You Mean They Didn’t All Wear Uniforms?


This guy is not wearing a military uniform. Civilian clothes!!!

I’ll admit if I was an internet search engine and you gave me the keywords “Civil War man”, I’d probably send you a bunch of photos, paintings, and sketches of soldiers. It’s just what we tend to think of. You know, war equals soldiers.

Okay, but certainly not every American man enlisted with an army. What did the civilian men wear? What were the Gettysburg men wearing? Well, let’s discuss the basics. (I’ll be honest and admit I’m not expert on the precise patterns for waistcoats and etc., but I’ll tell you what I do know.)

What’s Your Job?

Practical clothing was key during the mid-19th century. A person had to be able to perform their work in the clothes they wore. So you weren’t going to find a middle class farmer  ploughing his muddy fields in a fine waistcoat, wool coat and pants, and silk necktie…but the middle class lawyer might have worn that when he represented his client in court.

The Basics of Men’s Clothing

Shirt and pants. (Okay, that’s oversimplified, so I’ll expound.)

Shirts – There were undershirts. There were outer shirts. There were collared shirts. There were collared shirts that needed cravats. Shirts could be made of white linen or cotton, plaid homespun or other cotton print – it all depends on the man and his work.

A good photo of a gentleman wearing Civil War era reproduction clothing: shirt, vest, hat, dark trousers, and boots.

A good photo of a gentleman wearing Civil War era reproduction clothing: shirt, vest, hat, dark trousers. It was a really hot day when this photo was taken, so the gentleman is relaxing without his coat.

Vests (Waistcoats) – There were plain, practical vests that a farmer or tradesman might have worn. Then there were the fancy waistcoats worn by wealthier gentlemen.

Coats – Again, plain and practical verses fancy status symbol. Coats were tailored and could be buttoned closed in the front. Coattails extended beyond the waist, but the cutaway fronts popular earlier in the century were not in vogue.

Trousers – there were different styles of course, but the regular two-legged, long pants were standard. Buttons instead of zippers, though, and cording in the back helped with sizing to fit the waist; suspenders (or sometimes belts) also helped to keep the trousers fitting properly. (Underpants – typically called “drawers” – were often worn.)

Hat – bowler, top, pork-pie, stovepipe, straw, etc. etc.

Shoes – footgear was made of leather (unless we’re talking about house slippers). Boots or tied shoes came in different styles…for many different purposes.

Paintings and Photos

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so let’s see if these help:

19th Century Farmer

A hard-working farmer is dressed casually while working in the fields. (I particularly like the straw hat.)

This young lad wears simple clothing while fishing. (Good detail of suspenders!)

This young lad wears simple clothing while fishing. (Good detail of suspenders!)


This fellow is wearing some nicer clothing. Notice the waistcoat, watch-chain, and hat.

Again a "properly dressed" gentleman. Notice the cravat and waistcoat.

Again a “properly dressed” gentleman. Notice the cravat and waistcoat. He is holding his gloves and a gentleman’s cane – this guy does not work in the fields and he’s dressed to impress.

Did the pictures help? Hopefully! Now, you know the basics of men’s clothing during the 1860’s.

(Oh, and this knowledge actually makes understanding blue and gray uniforms easier! Don’t believe there’s anything beyond the basics of a blue or gray coat? Stay tuned next Tuesday…)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah


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