Fashion: The Ideals & Realities of the Civil War Era

Godey's Lady's Book, 1863Betsy re-wrapped the calico in a piece of brown paper to keep it clean and glanced at a couple of sketches in a copy of Godey’s Ladies Magazine; she still had to decide what style of day dress she wanted…something practical and pretty since this would be her Sunday dress for several years.

            Rachel leaned on the table, gazing longingly at the sketches of elaborate hooped gowns crafted of delicate fabrics and trimmed with lace. “I wish I had a beautiful dress like that,” she murmured.  (Blue, Gray & Crimson: A Story of Civilian Courage at Gettysburg, page 51)

Godey’s Lady’s Book? What was it? This blog post introduces one of the most influential publications of the mid-19th Century and starts the discussion of Civil War era clothing, explaining what the Westmores and their Gettysburg friends would’ve been wearing.

A Magazine

Started in the 1840’s by publisher Louis Godey, Godey’s Lady’s Book (sometimes called Godey’s Magazine) had the largest circulation of any publication in the antebellum period. The magazine was written just for women, and each issue included articles, poetry, full-color fashion plates, homemaking tips, a sewing pattern, and sheet music.

Some of the articles were written by ladies – a breakthrough in American literature publication history. Also Sarah Josepha Hale was the magazine’s editor for forty years and under her direction the readership numbers reached 150,000 in 1860.

Interestingly, Godey’s refused to publish war news during the Civil War. Perhaps the editors felt women didn’t need to be concerned with the war, but obviously the ladies felt differently. Readership numbers dropped.

Influential Fashion Authority

While Godey’s articles, poetry, and other cultural commentary were enjoyed by the ladies (and by historians today!), fashion was the magazine’s forte. The beautifully illustrated, full-color fashion plates set the trends for ladies’ clothing in America.

Ladies would examine the sketches in the magazine, read the fashion advice, and recreate (or order their dressmakers to recreate) what they saw.

Click on a photo and enjoy some of these fashion sketches from an 1863 edition. (Note: not every fashion sketch was in color, but many were.)

What We Must Remember

If you like historic, Civil War era clothing, you might be green with envy (or dashing to your fabric closet and sewing machine) after looking at those sketches. However, there is something very important we must remember when viewing the fashion magazine and uncovering (or re-creating) reality.

Let me ask you a question. Do you or your friends dress like the models in fashion magazines of the modern era?

I’m going to guess your answer is: no. But you might copy certain things that you see and like. For example, I’ll look at winter fashion photos on Pinterest. I’m not a fan of the short skirts and leggings, but I love scarves. So I’ll add to my scarf collection and try the new way of twisting and tying the sparkly fabrics. There’s a lot of fashion that just doesn’t agree with folks’ personal preference or budget, but we do what we like and what we can.

Ah…now you discovered the reality of the Civil War era fashion too! Certainly not every lady could afford to wear the “elaborate hooped gowns crafted of delicate fabrics and trimmed with lace.” (And as Betsy points out later in the scene, those dresses weren’t practical!)

Yet, ladies like to know what was popular…fashionable. So they would look at the magazines and recreate what they could. (Exactly what Betsy is planning to do with her new dress.)

So What Did “The Common People” Really Wear?

I can’t answer that today, or I’ll really exceed my word limit. But I promise you that in the next four weeks, we’ll explore exactly what the Westmores of Gettysburg (common, respectable folks) were wearing. And we’ll also talk about military uniforms!

Until next week…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Did you know Godey’s introduced the Christmas tree to American readers? Queen Victoria of England had started the trend, Godey’s reported it, and Christmas trees were eventually adopted into American holiday culture. Here’s the engraving to prove it!

Godey's Lady's Book, 1850, Christmas Tree


3 thoughts on “Fashion: The Ideals & Realities of the Civil War Era

  1. Pingback: A New Look At CW Clothing – What Did Betsy Westmore Really Wear? | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: Good-bye, Gettysburg (I’ll Miss You) | Gazette665

  3. Pingback: 1861: “Extremely Ornamental” | Gazette665

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s