Civilian Dress of the 1860's

Civilian Dress of the 1860's


Copyright - May not be reproduced without permission from:  Victoria Rumble  

 Is there one among us who hasn't studied publications such as Godey's or Peterson's searching for some clue as to what our l9th century predecessors wore?  Most of us have, yet the CDV's do not bear witness to the lavish gowns featured in these publications having been routinely worn. What other sources then might have offered advice for men and women as to dress, hair style, and the practical matters of a l9th century woman's toilet?

Publications such as the Ladies Repository, Southern Literary Messenger, DeBow's Review, Vanity Fair and the like often carried advice to the ladies on proper dress, and other sources included etiquette books, religious books, and various advice books.  Novels and illustrations sometimes gave an insight into what the average citizen was wearing, and CDVs provide a clear cut look at what citizens determined to be suitable for having an image struck for family and friends.  

"Dress should be suited to the rank of the wearer", advised many books of the mid-l9th century.  One source goes on to say, "What is suitable and proper for a lady of wealth may be very unfit for one who has to work for her bread". Another source says, "The importance of dress can scarcely be overrated, but by comparison.  It is with the world the outward sign of both character and condition; and since it costs no more to dress well than ill, and is not very troublesome, every one should endeavor to do the best that his circumstances will allow".

Matching the clothing to our persona is as important today in re-enacting the mid-l9th century as it was when these quotes first appeared in print.  By going to the original sources we can form opinions of what was common and acceptable just as our mid-Victorian counterparts did.  Before we can move on to learning the various domestic arts, social culture, and other components of the era we must first outfit ourselves in proper dress.  
In order to match clothing to our first person characters we must first determine our station in life, our interests, and the various components that go together to make up our persona.  Our persona may be that of a famous character, a well researched ancestor, fictional, or a combination of these.  It is the foundation from which we form a reason for our presence and participation at living history events.
 We don't just appear at a social function without a reason for being there in our 2lst century lives, and we should avoid appearing at a living history event without an identity and a purpose for being there.  

Our l9th century characters should have particular interests and various factors which determined their station in life just as our 2lst century lives are governed by the same factors today.  For example:  socioeconomic status, religious status, relationships with friends and relatives, family attachments, the skill in performing certain domestic arts and occupations, and a knowledge of every day culture of the period.  

Once we have determined whether our persona is that of a rural Southern woman or something very different we can begin to compile a wardrobe suitable to that persona.  A farm woman would have little need for a silk ball gown, whereas a woman from the city, especially a Northern one, might frown upon the clothes best suited to the farm woman.  

Etiquette books of the day often advised women against dressing beyond their means, and cautioned to keep the wardrobe simple.  Neatness and cleanliness were considered the utmost importance, and each dress was expected to conform to the occasion for which it was worn.  "The dress we wear should not be disproportioned to the money we possess, and the uses we have for it."  The author here advises that dressing lavishly, and above one's means while neglecting other responsibilities is a sign of vanity and not to be admired.

CDVs seem to bear little evidence that the dresses featured in Godey's were worn with any regularity even though most subjects wore their best attire for the camera.  We must surmise that their day to day garments were even simpler in style.  
A study of numerous sources will reveal multiple theories on dress.  While Godey's sometimes listed color combinations which would by today's standards seem a little bright, other sources advised using them with discretion so as not to call undue attention to one's self - especially from the gentlemen.  "The fault of over-dressing is the most common, and this is almost always attended with an unharmonious arrangement of colors."  This source went on to say that brighter colors might be used to a smaller quantity such as accessories rather than for the entire dress.
"The most elegant dresses are black or white...A vulgar girl wears fantastically made bright and glaring colours."

"To dress with neatness, taste, and propriety, is the duty of every young lady; and she should give just as much thought and attention to the subject as will enable her to do it, and no more."  In order to achieve this the hair should be carefully dressed, the dress clean and wellmended, and jewelry used not to excess.  

"Neatness is better than richness, and plainness better than display.  Single ladies dress less in fashionable society than married ones; and all more plainly and substantially for walking or travelling than any other occasion."  Fashion plates sometimes show walking or travelling dresses which are looser fitting sometimes resembling sacques, to allow more freedom of movement and comfort.  
Mr. Wesley stated in one of his sermons that, "Neatness is a duty, and slovenliness a sin, we are not at liberty to sacrifice the former and adopt the latter to please anybody."

Many sources pointed out that clothing was, after all, a practical issue to shield the wearer from the elements while covering the body for modesty's sake.  Ladies were warned of the dangers of venturing outdoors in clothing which was not warm enough to protect against catching cold.  "If it trenches upon modesty, or endangers her health, let her so far not follow it."  

"Esthesiology, or the philosophy of that outer and artificial dress of linen, cotton, wool, silk and leather, in which the modesty of nature, the rigours of climate, and the demands of civilization require man to be clothed."  
"One of the most vulgar and unbecoming things in the world is this devotion to dress, which in many minds, grows into a form of insanity, and leads to the worship of dry goods and dress-makers."

The same writer went on to advise women against the evils of clothing except that which modestly is termed "full dress" specifically mentioning wider necklines while Peterson's stated, "The low bodices are now cut extremely low on the shoulder, but not so much so either at the front or back."  

Another source commented much the same in this regard, "Common modesty will prevent indecent exposure of the shoulders and bosom".  
"Of course we take it for granted that the ladies with whom we are conversing are modest, and do not wish their dress to attract attention; but if, after all, you observe that it does attract attention in the street, and especially the attention of gentlemen; if you find the eye of the stranger repeatedly resting upon it, if only for a moment, that is a hint--take it."

"The best possible style of a lady's dress is that which can not be remembered after leaving her presence....Let your dress attract no attention.  Bright colors are to be avoided.  Nothing attracts the attention sooner or at a greater distance."  
Not all religious groups embraced the theory of plain dressing in excess.  "We can not but wish that there was more plainness of attire and less extravagance exhibited by Christian people.  Extremes, whether of plainness or of fashions, should be avoided."
Ladies were advised of the evils of following trends. "Just now the red petticoat is the talk of the newspaper world.  It is the inspiring theme of many a sportive pen, and when one of these is seen upon the street, it attracts the attention of the prurient crowd.  A modest woman will shun a notoriety like this, until it ceases to be such."

The other side of the coin here would be the elaborate clothing described in period journals such as Godey's, Arthur's, or Peterson's.  "Pretty petticoats and well-fitting shoes are necessarily imperative:  so we have this winter petticoats of every imaginable shade and design, and boots that are faultless in their finish and appearance."

"In this connection perhaps allusion should be made to another source of encouragement to this indulgence [excessive dress].  I refer to the patronage too commonly extended by Christian parents in behalf of that numerous class of Lady's books and periodicals, in which the 'latest fashions' are pictorially paraded and studiously commented upon, with elegant engravings of eminent literary, and even pious, females represented in an excessively ornate, if not really immodest costume."  
"There is, as a general thing, no excuse for attire which is not neat and orderly, at any time in the day.  A thoroughly neat and orderly young woman is presentable at any hour, whether she be in the kitchen or parlor; and I have seen specimens of womanhood that were as attractive at the wash-tub, with their tidy hair and their nine-penny calico, as in their parlors at a later hour, robed in silk and busy at their embroidery."

Dressing the hair was considered part of the lady's toilet and to properly recreate that mid-l9th century look we shouldn't consider ourselves properly dressed and ready to receive visitors until the hair has been dressed at events.  
With such contrasting information choosing the proper style of clothing becomes dependent on the persona of the wearer.  An older woman or rural farm girl might not be as likely to wear the trendy red petticoat, Garibaldi, or more flamboyant dress as a younger woman who lived in the city and had the means to attend various social functions.

"But, if the worship of fashion be more obvious or apparent with women, it is no less real with men.  They, too, are the devotees of fashion."  
A gentleman would have been more likely to wear a sack coat for everyday wear though he would likely have donned a frock coat for a more formal occasion.  Just as with the ladies, accessories such as gloves and hat are necessary to complete the ensemble.

The utmost importance was placed upon cleanliness.  "A clean, unrumpled shirt coarse or fine, cotton or linen as you can afford, is of the first importance.  If the choice is between a fine shirt or a fine coat, have the shirt by all means.  A well-bred man may be ever so reduced in his wardrobe--his clothes may be coarse, and thread-bare, but he seldom wears a coarse, and never a dirty shirt.  

"Of late years, men's fashions of dress have improved.  Their clothes are less costly, and more useful than formerly.  The cheap silk hat has taken the place of the costly beaver, boots are worn instead of pumps, the laced waistcoat is laid aside, shirt ruffles are never seen, the convenient, self-adjusting black stock, has supplied the place of the easily-soiled and troublesome cravat...and the hair is worn in the most convenient cut."  

"Boots are now men's common wear on all occasions, varying in elegance for different purposes.  They should always be clean, and invariably well blackened and polished."  
While the "cheap silk hat" may have come into fashion some sources advised gentlemen to avoid them.  "Make a point of buying a good hat.  One proper fur hat worth four or five dollars, when a year old looks more respectable than a silk one bought yesterday".

In regard to pants one source advised, "Buy strong cloth, that will not be tearing at every turn; and if you consult economy and taste at the same time, let them be either black or very dark gray, when they will answer upon all occasions."  
"The vest allows of some fancy, but beware of being too fanciful.  A black satin is proper for any person or any occasion.  Nothing is more elegant than pure white.  Some quiet colors may be worn for variety, but beware of everything staring or glaring, in materials or trimmings."

"If you have but one coat it will be a black dress coat, as there are occasions where no other will answer.  Frock coats are worn in the morning, riding, or walking but never at evening visits or at weddings, balls, parties or the opera.  Overcoats are worn for comfort; they need not be fine and should not be fanciful.  Stocks are pretty much out of use.  Most gentlemen wear a simple, plain black silk cravat, neatly tied in a bow-knot before.  Balls and parties require white or light kid gloves.  Black or very dark ones of kid, silk or linen, are worn upon all other occasions, except in driving when butt leather gloves are preferable."  

Men were advised against wearing flashy jewelry -- chains, large rings, and flashy pins and broaches.  "The best-dressed men wear the least jewelry."  
"The most proper pocket handkerchiefs were of white linen.  If figured or bordered, it should be very delicately."

In l860 J. B. D. DeBow noted that unfortunately most of the fashion Southern children were exposed to originated in the North.  "Fashion makes us imitative in all things, from our infancy; and no people can be great or independent who are imitative...we must make fashions of our own or be the victims of trade and fashion from abroad."  
Mr. DeBow went on to note that fashion dictated that fabrics should be of a costly nature, however, he stated people had too long obeyed the dictates of fashion and brought up the use of homespun and Virginia cloth or cloth of domestic manufacture.
"Prudent men will see that such relations should be as few as possible, for a sudden disruption of all intercourse between North and South is probable in the not too distant future....It is fashion, and fashion alone, that makes us dependent on Europe or the North.  Neither produces a single article that we cannot produce at home.  Make and follow our own fashions, and we should soon become wealthy, independent, and enlightened."

For a Southern impression one should also consider the reduced circumstances of civilians in a blockaded South when assembling a wardrobe.  Even wealthy families suffered shortages and resorted to crude homespun when nothing else was available.  Of no less importance, in the decision regarding proper clothing is the political sentiments of the wearer.  Many Southern women chose homespun as a way to show their support of the war effort.  

Once our station in life has been determined and our clothing needs assessed what practical guidelines should govern our choices in clothing?  
CDVs and other sources indicate that the single most common item of clothing for women regardless of age or socioeconomic status was the one-piece dress.  Bodices might be either gathered or darted and with a choice of sleeves, bishop and coat sleeves being the most common.  Fabrics should reflect the circumstances of the wearer.

"Ladies prefer silks, not because they are more comfortable, or cheaper, or more beautiful, than dresses of cotton or worsted, but because they are more costly, and beyond the means of the poor.  Silk is stiff and angular in its fold cotton and worsted dresses, of the best fabric and manufacture, fall about the person with all the gracefulness of antique drapery.  Costliness, not beauty, awards the preference to silk.  Long dresses and hoops are worn because they are inconvenient, interfere with labor, and seem to prove that the wearers are above the necessity to labor.  Beauty and utility are both sacrificed on the altar of fashion and of seeming exclusiveness."  
This passage would indicate that for lower to middle class women silk might have been a luxury and extravagance, and certainly not anything worn with great regularity.  It also tells us that while hoops were likely worn for dressy occasions, they would not have been the norm for every day wear except perhaps by the woman whose means afforded her the luxury of playing the socialite and shunning any type of domestic pursuits.

In summary, there were two schools of thought on proper dress for the mid-Victorian era - one the common sense approach, the other less practical.  Which was correct?  That depends on your persona and the circumstances common to your character.  

** A shorter version of this article was published in The Civil War Courier and this version will be published in Citizen's Companion in coming months.  

  •  Godey's, Various issues l86l
  • Peterson's, Various issues l863, l865
  •  Titcomb's Letters to Young People Single and Married.  Titcomb, Timothy, Esq.  New York.  Charles Scribner.  l859.
  • Advice to Young Ladies on their Duties and Conduct in Life.  Arthur, T. S.  Boston.  Norman C. Barton.  l848
  • The Love of Dress.  A Sketch from Real Life.  American Sunday School Union.  Philadelphia.  l847. The Philosophy of Dress.  Pendleton, William Nelson.  Southern Literary Messenger; Devoted to Every Department of Literature and the fine arts.  Vol. 22, Issue 3.  l856. Richmond.
  • The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, Fashion, and Manual of Politeness. l993 Reprint.  Amazon Dry Goods.  Originally published by J. B. Locke & Co.  Boston.  l860.
  •  Sunday School Advocate.  April l2, l862.  Vol. XXL. No. l3.
  • Fashionable Costume of Olden Times.  Freeman, James M.  The Ladies' Repository.  Vol. 26, issue 3.  March l860. Cincinnati.
  •  The Domain of Fashion.  Fitzhugh, George.  DeBow's Review, Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, Progress and Resources.  Vol. 29, issue 6.  Dec. l860.  New Orleans.
  • The Burden of Dress.  Colman, Julia.  The Ladies' Repository. Vol. l5, issue 6.  June l855. Cincinnati
  • Inquire Within: or Over 3700 Facts for the People.  New York.  l858.  Dick & Fitzgerald.  
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