Want to Recreate the 1860s Look? First, Put Your Modern Sensibilities in the Basket

With the Civil War Sesquicentennial underway, some history buffs like me are interested in how to accurately recreate clothing that was worn during the 1860s. To help re-enactors and docents who want to dress in the style of the time, and do it correctly, two Ohio Historical Society staff members have designed a series of workshops that are being held at the Ohio History Center on six Saturdays this year.

Robin Schuricht and Jennifer Rounds blend their knowledge of history and their skill as seamstresses to create the 19th century clothing worn by those who volunteer and work in the Ohio Village. Last Saturday, I joined them for the first workshop in the series, an all-day program to learn more about what’s behind the perfect 1860s look.

Before Jennifer and Robin began discussing the history of Civil War-era clothing, Robin told us that we needed to check our modern sensibilities about the comfort, practicality and style of our clothes. So we deposited our modern-day ideas, such as that clothes have to match, in a basket and passed it to our neighbor.

After sharing why we wanted “the look,” we talked about what “look” we wanted to achieve. Would we be portraying a high-fashion lady who would be presiding at soirees, or an ordinary housewife who needed practical clothes for chores?

We discussed that achieving an ensemble of “period-correct” attire, or clothing that would have been found at a specific time or location, is the goal of the dedicated re-enactor. While it’s important to make or buy a reproduction costume in which you feel comfortable, it’s even more critical to make every attempt to be period-perfect. If you’re going to the trouble to create this look, you might as well go all-out to achieve it.

To help us build our own period wardrobe, Robin provided instructions on making an authentic item of clothing that was typical of the time. We studied cartes de visite and examined original Civil War-era garments from the Ohio Historical Society’s Education Collection to see how women of the 1860s dressed.

During that time, women were concerned about maintaining the proper shape, not looking slender, Robin said. What’s more, they dressed for their age. Younger, single ladies were more fashion-forward than their married friends, so they were more inclined to wear trendy items. For example, Garibaldi jackets were a fashionable choice for unmarried women. Made popular by Empress Eugénie of France, they featured black embroidery or braid and military details.

As we studied Civil War-era dresses, we looked at how the V-shaped bodice emphasized the wearer’s narrow waist. We saw how the bodice closed down the front with hooks and eyes. We noticed how the armseye (armhole) sat off the shoulder, with some seams almost horizontal at the armpits. We learned about the pagoda sleeve, a wide, bell-shaped sleeve that was popular at the time and was worn over a false undersleeve, a separate sleeve that extended beyond the pagoda sleeve to keep the dress sleeve from getting dirty. We discovered “kickplates” and “elevators,” ingenious ways to keep skirts above the mud and protected from dirt. We learned that dress linings and piecings don’t have to match, and that the bottom of a hoop skirt should be six inches from the bottom of a dress.

When the discussion turned to undergarments, I discovered that I hadn’t put my modern sensibilities about underwear in the basket. I hadn’t given enough thought to what those lovely dresses were hiding. In fact, the next time I see a re-enactor in hot weather, I’ll have a whole new appreciation for how hot she must be. A chemise and drawers – preferably made of linen rather than cotton, to prevent clinging — provided the first layer. Next came the corset. Complete with stays, a busk that fastened with hooks and eyes, and tied together with laces of ample length, the corset did amazing things, even to the teenaged girl in attendance who modeled one for us over her 21st century camisole and jeans. A chemisette covered the corset, especially when wearing sheer dresses, while several petticoats provided the structure for a dress’s full skirt. If wearing a hoop, two petticoats were worn both under and over the hoop to provide a smoother look and feel. A corded petticoat was best suited for working, offering similar, but much more manageable, structural advantages. 

Slippers or low-heeled leather traveling boots with square toes were worn with black or white over-the-knee socks that were held in place with ties. Paisley or fringed wool shawls, capes, aprons with double casings and detachable white collars completed the look. Short kid gloves, generously sized handkerchiefs, fans, reticules, baskets, brooches, pocket watches and ear fobs were other popular accessories.

Hats were either worn outside or during short visits inside, such as at church or during short social calls in homes. Fancier versions included spoon bonnets, leghorn hats, plumed jockey caps, and glengarries. Shaker bonnets and slat bonnets with neck coverings were work-appropriate headcoverings.

Ladies of the 1860s wore their hair parted in the middle, then bundled at the back. So how do modern-day re-enactors with short hair achieve the styled, controlled, and long hairstyles of the 1860s? Don’t wash your hair, part it in the middle and slick back your bangs with a generous amount of pomade, Robin said. Then, put two combs on the sides and two in the back, place a hairpiece in a net and bundle it in the back, and cover it all up with a bonnet. If you’re working outside, you can also hide short hair under a cap that covers most of your ears.

If you’re a re-enactor who depends on eyeglasses to see, choose octagon-shaped wire frames, but if you can manage it, put your spectacles in your basket. That’s also a good place for cell phones, car keys, and cameras; these modern conveniences can really ruin the 1860s look. As for makeup, it should look very natural; leave the nail polish at home.

To conclude our day, we looked at several lovely examples of period-correct fabrics, such as linsey-woolseys, silks, and pattern-on-pattern cottons. We also paged through several books that are good sources for the 1860s look, such as Godey’s Lady’s Book, a widely circulated magazine during the period. Other books Robin recommends include Who Wore What?: Women’s Wear, 1861-1865, by Juanita Leisch; American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs, by Priscilla Harris Dalrymple; In Style: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Costume Institute, by Jean L. Druesedow; and With Grace & Favour: Victorian & Edwardian Fashion in America, by Otto Charles Thieme. To start sewing bonnets, dresses and underpinnings, check Saundra Ros Altman’s Past Patterns, as well as other patterns available from McCall’s and Simplicity.

Jennifer and Robin will be offering five more sessions on recreating 1860s fashion. On March 17, participants can learn the basics of making an apron. A two-part series on April 21 and May 19 will teach all the steps and techniques needed to make a simple 1860s dress. A simple man’s work shirt will be the focus on the June 16 program. The series concludes on August 18, with the basics of making and decorating bonnets and recreating hairstyles of the 1860s. Participants can register for one or all of the sessions. The Ohio History Center provides pattern recommendations, the work space, power outlets and experience; you bring your fabric, thread, notions and sewing machine. To register or to learn more, call 800-686-1541 or 614-297-2663.

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