Sunday, July 25, 2010

Changing It Up - An 1860's Fashion Show

Have you ever attended a Civil War fashion show?

The format is fairly standard, a parade of mostly ladies in their finest, perhaps a "dressing for the day" showing all the appropriate layers of underpinnings and maybe a handful of children and gentlemen.

But I just couldn't do it...

I was asked to narrate the fashion show for Historic Charlton Park, and I wanted to change it up - provide information on the fashions of the 1860's certainly but also go a little deeper, tell a little more.

So I decided to explore the idea of fabric being relatively expensive and time being cheap, how clothing would be used for a multitude of functions and how each scrap of fabric would be used for all it was worth.

I started with myself as the first example, in my silk dress with large open sleeves and puffy undersleeves, a square neckline filled with a chemisette and my high style silk spoon bonnet - I'm dressed for an afternoon call or a carriage ride with the addition of a parasol and wrap, but wait...

I transition to a lovely costume for a formal dinner by removing my bonnet, adding a lace and ribbon cap, removing the undersleeves and chemisette (it's perfectly acceptable to show a bit of skin in the evening) and adding a necklace and pair of bracelets. I also showed the second matching low evening bodice that can be quickly basted in place and then I'm ready to dance!
Next I focused on less formal clothing, in fact it appears we've interrupted the workday routine of a hardworking housekeeper - she's ready for messy work, with her skirts kirtled up, her apron, neckerchief and slat bonnet.

But she quickly is able to ready herself for a quick trip to the general store by dropping her skirts, removing her apron and donning a simple but more fashionable straw bonnet.

I also mentioned the vast yardage contained in skirts of the period; how items such as aprons, cloth bonnets and even children's clothing could be fashioned from the fabric salvaged from an outdated or worn dress. I had an adorable little girl model the use of growth tucks and drawstring waist and necklines on children's clothing to ensure such items could be worn as long as possible before being passed down to a younger sibling.

We then moved on to a fashionable ensemble for a young miss, note her fancy, meant-to-be-seen petticoat and elevated skirt. She also sports a porkpie hat and parasol - perhaps she'll be strolling with a beau?

But by dropping her skirts, switching out her hat for a bonnet, she's ready for church services.
Trims on dresses and bonnets was typically just tacked in place, making it easier to remove and change out, yet another example of extending the use of each garment.

Men's clothing is not quite as changeable as the ladies, but one of my favorite "make-do's" I've ever seen, was a vest that had been split up the back, the edges carefully finished, to allow for the gentleman's increased girth - as long as he kept his jacket on, it'd would be his secret.
All clothing would be carefully tended - cleaned, mended and what couldn't be removed or repaired would be hidden. It's a very different mindset than today, making it last, reusing in new ways, NOT running out to buy new; it sounds like we have so much to learn from the past!


  1. What a great idea, rather than have just a parade of dresses. To demonstrate and answer some of the questions that are usually asked (like - how many dresses did they have or how could they possibly be used) Now that would have made for an interesting show!

  2. Wow! This is very interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I am a firm believer in multi-use items.....and I love vintage clothing.....great info