An 1860s era fashion show

1860s era fashion show
A friend and I recently attended an 1860s era fashion show put on by one of our local historical societies. It was held at a now museum that was once a pre- Civil War Era Presbyterian church. The pews we sat in are original to the church and were used by Federal troops as troughs for their horses.

The fashion show was hosted by an American Civil War re-enactor. The museum had recently received a donation of reproduction 1860s era ladies clothing from a former Civil War re-enactor who had given up the hobby. The donated garments were modeled by some of the ladies in the historical society.

The presentation was very interesting. The re-enactor talked about the basics of 1860s era lady’s attire and discussed how re-enactors primarily base their “look” upon period photographs. She made an interesting point I had not considered when doing research. Did you ever notice how a lady’s hair of this period seems never to go astray? Ladies always neatly curled under the ends of their hair regardless of the occasion.

But what I found most interesting about this fashion show was the “evolution” of the clothing used in the Civil War reenacting hobby (or at least this one lady’s journey). For example, there was a dress made completely of polyester- something patterned after a clogging dress, but longer. It had plastic buttons on the front and a zipper down the back. I am assuming this is one of first dresses she owned.

There were several blouse, skirt, and triangular over-thingy combinations I am assuming she purchased somewhere in the midst of her re-enacting career.

And then there were two very nice authentic cotton dresses with hook and eye front closures and decorative buttons made of horn and glass. There was also a pretty wool cape, a black wool- felted bonnet, and of course the cotton bridal hoop that every re-enactor at some point has owned.

The evolution of this lady’s wardrobe is a direct reflection of the American Civil War re-enacting hobby. Early in the hobby, the trend was toward fancy and frills. Ruffles, ribbons, and lace were attached on every part of a gown possible.

Then entered the more educated re-enactor who did a little research prior to creating an impression. These gowns kept their decorum but lost the frill.

Today, the majority of lady’s in the hobby are trending toward dark colored, one piece cotton dresses with little to no trim and some type of close- fitting sleeves. This type of dress is a good example of what the average mid 19th century American woman might have worn on a daily basis.

Simplicity pattern
Simplicity Pattern representing the typical style of gown worn by today’s
American Civil War re-enactor

Every woman in America, regardless of socio-economic status, had at least one “good dress” in her wardrobe. Fiber content, amount of trim, and style depended upon how much money a woman had to spend on her wardrobe. Extant gowns of the period are made in cotton, silk, or wool ranging from bright, bold colors to delicate pastels. In 1856, aniline dyes were developed resulting in brilliant, vibrant colors. According to Godey’s Magazine, blue, purple and green are the most noted colors of the period. Pink and violet were popular trim colors for white gowns. Better dresses almost always used some type of trim on the bodice, the skirt, or both. Look at the gorgeous color of this gown from the FIDM museum’s collection:

1860s era gown  1860s era gown
(left) Extant Day Gown (c. 1865-66) FIDM Museum Study Collection
(right) Extant 1860s Era gown from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Overall, the 1860s era fashion show was a lot of fun! The historical society and the re-enactor who gave the commentary did a wonderful job putting the show together. It was really a lovely experience!