November 2001

American Civil War Fashions 
by Kathy Dhalle

One would think that fashion design during the Civil War would stand still but such was not the case. This was true at least in the north and western parts of the country. In the south, the story was of course different. Fashion design for the most part continued to change. That was because those who decided American style were sitting in France and England, and were therefore untouched by the conflict here in the states. But the war caused other problems. In the first half of the decade, shortages occurred, which meant high prices, and in some areas, actual deprivation. Costs were elevated because of the disruption of supply lines by Union blockades. Shortages affected the entire country. With the lack of southern cotton, the New England textile mills faced severe cutbacks and closures throughout the war, and the cotton trade never totally recovered after the conflict ended. There was, as well, an interruption in the shipment of foreign textiles in the early sixties due to a temporary halt in American shipping. The combined effect was a nationwide shortage of dress goods of all kinds. In the south, where people were short of money and cut off from most imports, as well as the textile products from the north, the shortage was devastating. Although the north somewhat recovered when it began importation again, the south never recouped its losses. The lack of adequate clothing, warm blankets, and even bandages for the troops played a large part in the downfall of the southern army. Along with foodstuffs and transportation equipment, northern officers destroyed or confiscated textile materials found in Rebel camps and captured homes.

Southern woman used up every piece of textile they could find. They tore up their silk dresses to make flags and banners. They made socks and mittens from unraveled wool blankets or clothing. They made shoes from animal skins, old felt hats, bits of canvas, or old blanket scraps. Out of date home crafts were revived and southern women learned how to spin, weave and knit. Thus, the famous "homespun" dress described in one of the songs made popular during the Civil War. Even mattresses were ripped apart and the cotton stuffing spun into yarn. The lower grades of cotton, which could be grown and harvested by the few people still left on the plantation, were spun into low-quality yarns and woven into inferior cloth. With even this poor cloth at such a premium of labor, ladies' skirts and children's dresses in the south were usually made of short yardage. Straw and palmetto leaves were fashioned into bonnets, hats and jewelry. It is said that some southern women who still possessed hoops, covered them with homespun fabric and wore them alone, having used up their petticoats for bandages or baby clothes. Few luxuries were to be had in the south, and their prices were exorbitant. In September 1863, Julia Bond, a plantation woman of Abbeville, Louisiana, wrote in her diary, "Went to store today...they asked $40 for ten yards of calico, $50 for ladies boots, $5 for white cotton muslin, $25 for gaiters (women's and girls' ankle-high boots, usually of cloth with glazed leather toes and heels), $40 for dozen stockings, $50 for dozen handkerchiefs, very plain. Can't afford anything!"

As in the north, southern women bonded together to sew caps, make shirts, and knit socks for their sons, brothers and husbands. On top of that, these same southern women would risk their lives by smuggling those same items across borders and into Rebel camps. In the north, at the New York City Sanitary Fair in 1864, the Women's Patriotic Association for Diminishing the Use of Imported Luxuries pledged that they would for three years, or for the duration of the war, use "no imported goods of velvets, silks, grenadines, India crepe and organdie, India lace and broche shawls; fur, wrought laces and embroidery; hair ornaments fans, artificial flowers and feathers, and carpets." The Sanitary Commission was organized to address the concerns of clothing, bedding, bandages and medical supplies for the front, and used fairs as fund and consciousness-raising events. Mariella Legget of Cleveland wrote in her diary during the war..."January 1, 1862: Mr. L. has volunteered his services to his country...I do not know how we can get along without him. January 7th: Finished the night shirt and made a pocket and a long band on a strip for Mortimer. January 9th: I have been busy at the machine...made a strap and pockets for the Major to use in his tent in camp. January 10th: Mr. L. came home...received his orders to be ready to march in six hours. January 11th: All in suspense to know whether 78th is one going to leave today. Went down street for flannel for Well's [her 14 year old son] shirts and commenced immediately getting him ready to go with his father. Mrs. Lamson is here on the machine herself.

January 14th: Got material for Wells to make a night shirt to use in the Army. January 16th: Sewing every moment. January 17th: Mrs. Hartman is here working on a calico dress for me. I've helped her on it. January 18th: Sewed on dress skirt and pillowcase [most likely embroidery]. 1862: February 3rd: If I had not a machine I should feel that I had quite a job on my hands to make 6 shirts for him, but I shall soon have them done."  Women's magazines during the war were essentially a Union feature and continued to be published regularly, mostly in Philadelphia. The illustrations they contained were still taken from the French, and showed little or no change in the elaborate style of the day, with generous use of material and the trimmings rich and expensive. In the midst of war, dresses made from choice silk could cost $250. The only ones who could afford to purchase these outfits were the well-to-do, and in most cases these were one of a kind fashions. Many women of less wealth bought fashion books, poured over their pages, and dreamed of how they could remodel an old dress to match the new. If they couldn't afford the original, they worked with what they had. For example, in 1861, skirts were worn ample and full, but usually plain. In 1863, dress skirts were rarely plain, ornamented with braiding or other types of adornments. In most cases, all one had to do was add the trimmings to bring the item into fashion. Skirts also changed in other ways over the war years, becoming narrower across the front and adding more material and pleats at the sides and backs for fullness. Another innovation of the early sixties was noted in "Godey's" in August 1865: "The custom of looping dresses has now become universal." Looping was the pulling up of the outer skirts at intervals, using cords on the inside of the skirt. The May 1864 issue of "Godey's" showed a drawing of "The Pompadour Port-Jupe" which was an arrangement of eight cords hung from a belt worn over the hoop and petticoats; the cords were attached at the bottom end to points near the inside hem of the dress skirt and by loops spaced up the skirt to the waist. The free ends, four on either side, were drawn through the eyelets to the outside of the waistband where they were held together with knots. When the skirt was drawn up, the two clusters of cords were pulled out and tied together in a bow at the waist. This custom originally used to keep walking-dress skirts from touching the street, developed into a fashion trend, with the underskirt keeping pace with design embellishments. Some of the favorite colors for underskirts were buff, nankeen (yellowish-tan), gray, and violet.

Short-Waisted Bodice Another element of sixties dresses was short-waistedness. This characteristic, though more exaggerated in the last half of the decade, is typical of the entire period, most particularly in the popular one-piece frock, which was frequently made with the Empire style" waistline at the level of the bottom of the rib cage. There are those of you who will remember that this waistline resurfaced about 100 years later in this country. Vertical seams (or "gores" as they were called), from shoulder to hem produced a style called "the Gabrielle." All shaping in this style of garment was accomplished in the cut and the vertical seams, occasionally with added darts. There was no waistline seam with this design.  The bodice cut was most often three pieces, without a center seam.  Alternatively, a one piece back was used. Bodices all fastened in the front, most by now with buttons, and most fronts were fitted with two darts at either side. A novelty that also became popular for finishing off the neckline was the use of small collars. Colors and patterns for ordinary wear during the war were many and mixed. Tans, browns, and "cuir," or leather, colors were made up in plain or stripes for walking dresses, and Tattersall checks were popular, especially in browns and tans, both dark on light and the reverse. Brilliant colors, while popular for fashionable silk dresses, were not seen in mixed woolens or in dresses for ordinary wear. Black alpaca dresses were for a while, a staple in every wardrobe, from rich to poor, young to old. Plain colored dresses were usually bordered with either soutache braid (usually black), or with printed or stamped borders imitating them. This type of braiding was styled after the Zouave look. The favorite designs in cotton prints were prints of small spots, florets, or other motifs, scattered on a rather dark background. For example, peach on maroon, brown on tan, or the reverse. A rose pink color with small sprigs of flowers in white and darker shades is frequently seen. A very wide, bell-shaped flared sleeve that ended at the lower Undersleeves midarm, generally worn over a white undersleeve and always for summer. Sleeves of this type often had a snug band around the upper arm or a tight, pointed cap. An extremely large bishop sleeve, pleated into the armscye (circular opening into which set-in sleeve is sewn to garment), and gathered thickly into the cuff was also popular. The large bishop sleeve is often seen in photographs from that time, as a drooping shape, and it persisted far into the decade for working dress. The "Pamela" sleeve was a bishop style done in light fabric and tied at several points on the arm to form a series of puffs. But the style that appears most often in photos from the war years is the two-piece "gentleman's coatsleeve" shape, a two-piece style with the narrower piece running down under the arm and having a slight forward curve in the cut (like a bent elbow). This style was often times made tight for some styles and loosely tubular for others, and was sometimes enlarged greatly on the lower arm, beginning at the elbow, forming almost a scoop shape, with the cuff enlarged enough to show the bottom of the undersleeve. The skirt and waist outfit became a fashion alternative in the sixties. The new fuller shirtwaists, or "waists" as they were called, were popular with young ladies and were worn simply with plain or checked skirts. The most frequently mentioned style of waist was the "Garibaldi," a full-sleeved bloused type sometimes made in red or black lightweight wool, but more often in white cotton, with the full front gathered or pleated into the neckline. Military in appearance, it was named for the great Italian patriot and freedom fighter Guiseppe Garibaldi, whose troops wore red shirts of this shape. This skirt and waist attire was for casual daytime wear, and the hoop was necessary for the full, jaunty look. Several petticoats were worn over the hoop to conceal the wires. The skirts worn over the hoops were usually simply gathered or pleated evenly all around. Skirts worn with waists did not have trains.

Belts became a necessity with the advent of the skirt and waist style and remained later when one piece dresses came into fashion. Belts were quite wide and shaped to the figure. They were worn with colossal buckles of mother of pearl, enamel, steel, jet, or gilt. Some had initials, interlaced with bars and scrolls. One such popular accessory for shaping the skirt and waist was the Swiss belt, which was very wide and usually of black velvet and had points both rising upward between the breasts and pointing downward at waist front. Some of these belts were boned and solid; some were laced at front. They all fastened in the back.  White collars were worn everyday. A taste for small collars made of heavy-textured lace is noted. White linen or cotton collars with points were often embroidered in the corners, sometimes in colors, with the favorite motif being the butterfly. Lace was the benchmark of quality. Most collars were closed at the throat with a brooch. Neck ribbons were used very little during this time, but when they did appear, they were thin, fashioned after the newer-thin man's necktie. Jewelry in the 1860's took on a fringed effect, earrings and brooches sometimes having several pendants. In January 1863, large black beads, worn in either a single row or a double row, and which terminated in a black cross was popular. February showed the introduction of jewelry styled in tortoise shell, especially in hair combs. Six months later, velvet necklaces, ornamented with pendants were advertised. Cameos and coral were popular as well. In January of 1864, the prevailing style favored Roman, Greek and Egyptian styled jewelry, as well as initial and crested jewelry.  An important accessory of the day was the parasol, which was long and of one piece. Fancy handles were in style. Although black and other dark colors were popular, the high fashion parasol could be quite elaborate. There were those that were trimmed with feathers or lace, shades of mauve, pink, or green taffetas, with Brussels or point appplique covering. Some were more simple, dotted with pearl, jet or steel beads. Others were made from light silk, lined with colors, and chain-stitched in the color of the lining.  Handles were richly carved out of coral or pearl. The price for these more elaborate parasols could be as high as $75...a tidy sum for that time.  Gloves worn during the day were of the gauntlet style, stitched with colors and made to cover the wrist. Small bags, made to hang at the waistband, were worn as purses for walking dresses. The "Spanish pocket," fashioned in the Zouave style was very popular during this time for young and old. Also seen often in the 60's were small crocheted, fringed scarfs, worn by ladies and children. Colors such as scarlet, green, purple, and corn-color, three rows of each were separated by a row of black, two of white, and another of black. Fringe was formed of strands of all the colors in the scarf.

Undergarments consisted of the chemisette (a white sleeveless underbodice covering neck, shoulders, and breast and worn to show above the dress neckline), which was often made with separate and matching long, full sleeves, combining the effect of undersleeves with the familiar chemisette bosom and collar so that a complete shirtwaist could be worn under the dress. The chemisette form was worn under a fitted garment, either one of the tighly laced Swiss bodices or a summer silk dress with a partially open front and long flared sleeves. The preferred term in the 60's for the chemisette was the "Spencer." The corset form that molded the figure was short, with ample bosom, small rib cage, and sharply flared bottoms, and reached only a few inches below the waist. Guessets (specially shaped pieces of frabic inserted at stress points in garment seams for additional strength) were inserted at the top to accommodate each breast. The body below the waist was released from pressure. The corset was heavily boned, not only in the seams and darts, but in between as well, for firmer support and was hooked up in front. Back lacings were still used for adjustment. A knee length chemise was worn under the corset. Made from cotton or linen, they had small cap sleeves and, generally, wide curved necklines, though high necklines were present on those intended to show above the neckline of the dress.

The order of putting undergarments on were as follows: chemise, corset, a plain petticoat (made of white wool flannel during winter), a crinoline or hoop of some sort, and finally one or two fine muslin petticoats to fluff the skirt and conceal the hoop wires. Petticoats were plain and smooth at front, with the gathers drawn mostly to center back. Pantelettes were adopted mostly by older women who relied on them to protect them from embarrassing situations that could arise from undependable hoops. All were made of washable white cotton or linen and were finished with tucks and whitework at the bottoms. They were made in below the knee lengths and open at the crotch.

The most familiar feature of women's dress was the oval hoop, usually made in cage-crinoline style...that is, covered wires that are not rounded out but flat in front and affixed to tapes. These were ready-made items. It is interesting to know that when the hoop was first introduced in the 50's, most American women thought it too risque. Later, when Paris suggested it should be left off, conservative women were afraid to go without it for fear of showing off too much of their shape. However, a large part of refusing to change may have been due to economics. If women stopped wearing their hoops, the dresses in their closets would be obsolete. During the mid-sixties, the wearing of hoops became so universally expected, that when a women went without one, she became the object of unwelcome attention.  

Jackets were increasingly worn in the decade, some matching the dresses.  Some were short with a seam in the center of the back, and were cut to fall in to the figure without fitting it too closely. They were generally bound with velvet or corded with silk, buttoning down the front and the buttons would be very ornamental. Then, there was the paletot jacket, which was more accurately a sacque, made to flare gently from the shoulder and hang out over the skirt to approximately hip level. The paletot was usually made of red wool with black braid, but others were of fabric blending with or matching the skirt fabric. The fronts closed all the way with large buttons or with "frogs" (knot and loop closures formed of braid), and the sleeves were either large coat sleeves or slightly flared. They were always trimmed in a rather military style, with contrasting braid, velvet ribbon, or silk cord. If not made of a fabric to match the dress, in sturdy cotton or part-wool, the paletot could be made from a thick tweed or a fur cloth. Black or white wool flannel paletots are shown in many old photographs. Long cloaks and wraps were described in the latest fashion catalogues, but because they required large amounts of material, they were too expensive for many women. A Spanish or bolero style sleeveless jacket worn over the shirt waist was popular in the 60's. These jackets were very short, no more than waist length and often shorter. They had rounded fronts and were often of black or red velvetine or flannel. Many were also made of fabric to match the skirts. A similar form of this jacket, but made with sleeves was called the "Zouave," decorated elaborately with braiding.  These jackets were an economical way of bringing an older dress up to date.  Women's wraps were the first garments for women to be mass produced. During the early years, Shawl with Knotted Fringe they were mostly imported, but by the 1860's, there were at least 96 manufacturers in this country that specialized in women's wraps. About fifteen were based in New York alone, and another ten in Boston. Shawls continued to be a favored wrap throughout most of the 60's. The richly woven "India" shawl was the most popular. They could range in price from $50 to $2,000. Blanket shawls of plain colors or checks, were preferred for traveling and Irish plaids with heavy chenille fringe were abundant. 

The Civil War period found many women wearing "mourning dress." The Victorians followed strict rules and customs about how long to mourn, how to entertain during the period of grief, how to speak and act, and most importantly, how to dress. Recall how aghast society was when Scarlett took to the dance floor with Rhett Butler while she was supposed to be in mourning. "Mourning dress" as well as bonnets, hats, veils, armbands, handkerchiefs, etc., could be bought new from mourning establishments and dry-good stores which specialized exclusively in selling the appropriate clothing and accessories for the bereaved. Most of the mourning clothing in the South was hand made, or in extreme circumstances, everyday dresses were dyed black. For the wealthy person, mourning meant wearing elegant fabrics of silk, velvet and sable. Most of these were passed on in the family from one death to another. However, according to the ladies' books of the day, the most common material used for mourning dresses was bombazine, a twilled cloth of silk worsted. Trim was usually of heavy crepe. During the first year of full mourning, a women wore all black, without any form of light trim. Only black "jet" or gutta-percha jewelry without any gold whatsoever. Half-Mourning began six months after the first year. During this time, black and white or lavender and black could be worn as well as jewelry of black stones set in dull gold and seed pearls. Many widows wore mourning dress for the rest of their lives. The bloomer made a comeback during this decade, but mainly for health reasons, that is, to get away from the binding of heavy corsets and such. It was never accepted for public dress, but it was more practical attire for poorer women working with their husbands on farms and as the chosen style of the National Dress Reform Association, who termed it the "American Dress." The costume was a straightforward dress made in any common daytime style of the period, one or two pieces, but cut off and hemmed just below the knee. The extra skirt material was used to make tubular trouser legs. The "American Dress" was usually worn without a corset; instead, "health stays" of a much looser and softer construction were worn.

How a woman wore her hair was included in fashion books under the title "Headgear." Hairpieces were used to add proportion to the head. The hair net was a particularly important accessory as well. They were usually crocheted in black or purple chenille yarn, or made of criss-crossed and knotted narrow velvet ribbons decorated with glass bugle beads, silk tassels, or rosettes of ribbon. Mid-decade, "invisible" hairnets, sometimes made of hair, became more commonly used. Most women wore their hair parted in the middle, and fastened it back from the face with haircombs, which caused the top and sides to puff. Many kept the hair close to the head and tucked up into a conservative arrangement low on the back of the tucked up into a conservative arrangement low on the back of the back hair hanging at chin level. Frequently a coronet braid was carried around the top of the head, well back from the face, and passed beneath the roll of hair at the nape.

Bonnets were rather high and spoon shaped in the early sixties, becoming much smaller by 1864.Feathered Hat They were worn farther back on the head, looking at times as if they were ready to fall off. Hats, which were usually smaller in size were set either perfectly flat on the head, or tilted down toward the forehead. Remember Scarlett's green curtain outfit? The small feathered hat that extended down onto her forehead is a great example of this style. The size of hats and bonnets changed through the years depending on the hairstyles in fashion at the time. The more pronounced the hairstyle, ie., braids, curls, puffs, the smaller the hat/bonnet became. As the decade progressed, hats became the choice of headgear for most, except elderly women. Daycaps were still worn, but only for "undress" in the home by fashionable ladies, and for dressy wear by the elderly. A particular style of sunbonnet called a "Shaker," was in fashion during the sixties. Shakers were woven of fine dark and light mixed straw. They had deep brims and narrow, elongated horizontal-shaped crowns.

Women's boots and shoes were equipped with high heels during the sixties, the heel measuring from one inch to an inch and a half in height. For dress the heel tapered in to a heel cap narrower than its longitudinal measurement. All heels tapered somewhat, those for everyday wear having a more substantial width. Toes were still slightly squared, though more softly than in the fifties, and were a bit narrower. The ankle boot, or gaiter, was favored for walking dress and most daytime wear; small boots either laced up the front, buttoning over in a scalloped flap to the outside front or had elastic gussets. Front lacing boots often sported a silk tassel in front at the ankle. Black patent leather toe caps and heels were common. And while uppers were mainly of leather, cloth gaiters were common as well. A sturdy leather walking boot, with a wider-based heel, was favored for walking and day dress for all but the most smartly fashionable occasions. A dressy evening slipper had a high, pointed back and a one and a half inch, sharply incurved heel and either a gently rounded, flat, square toe or a blunt pointed one. Large standing tongues and large rosettes or bows of ribbon decorated the fronts. These shoes were either made of cloth or of kid and had thin leather soles. Well, that's it for tonight's lecture on woman's fashion during the Civil War. 


"Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840- 1900," by Joan Severa;  

"100 Years of Costumes in America," by Rose Netzorg Kerr;  

"Victorian Dress," by Madeline Ginsburg;  "Nineteenth Century Fashion," by Penelope Byrde.

Inconvenience of Modern Fashion - A contemporary commentary

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