Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Unmentionables of the Civil War Lady

by Denise Weimer

Occasionally, I dress in period costume at historical festivals where I’m selling my books, as I did in this photo, taken at the William Harris Homestead near Monroe, Georgia. Doing so definitely requires extra time—and prevents lifting heavy book boxes and setting up a tent!

What would a middle- or upper-class European or American woman have worn under her dress?

A lady would begin by donning her chemise (if she hadn’t worn it to bed), a full but straight-cut cotton gown with a wide, gathered neckline (often with a ribbon drawstring) and enough sleeves to cushion her underarms. The chemise ended
around the knees.

Cotton pantalets were worn under the chemise. The legs were sewn to the waistband but split in the middle for … ahem … trips to the necessary. They were often trimmed with lace or ribbon at the bottom.

Proper ladies also wore an under-hoop petticoat, but most living historians I knew felt the chemise provided enough coverage (yes, I have seen some very unseemly spills on the ballroom floor where the hoop flew all the way up!) and chose to go with only stockings, pantalets, and chemise under the hoop.

Our Civil War lady would put on thigh-high stockings, rolling them down over her garter. Stockings were most often cotton but could be silk or wool. They were also most often ecru-colored but could come in other colors or even striped for the lady with a bit of flair. The garter sits right above the knee. Today these are elastic, but during the period, they might have been crocheted, knitted, or ribbon.

When I was wearing my ankle-high, square-toed leather boots for outside rambles, I’d go ahead and put them on at this point. Otherwise, I’d be facing a merciless struggle trying to get my foot in and lace them up once I was fully clad in corset and hoops. If I was attending an indoor event such as a ball, the slippers could be donned last.

Time for the dreaded corset. The boned, Civil War-era corset was not as long as those that evolved later, coming to a point in the front over the abdomen and raising the bosom in the front. It laced in the back, but if your weight didn’t fluctuate, you got it set and left it, just holding your breath and fastening the hooks in the front. The corset is indeed a necessity if you want to properly fit into a dress sewn from a mid-1800s pattern, especially for full-figured ladies.

A short, cotton corset cover served as a camisole to soften the lines of the corset. (I never wore one of these. It was hot enough dancing in this ensemble in Georgia!)

Finally, we add the hoopskirt itself. The garment consists of rings or rungs sewn into cotton fabric. Most modern hoop rungs are constructed of plastic, making them adjustable for fullness and somewhat collapsible, enabling the wearer to fit through narrow spaces with just a press on either side. To sit down, one merely lifts the back of the skirt from the top just a bit and backs onto the chair. Original hoop rungs were made from whalebone or metal. The garment is tied at the waist with a drawstring or buttoned on a band.

Some hoops had ruffles sewn over them to keep the rungs from being visible once the wearer was dressed, but generally, a lady would add one to three over-hoop petticoats for this purpose. You can guess how many I added. 

Well-trimmed over-hoop petticoat
Our mid-1800s lady is ready to don her dress and venture out! If you’d like to see a video of dressing for the 1860s, here’s my seamstress/living historian friend Marie Walker doing so: Her blog: Photos of chemise, petticoat, and pantalets are also courtesy of Marie.

Represented by Hartline Literary Agency, Denise Weimer holds a journalism degree with a minor in history from Asbury University. She’s a managing editor for the historical imprints of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and the author of almost a dozen published novels and a number of novellas. A wife and mother of two daughters, she always pauses for coffee, chocolate, and old houses!

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  1. So fun. I have a friend whose a Civil War Reenactor. I've visited living history gatherings before. One of the women told me she used a hoolahoop for her hoop skirt. Many may not have put every layer of authentic undergarments on either.
    I recently visited Springfield Illinois where the Lincoln museum and many historical homes from the Civil War period can be toured. Some women were washing clothes outside one home explaining the small pieces of fabric they held fit in the under arm of a garment. I would be removed and washed then reattached. That is how they dealt with underarm stains. Thanks for this interestng post.

  2. Very interesting, Denise! Thanks for sharing. I can't imagine how uncomfortable this would be during hot, summer months.

  3. Oh my heavens! And I suppose it was unseemly to be seen sweating?!!!! Thanks for the post!

  4. Thanks for stopping by, ladies. Jubileewriter, neat tip about the underarm pads! I think I've heard of those. Connie, one just hoped all the layers of cotton absorbed perspiration. LOL. Linda, yes, after one of our ladies nearly passed out at an event, we finally had to tell organizers we would not perform vintage dances at outdoor events between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Imagine doing the polka under such circumstances!

  5. Aw, great article. Sooo informative!

  6. This was terrific. Thank you for this glimpse beneath—er, behind the scenes. šŸ˜‰

  7. Thanks, Heather and Kathleen. My pleasure. Just a little glimpse of the ankles, right? :) - Denise

  8. Really enjoyed this article, Denise. ��

  9. Hi Denise! I enjoyed this post. At one time I was a part of the Ricochet Riders and we did "shoot outs". When I tried out for a part I got it because they said my voice carried well and I was a natural. I enjoyed doing the shoot outs, such fun! My costume was a black taffeta dress with a beautiful feathered hat and I carried a "shotgun" because my man had been cheating with the "floozies" at the local saloon, who was part of the gang planning to rob the bank. We did that at the Jesse James Days in little Pineville, MO.

  10. Thanks, Lisa and Karen! Karen, that sounds like some exciting living history. - Denise