sizes.
- Getting Started in Civil War Reenacting How To
A helpful link to learning the "lingo".
- Civil War Homepage
A link to the annual Civil War muster in Jackson, Michigan. The largest CW reenactment in the western United States.
- "Who Wore What"
A fantastic resource book for anyone wanting to learn more about an authentic 1860s look.