Well, she didn’t wear this while harvesting the gardening, hauling water, baking, and taking care of the wounded soldiers…
Now, let’s be honest…Melanie’s dress is beautiful (as far as movie costumes go), but to imagine that all ladies and girls of the Civil War era wore such monstrosities of silk, lace, and whatnot is ridiculous. (Just like it’s ridiculous to suppose everybody owned slaves back then…but I digress.) But I will also tell you this…a lady can do many, many things (even household chores) in a hooped skirt and proper underclothes (yes, I’m referring to a corset). I’ve done it. And so did the real ladies of the Civil War times.
Last week we discussed “fashion” and what’s important to remember – read the blog post HERE. And today, we’ll leave Miss Melanie sitting idling in her gorgeous dress and find out what “common folks” wore during the era. Specifically, we’ll talk about the clothing of middle class women and girls. (We’ll talk about guy’s clothing next week.)
Practical, Practical, Practical…& Modest & Beautiful
For a young woman like Betsy Westmore in Blue, Gray & Crimson: A Story of Civilian Courage at Gettysburg, clothing had to be practical. Betsy is a fictional character but she represents real girls of her era; she works alongside her mother. She kneels in the dirt. She cooks at a wood-fired stove. She helps to sew her own clothes.
Thus, clothing was made to be worn. A ruffled, lacy skirt might have been fashionable according to Godey’s, but it wouldn’t have been practical for Betsy.
Modesty was considered a virtue in the 19th Century. It was said that a person’s character could be reflected by their clothes (listen up, Scarlett O’Hara). So…any respectable lady or girl was going to dress properly – that meant long sleeves, high necklines, and long skirts. (Evening gowns are a different fashion story, and since no one in the story wears such a gown, I’m going to stay with the everyday clothing theme).
But, don’t get the idea that these women and girls dressed in dark, boring colors and made shapeless dresses. Beautiful calicos of many different colors were used in day/work dresses, and the dresses were tailored.
Aprons were worn to help keep dresses clean. The outer garments weren’t washed as frequently as we wash our clothes, but the underclothes were changed and cleansed regularly. The outer dress fabric was more expense and this was practical step to help the clothes last longer.
Getting Dressed For The Day
The following is an excerpt from Blue, Gray & Crimson describing preparing for the day.
Betsy poured water from the pitcher into the washbasin, washed her face, and then turned toward the small oak vanity table and mirror which Grandfather Westmore had made years ago. She sat down in front of the table and brushed her dark brown hair, parted it, and plaited it into a single long braid. Carefully, she twisted the braid into a knot at the base of her neck and poked hair pins into the coil to hold it in place. She put on her stockings and shoes next; it would be fun to go barefoot all the time in the summer, but that wasn’t proper for a young lady, especially when the Westmores could afford shoes. Glancing in the mirror, she noticed Rachel still lounging in bed. “Come on, get up,” she scolded. “Mother expects us downstairs, and I need help with my stays.”
“Well, I haven’t yet mastered the stays’ laces in the back.” The corded stays were like a soft corset, but were not intended to be pulled tightly; they helped with good posture and provided comfortable modesty. Slowly, Rachel climbed from bed and began tightening the laces until the stays fit comfortably over the chemise and drawers.
“Thanks,” Betsy said as she pulled two petticoats over her head. Fashionable ladies might wear hooped skirts, but that was not practical on the farm. Sometimes, though, Betsy wished she could try on a hoop, just to see what it was like. She fastened the wooden buttons on her light blue bodice and slid the outer skirt over her head, asking Rachel to clasp it in the back.
“Your collar’s crooked,” Rachel commented and then smoothed the white linen around the bodice neckline. “There, now won’t you help me with my skirt?”
And that’s basically what a middle class girl or lady wore if she had to work around the family farm. If the girl or lady lived in town, she might have worn a corded petticoat or small hoop, but rest of the layers would be the same. (Note: women wore corsets – not stays, like young Betsy does. A corset was not a torture device – it helped with good posture and supported the weight of all the layers of clothing. Also, the underclothes – chemise and drawers – were usually made of cotton, which “breathes.” I have worn these layers of clothes on days over 100 degrees and survived in comfort.)
Re-thinking Our Ideas
Thanks to Hollywood productions we imagine all ladies of Civil War era wore large, fashionable dresses. But studies of original photographs (check Who Wore What? for lots of details) reveal that most women and girls dressed practically, keeping in mind their situation and social class. Certainly, the Westmore ladies dressed quite simply because they worked hard in their home and garden. Other ladies would’ve paired their calico work dresses with hoop skirts.
One of the most important things to remember when considering Civil War ladies’ clothing is: could they accomplish their tasks in the clothes? They loved pretty things, but they were also smart and practical…not just heedless followers of “fashion.”