History Behind the Story #3: Civil War Era Fashion
The female lead in Southern Rain, Shannon Ravenel, is a very fashionable young woman. She was launched into society in Charleston, which was the largest city south of Philadelphia, and it was filled with extremely wealthy and cultured residents, where the marriage market was a bitterly-fought contest. So a girl’s gotta look the part! Shannon’s mother pushes her to make bold fashion choices which set her apart from the other girls hoping to snag a wealthy planter, and the Ravenels spare no expense on her wardrobe. Often, families such as Shannon’s would go as far as sending to Paris for cloths or even full gowns, and they would have been very sure that they were on the cusp of American fashion.
So what were the fashions? Hoop skirts, certainly– we all know about and are terrified by those. But there was a lot more to it, so let’s dive in!
First, I should note that the majority of women in the Victorian Era had only two or three dresses at any given time. However, wealthy women like Shannon would have changed dresses two or three times in one day alone. Women like Shannon and her mother would have had wardrobes full of gowns – day gowns, walking gowns, ballgowns, not to mention riding habits and mourning gowns.
So let’s start with underpants! These would have been called drawers and would have usually been white cotton or linen. Then we have the chemise, which is like a long nightgown that covers everything. After that, there would be garters on the thigh which hold up stockings (nothing but silk, dear), and then over the chemise there be the corset with whalebone boning, tightened with laces up the back or sometimes in the front. Then the hoops would have been attached by tying the top around the waist. What we typically think of is the wire-looking contraption that was made of whalebone or steel and collapses up or down and is covered with fabric petticoat. However, there were other options, including layering of voluminous petticoats (which is why ladies often say my skirts plural), as well as a crinoline, which might mean a cage crinoline like the traditional steel hoop skirt or might simply mean a really stiff fabric to give the dress structure. Then you would don the corset cover and voila! You’re ready to start getting dressed. (Unless you need to put on sleeve plumpers. Or a lace fichu. Or– this is exhausting.)
You would first don a morning dress, which was plain and was generally prim – buttoned up to the throat and perhaps featuring a print or just being plain. You would go up and shimmy that off if you had to step out to do some shopping or take a walk through an obliging field and put on instead a plainer, more sensible walking gown which had a matching fitted coat which ended halfway down the skirt and looks rather like a cute doctor’s coat. And for heaven’s sake, don’t forget your parasol and hat. But wait! Your beau has called and would like to go riding with you (properly chaperoned, of course) and so you must run upstairs, strip down, and wrestle on your riding habit (these actually stay quite similar through the years with a fitted coat and long skirt to cover any accidental indecency caused by hoisting oneself over a side-saddle). Remember your hat, gloves, and riding whip. And if you are not too exhausted to make it to dinner or the ball, your evening dress will be of a more expensive material such as silk or satin and would generally be off the shoulders or almost so and have decorations such as lace, beads, flounces, artificial flowers, or even jewels. And don’t forget your shawl. And gloves. And jewelry. And hair décor. And reticule. And fan. And handkerchief. Do you have everything? With evening or ball gowns, you would wear slippers made of satin, velvet, or even crochet. And of course, if a near relative had died, all of this would be black for the appropriate time period.
Whew. On to color. Ladies were encouraged by popular magazines to engender harmony and nature and lalalala! So we see some wild colors like bright green and weird pinks, as well as bold patterns like stripes or plaids. But of course, we also see more traditional colors like creams and blues and reds. Shannon’s favorite color is a sort of emerald green because she knows perfectly well it is becoming with her rusty red hair.
Let’s take a break and talk fashion influences. First of all, ladies would have read fashion periodicals like Godey’s Lady’s Book, so American women were very much influenced by European fashion. There would be fashion plates which showed you the possibilities, and you can still find a lot of these in antique stores today! The perfect silhouette was the hourglass, with a tiny nipped in waist. The skirt reached its full breadth and bell shape right before the Civil War, and after that narrowed just slightly with an almost unnoticeable flattening in the front, which grew more pronounced as we get on toward the 1870’s. You would have been told that the wide pagoda sleeves were the most fashionable for morning and walking gowns and that a collar of a lighter fabric was also becoming. Also, there was also always this undercurrent influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites which encouraged medieval style like juliette sleeves. And there was Queen Victoria, who influenced fashion her whole life. There’s a lot going into the pot of stew here, isn’t there?
As soon as the Civil War kicked into gear, everything went military, which is a fashion I actually love. We see lovely double-rows of buttons marching down ladies’ bodices, structured shoulders, and military-style hats. We also see velvet patches on the shoulders or sleeves reminiscent of officers’ uniforms, as well as cuffs on the sleeves. Also, your winter coat would have had extremely wide sleeves and been reminiscent of an officer’s greatcoat. Gray seems to have been a very popular color for all of this.
Another way the war had its influence was in jewelry. The Victorians are known to be very sentimental, and their jewelry was no exception: you might carry the hair of a husband, beau, son, or brother in a ring or necklace if you were separated by the war or death. And of course, those items made the perfect accompaniment to your mourning wardrobe which, unfortunately, most women had to acquire over the course of the war.
Women were starting to flex their muscles as nurses, and if you were working in a hospital, more than likely you would have left off the impractical hoops and just would have worn a couple of petticoats, along with a white apron and white sleeve covers. And if you were a Southern woman cut off from Northern textile mills due to the blockade, your skirts, if you had new ones made, would have likely been a lot narrower because they simply didn’t have the fabric to spare. But for the most part, there was constant re-wearing.
Ladies’ fashion from the era is so intricate and fascinating that it would be easy to say blah, blah the men wore suits, but I’ll try to give a brief sketch. Basically, there were suits. But I have to say, they were really good suits. This is my favorite era for men’s fashion, actually. As long as you were tall and thin, you were destined to look elegant. Trousers were full length, often with a stripe down the side. Neckcloths were really wide and often tied into a floppy bow. Waistcoats were high to the chest but ended at the top of the hipbones.
Men had lots of wardrobe changes during the day, as well. Basically, there was the mid-length sack coat worn for business occasions, the morning coat for more formal day occasions, and the dark tail-coat and white cravat for evening wear. We all know about the top hat, but there were other hats, too, such as the bowler.
Okay, so that’s it for today, but there still a whole lot of information out there if you’re interested! Check out the sources below to learn more!
Civil War Women’s Clothing, https://www.visit-gettysburg.com/civil-war-womens-clothing.html.
Monet, Delores, Women’s Clothing of the South in the American Civil War, https://bellatory.com/fashion-industry/WomensClothingoftheSouthintheAmericanCivilWar.
Image Credit: The Smithsonian Institution, http://www.civilwar.si.edu/life_fashionplate.html.