Women's Clothing of the South in the American Civil War
The clothing worn during the American Civil War (1861—1845) is a popular costume for Halloween and for Civil War reenactors. In general, the fashions worn before and during the Civil War are Victorian styles, but the clothing worn by women in the Confederate States take on a slightly different consideration.
Cotton was produced in the American South, but the textile mills that manufactured fabric were located in the northern states. The few southern mills worked to produce fabric for the military. The blockade of southern ports by northern forces prevented the importation of European as well as American fabrics. Though blockade runners managed to move some goods through, those imports were few and far between. Black market goods were very expensive, so the South had to make do without new fabric for the duration of the war.
What little fabric was available was needed for uniforms for the military. Even then, southern uniforms were not uniform and many versions existed, including light gray, dark gray, light blue, and butternut brown.
Southern women learned to make do with less and the famous scene in Gone With the Wind, when Scarlett uses drapes to make a dress had some basis in fact. Clothing was mended or remade. Homespun became a popular, even patriotic substitute for manufactured fabric during the war.
Before the War—Fashion in The Antebellum South
We like to visualize women of the Antebellum south in traditional Victorian hoop skirts, grandly embellished with ribbons and bows. Of course, like all fashion periods, the grand, elegant styles of the period were limited to the wealthier classes. Simpler versions of hoop skirts were worn by women of less means.
The elite women of the Antebellum South enjoyed French and English fashions. They visited Europe and brought home new styles, fabrics, and designs from Paris and London to be created for them by seamstresses.
- Evening attire featured drop shoulder sleeves, low necklines, and voluminous skirts, held out by layers of petticoats, crinolines, or hoops. Hoops, horizontal circles of thin steel, were held in place by vertical strips of fabric. Short capped sleeves exposed women's arms during warmer months and for evening wear.
- Bodices were somewhat lower than the actual waistline, but rose after the war. Bodices were lined for support and closed in front with buttons or hooks and eyes. Bodice and skirt fabrics usually matched.
- Day-wear dresses were high necked. It was unseemly for a woman to show skin before late afternoon. As pale skin was the style, necks and shoulders had to be covered to avoid the sun. Outdoors, during the day, women carried parasols to avoid sunlight.
- Sleeves were full, widest at the elbow, erupting from a gathered shoulder seam. The Bishop sleeve featured the gathered shoulder, wide elbow, and narrowed at the wrist.
- Layered sleeves with the under-sleeve showing was popular for a time. Sleeves were often trimmed with ribbon or braid.One type sleeve called a negative sleeve showed the lining when the long sleeve was caught up on the outer side, leaving the portion of the sleeve at the back of the arm hanging.
One interesting aspect of women's skirts was the hem. Today, a hem is turned under and stitched. During Victorian times, and in the American Civil War era, hems were bound by a strip of fabric. This fabric could be removed and replaced when the hem showed wear.
Fabrics for Southern Well-to-Do
The elite women of the south wore fabrics in silk, velvet for colder weather; fine lawn, linen, and muslin in warm weather.
White was a popular color in warm weather for women with status. Black, worn for mourning, was often worn due to the high death rate, and during the war as women lost loved ones who perished in battle.
Large prints were difficult to match and restricted to the wealthy as the voluminous skirts were made of up to 5 yards of fabric, and using a print, stripe or plaid increased the need for even more material.
Hair and Accessories
- Hair: The ideal women of the pre-Civil War South had pale skin and a rounded face. Hair was parted down the center and drawn back, with soft loops on each side of the face that accentuated a round face. These loops could be puffed out with a 'rat,' a small net stuffed with hair gathered during brushing.
For dress, the side hair hung in loose ringlets from a central part.
- Jewelry: Jewelry was small sized and a rosy gold was the preference in delicate, dangle earrings and oval horizontal or vertical brooches. A brooch was worn at the neckline, at the top of the collar during the day.
Matching chunky bracelets were worn on each wrist.
- Fans: Fans were a popular accessory of the American South, a region of hot, humid summers. Simple paddle fans made of palmetto leaves were round and small sized. Six to ten inch folding fans could be painted with pretty designs.
- A nosegay, or small bunch of aromatic flowers and herbs was a popular accessory in an era without deodorant.
- Small purses, or drawstring bags held a lady's necessities.
- Aprons, often worn for cooking or doing chores protected dresses.
- Lace was not widely used, except for collars and cuffs
- Collar and cuffs were removable for laundering or a stylish change. These removable collars and cuffs were usually white.
- Parasol: A fabric umbrella carried on a sunny day to protect a woman's complexion from the sun, and offered a kind of portable shade
Woman With a Parasol
Underwear of the Civl War South
Victorian women of the Civil War period wore many layers of undergarments. While layered undergarments were necessary in many areas for warmth, the custom also followed rules of etiquette and propriety.
The first layer was a soft cotton or linen chemise worn with drawstring drawers trimmed in lace or ribbon, ending just below the knee.
Whalebone corsets laced at the back to accentuate a small waist. The modern concept that women of the day were obsessed with crushing themselves into the tiniest waist possible is not true - that behavior was limited to a small subset.
During the mid 1800s, many petticoats, a crinoline, or crinoline cage hoop skirt created the huge, bell shaped skirt that typified the era. The hoop skirt was impractical, generally worn for dressy occasion.
A Young Woman Shows That You Can Sit Down While Wearing a Crinoline Cage (Hoop Skirt)
Clothing of Lower Class Women in the Civil War South
Lower class women did not wear wide hoop skirts, though less expensive crinoline cages (with fewer hoops) were available for those who could afford the style. The lower classes wore coarser fabrics.
Coarser Fabrics Worn by Lower Classes
- Osnaburg—a coarse, inexpensive linen
- Fustian—a cotton and linen blend
- Linsey-woolsey—a coarse linen, and wool blend, later cotton and wool.
- Calico—a cheap cotton fabric printed with a design featuring tiny flowers
Most women of the day wore solid fabrics. Stripes and plaids were limited to the wealthy as matching pieces of fabric use more material. Small prints, like calico, were easier to match and mend. Calico prints were usually dark to hide stains. Black was a common color for all classes and worn for mourning dress. Many photographs of the time depict women dressed in black, as many suffered the loss of loved ones, so dressed in mourning attire.
Homespun fabric was not frequently used before the Civil War, but became somewhat popular during the war due to fabric shortages. Contrary to popular conceptions, slaves did not wear homespun as the work involved in the creation of that fabric was labor intensive and not seen as an economical use of a slave's time. Slaves usually wore inexpensive manufactured fabrics. However, large plantations often employed spinners, weavers, seamstresses, and tailors in order to clothe the many people who worked there.
Enslaved people were issued a few sets of clothing each year. Poor people, laborers, the lower class, and enslaved people generally wore clothing made of tough, durable fabric. Their clothing was less tailored and embellished than the garments of the elite. Slaves who worked inside the home dressed in more up-to-date, more tailored and embellished garments than those who worked outdoors.
A wrapper was a loose, one piece dress that was gathered and pleated from neck to hem and belted for shape often with an apron. Low, wide shoulders with wide sleeves gathered at the wrist. Wrappers were worn by working women, lower class women, rural women, and for household chores. A women of moderate substance wore a wrapper made of a better fabric.
Women's Hats of the Civil War Era
Hats were commonly worn during Victorian times and were a necessity for women of the south. Wide brimmed hats protected the face, neck, and eyes from the sun. Wearing a hat was seen as a respectable practice and worn for proprietary as well as for looks and style.
Wide brimmed garden hats were popular in warmer months. Often made of straw, garden hats were tied under the chin and often featured some decoration at the base of the crown.
Bonnets were worn in winter and made of heavier materieals than summer bonnets. Sun bonnets often featured a ruffle or small curtain of fabric at the back to protect the neck from the sun.
The fabric of bonnets was stiffened into a wide front brim and tied under the chin with wide ribbons of fabric. Decoration could be changed to refresh the look of a bonnet. Faux flowers were a popular bonnet decoration. Feathers did not become popular until much later.
Spoon bonnets featured a tall, uplifted front brim. Decorative elements like silk flowers, or ruffles were worn inside the hat, under the brim.
Small caps were often worn indoors, especially by older women. These caps worn at the back of the head could be decorated with ruffled edges, braid, or ribbon.
Poor women and slaves wore a kerchief tied behind the head. Some enslaved women wore turbans.
Tips on Making a Civil War or Antebellum Costume
If you want to create a costume for a woman of the Confederacy during the Civil War, remember that many women wore mended clothing. Faded or muted colors work well as new materials were not available during the war. Many fabrics can be artificially aged by soaking in black tea.
Remember that sewing machines were not widely available. Wealthier women could, however afford the services of a seamstress, who might use a sewing machine.
Many items of clothing were hand sewn before, during, and after the war. For a truly authentic look, hand sew all visible seams.
Belle Boyd—Confederate Spy
Civil War Era Seamstress
Here Are Several Patterns for the Civil War Period
For Further Reading
Costume and Fashion Source Books by Karen Taschek; Bailey Publishing Associates
Clothing Through American History—The Civil War Through the Gilded Age 1861—1899 by Anita Stamper and Jill Condra
60 Civil War Era Fashion Patterns, by Kristina Seleshanko
American Civil War Era Fashion Plates : Peterson's Magazine 1860—1865, by Mandie Foster and Dannielle Perry
Who Wore What Women's Wear 1861—1865, by Juanita Leisch
Questions & Answers
Did women wear make-up during the American Civil War?
The Civil War-era falls into the greater Victorian era, a time when women were supposed to look natural. While women once wore heavy makeup, a modern term, cosmetics were seen as vulgar, worn by actresses and prostitutes. A high-class lady avoided the sun as tanning and freckles were seen as low class. An elite woman had to show that she did not labor in the sun.
However, women used subtle cosmetics to enhance their appearance. Pastes and creams with moisturizing properties could hide blemishes, freckles, and uneven skin tones. Creme Celeste was a concoction made of white wax, spermaceti (a substance from the head of a whale), rose water, glycerin, sweet almond oil, and essential oils. Rice and zinc oxide powders could be dusted over the face to create the pale complexion so popular at the time.
Lip balms often contained a tinge of color. A very subtle blush or rouge was dusted on the cheeks, though obvious cheek coloring was viewed as inappropriate for a lady. Women plucked their eyebrows.
Beauty products were purchased at apothecary shops just as in later years, cosmetics have been sold at pharmacies and drug stores.Helpful 23
Who was the seamstress for the hoop-skirt?
A seamstress sewed clothing but did not actually make the cage crinoline for hoop skirts.
Hoops were worn under skirts and replaced hot, itchy crinolines. The actual cage crinoline was mass produced in factories. Thin pieces of cut steel were covered with cotton. The circles of a hoop skirt were smaller at the top and large at the hem. They were held together with fabric tape.
A skirt made with many yards of fabric was worn over top the cage.Helpful 13
May I use this article for my school project?
If you want to use this article as a resource for a school project, you should contact your instructor. There are sites that educators prefer, and those may include scholastic journals or museum references. Your instructor may prefer that you use books for research.
When referencing an online site for school projects, the way you cite the information depends, again, on your instructor's preference.Helpful 11
Can you still find hoop skirts in this century?
Hoop skirts still show up in wide-skirted wedding gowns. They can be found online for reenactment, period, or theatrical costumes. In the 1950s, very wide skirts were popular. Stiff petticoats usually provided support but there were some instances of hoop inserts in petticoats. Hoop-La was one product I just found on Etsy. But hoops are hard to deal with especially when trying to sit down. Some petticoats of the 1950s provided one or two hoops.Helpful 7