A New Look At CW Clothing – What Did Betsy Westmore Really Wear?

Well, she didn’t wear this while harvesting the gardening, hauling water, baking, and taking care of the wounded soldiers…

(From "Gone With The Wind")

(From “Gone With The Wind”)

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.)

Sarah Broadhead, a Gettysburg resident, wears a nice representation of middle class ladies' clothing

Sarah Broadhead, a Gettysburg resident, wears a nice representation of middle class ladies’ clothing

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.

Blue, Gray & Crimson Cover3

Notice Betsy Wesmore’s simple dress. She is also wearing an apron to help keep her dress clean. This a good representation of working middle class clothing for a young lady.

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.”

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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