When you think of women from the 1860’s, what comes to your mind? Do you think of a southern belle adorned in a sweeping ball gown of taffeta or silk? When the “American Civil War” comes along in your train of thought, what do you imagine ladies of that time to look like? And what did they wear?
First of all, to say that most or all women and girls wore a specific type of attire would be a false generalization. Why? Because people are individuals— everyone is different from each other! Though there were the fashions of the day, and standards of what was considered beautiful and desired, not all families had the opportunity to follow those ideals. Many were not even aware of what the ideals were, to begin with!
Thankfully, we have journals and books written by women of that time to give us a firsthand look at what clothes were worn. And don’t forget photographs and sketches for capturing the outfit. There are a good number of these available today in public domain archives and history websites. All you need is a little investigating!
So where can we begin with such a subject as a lady’s dress? It’s a wide one because not everyone wore the same thing, like I stated above. There were differences in the fabric used. Some people bought their clothes from a tailor, if they were wealthier; but most women sewed their own clothes. Even down to weaving the cotton you’d (or your slaves) harvested from your field!
But even down to the barefooted woman in the Florida cracker house, way out in the woods away from the bustle and influence of the city, you will still find a fairly general pattern for what was typically worn.
Oh, I’d love to write a lot more on this—how I’d love to-- but time won’t permit me right now so here is just an overall of which fashions were popular throughout the country and what was actually worn. Perhaps one day, some day, I will write another article or two expanding on this vast topic.
The fashions depicted a typical dress consisting of two parts: the bodice (shirt) and the skirt. This is the way that dresses were made; and I’ve never come across one from this time period that was fashioned otherwise. (An exception being for younger girls—their dresses were more likely to be one pieces.)
Ideally, the outfit would accentuate and flatter the waist…. And ideally, that waist would be small, as small as could be made. This was accomplished through wearing a corset.
(You can find a brief description of the corset’s history here: http://feelinfeminine.com/?p=2982) Bodices were generally made to accompany a corset.
The fashions depicted many layers in a dress. First, you’d get on a camisole and petticoat, the basic under layer. It was a very habitual thing to wear at least one petticoat under your hoop for modesty’s sake—you wouldn’t want your hoop swishing up (and it probably would at one time or another), revealing a bit of your bare legs! How disgraceful the experience would be—without a petticoat or two.
Then you’d likely pull on your corset and good ol’ hoopskirt. The corset would actually help support your back during the time you wore the hoopskirt. After putting on these articles, you’d put another several petticoats on over the hoopskirt. This was to conceal the bumps and outlines of the hoop that would show through your skirt if not for the added fabric of the petticoats. Finally, you’d don your dress, and then some accessories, such as cuffs to dress up the neckline, which were very popular, as well as cuffs for the sleeves.
Headgear such as fancy velvet bonnets were used for winter, and sunbonnets or delicate straw hats for a summer picnic.
Jewelry was not a very popular thing because of the war. Could it have been seen as a more frivolous thing? Quite possibly, since it used metal and perhaps precious stones. Necklaces are seen in some photographs and bracelets as well. Usually it was fashionable to wear a matching bracelet on each wrist. Sometimes in photographs a certain type of almost ‘drop’ earring is noticed among the accessories worn, but earrings are in the minority of pictures I’ve seen.
Fashionable shoes ranged from delicate, impractical house-slippers to lace-up boots. Many high-fashion shoes were very narrow in the toe, and rarely will you find a rounded toe… most were tapered to a squared end. Soles were very smooth, made of leather, and nothing like the modern sneaker or hiking boot sole.
While these kinds of clothes were likely desired by most women of that time, the ideal is often quite another matter than the reality.
Depending on where you lived, your clothes could vary quite a good bit from the fashions… and if you were the average, middle-class woman or girl, you’d likely not get the chance to keep up with those.
Even if you didn’t wear the fashions, your clothes would still vary if you lived, say, down in Florida.
A New Yorker, well, I’m confident she’d wear another matter of clothes than a Floridian might.
You see, in the southern states, especially Florida, humidity and heat are always abiding or trying to do so. Even in the winter, the temperature is still trying to climb. Snow is a rare thing.
Still, the numbers can drop down the teens on a very chilly night, and the houses of the 1860’s certainly didn’t have insulation.
But compare this to some of the more northern states, with what snowstorms they get frequently, and there’s bound to be some differences in what one might wear.
During summertime in the Deep South, most average women would likely have to wearing cotton and calico dresses as their main clothing. Calico was seen as a poor folk’s cloth, though, except for out in the west— later on it was rather popular in the western USA.
Most women and girls tried to have at least one good outfit for church, visits and other more formal occasions.
Younger girls’ (typically girls under about 13) dresses were usually one piece, and simpler than their older sisters’ or mothers’ dress would have likely been. They would not have likely worn a corset at such a young age and only perhaps a small cage crinoline/hoopskirt, if you were a wealthier young lady. Most average, middle-class-to-poor farm girls wouldn’t likely have had a chance in most of their lifetime to wear a fancy ball-gown. Even if they obtained one somehow, it would be highly unlikely that they’d ever have an occasion to wear the outfit. A dress may have had crocheted or lace cuffs, which were a separate addition, attached for events a bit more formal such as visits and church services. During a normal work day, they would be too much of a hindrance and too easily dirtied.
Just as with the hoopskirt— these were fashion items, not things of everyday practicality. Nurses were forbidden to wear hoops as they needed to walk between rows of cots and couldn’t have a boned sweep of skirt flogging the wounded as they passed.
Laundresses and especially cooks would avoid hoop skirts as a hazard to their employment. Soldiers’ wives who traveled the long, hard marches along with their husbands couldn’t afford to mess with hoops in their tiresome days. A simple dress and plain boots (perhaps even a practical pair modeled after the men’s styles—these were used commonly.) would suffice.
A mother living on the farm, taking care of her family, wouldn’t likely have worn a hoop in her everyday tasks. As would be same with her daughters. Would you want to go milk Bessie in a hoop? How about helping Father chop and carry firewood? Or perhaps exploring the woods with your little brothers?
Girls living out on rural homesteads wouldn’t likely have had but one pair of shoes, and those they’d have saved for more formal uses. So, most of their time would have been spent barefoot. This easily went for the mothers as well. You took care of what few dresses you had and aprons were always in use. Wash day was a big ordeal, so you wanted to keep your clothes clean as long as possible and keep them going until wash time.
Your might have sewed (if you were aware of the fashions) your clothes all the while trying to incorporate at least some of their features into what you could afford to make and what was practical to wear.
So next time you see a picture of a southern belle, strutting lightly across an estately plantation, remember that reality is often quite different than ideal... and not every southern woman was a wealthy plantation owner's wife or daughter.
Read more articles by Leah K. Oxendine or search for articles on the same topic or others.