Sunday, August 5, 2012

In the Beginnings - An 1860's Fashion Show

Not too fashionable looking, am I?

Wash dress, apron, kerchief, and slat bonnet - basic garments that every female living historian should have and a great beginning to assembling a mid-19th century wardrobe.

Several years back, I was asked to present a fashion show at the annual Civil War event at Charlton Park, and I agreed - if I could do it my way.

So each show has a "theme" and this year I decided to address a question I frequently hear from spectators - no, not "Are you hot in those clothes?"  - but "How do you put together a wardrobe?"

We started by showing the underpinnings, chemise, corset,  drawers, petticoats, etc and explained WHY it's so important to have those layers before moving on to a dress - without the proper foundation, it's impossible to have the proper silhouette for the period.

We also discussed why under garments are the perfect place for a novice seamstress to practice - the skills used  can all be used in outer garments, and after all, if they aren't absolutely perfect, they won't be visible to the general public.

Skirt support was our next topic and also provided an opportunity to discuss research and trends in reenacting - we are both wearing corded petticoats, which for several years were the "in" thing, but further research has shown that by the war years, they were a bit of a rarity, having been replaced by the ubiquitous cage crinoline.

We also talked about the life cycle of garments - here we have what was previously a more fashionable dress, but it's become a bit faded and shabby and has now been relegated to work wear - think about the jeans that you now only wear when cleaning house. Clothing should be appropriate for the task at hand, why wear a fancy gown for messy tasks?

Another use for a dress past it's prime is to use it for yardage: just think how many aprons, slat bonnets, or children's garments a skirt could yield.

Removing that slat bonnet, apron and adding a plain white collar sure changed the look of my very basic dress!

Another versatile garment is a wrapper - great for early morning runs to the necessary without needing to get fully dressed and, due to the relatively loose fit, a very forgiving garment for the beginning seamstress. In this case, with permission, I shared the mistake made by the maker and her creative and appropriate solution - she had made her wrapper too short, but instead of discarding it, she added more fabric, running in the opposite direction to add length - it's a great solution, adds interest to the garment and looks intentional.

Here's another reason to start with a simple wash dress - you'll learn the skills to create a more fashionable gown. If you look closely, our basic dresses are very similar: fitted, gathered bodices and simple bishop sleeves. The difference is the finer fabric and bold trim of the dress on the left, as well as the stylish straw bonnet.

Here's another lovely example: striped sheer silk, with slim open sleeves worn over lace trimmed undersleeves, with a larger skirt support and accessorized with bonnet, gloves and reticule - she's ready to pay a call on friends!

 Again, the biggest differences between my wash dress and this gown suitable for visiting, are the fabrics and accessories - the rest is just details.

Despite having only a handful of models, I was able to share a huge amount of information with the viewers and they stayed to listen, standing in the sun on a 95 degree hot and humid day!


  1. Thanks for giving us the cliff notes version without the standing in the heat part!

  2. Do you have hem tape on the bottom of your corded petticoat? If so, that's a great idea!

  3. So lovely! I love all of the dresses and accessories! So nice to see authentic reproductions. And that sheer silk dress is stunning!

  4. It's actually manila rope, used as the bottom cord - over the years, it has discolored the outer fabric. I wouldn't recommend it as a technique!