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Standards > Getting Started & Getting it Right > Basic Men's Clothing

Men's Clothing: What to Get First

Most men coming into civilian reenacting have previously reenacted military. Many of the items you acquired for your military impression can also be used for civilian, particularly if you do Confederate:

Items from Your Military Impression You Can Use:

  • Shirts: Most shirts used by soldiers were privately made rather than issue items and all shirts used for an authentic military impression will work for civilian, other than the Federal issue shirt. The wool Federal contract shirt will even work for a woolen workshirt. If you are coming from mainstream military, sutler row quality shirts, provided they are in a good fabric, can be upgraded by replacing wooden saucer type buttons with china buttons, and overworking the buttonholes by hand.
  • Trowsers: Richmond Depot pattern trowsers were modelled on civilian patterns and are acceptable for civilian, although gray trowsers are over-represented in "galvanized civilians" and you should aim as your first impression upgrade to get more specifically civilian trowers in fabrics and colors other than gray jeancloth. Some good options include cassimere, satinette, wool broadcloth and linen. Colors should generally be subdued and neutral for solid colored trowsers, as they will be more economical and all-purpose. However, fairly wild checks were also seen in trowsers of the period, and this might be a fun option for expanding your impression later. Obviously military trowsers such as light blue federal trowers are not acceptable because the color is so distinctive, although you can probably get away with the dark blue ones as they are inobtrusive.
  • Suspenders and belts: Suspenders were not a military issue item and any period-correct suspenders used in military reenacting are suitable for civilian reenacting. Belts with plain, non military buckles, e.g. plain singled tanged or double tanged "snake" buckles are acceptable.
  • Footwear: Military brogans were based on working men's shoes of the era and are acceptable for a working class or rural middle class impression. If you decided to expand your impression to include upper middle class or urban middle class, we recommend upgrading to a pair of specificially civilian patterned shoes. Military boots were also modelled on civilian boots and are also acceptable.
  • Hats: Slouch hats, porkpies, beehives, mechanics caps, etc were not military issue items and can be worn for civilian reenacting. You cannot use military issued items such as kepis, bummers, Hardee hats, etc.
  • "Battle Shirts": So-called "battle shirts" have become trendy in authentic military reenacting for early War events as they were previously underrepresented relative to what history shows. These "battle shirts" were modeled on everyday "overshirts" worn by working men and middle class men in working/casual circumstances and can be worn for civilian reenacting. However, at an early War event where we have military-civilian interaction, bear in mind that you might be mistaken for military, particularly if your overshirt is in gray or butternut, Some civilian reenactors have made overshirts in fabrics that are overtly non-military, such as woolen checks and plaids, to avoid this problem.
  • Waistcoats / Vests: The high-necked military style waistcoats are not appropriate for civilian reenacting. However, lower necked, civilian patterned waistcoats in authentic materials are appropriate and heavily encouraged

Your Most Important New Items for the AGSAS Core Impression:

1. Sack Coat: If you are coming to civilian reenacting from an authentic Confederate military impression, you probably have all the above-listed items. The one new thing you really DO need is some form of outerwear to replace your military coat or jacket. Unless you are working as a blacksmith at a hot forge with your sleeves rolled up throughout a civilian event, or are in similar circumstances, you would probably not be seen on the street without some form of outerwear, either an overshirt, smock, sack coat, paletot or frock coat. We recommend a civilian sack coat as your first new acquisition, as it will give you the maximum latitude in the types of persons you can portray, whereas overshirts and particularly smocks are inherently a "working" impression while frock coats and paletots are more formal. Generally, we recommend that you get a sack coat first, and then consider acquiring a frock or paletot and a work overshirt or smock later on if you wish to broaden your impression.

2. Waistcoat: If you do not already have a civilian patterned waistcoat (vest), this is also highly recommended. Generally, adult men were thought to be only half-dressed if they appeared in their shirtsleeves without a waistcoat. This is particularly true when wearing a white "boiled' shirt, although photographic evidence suggests this social convention was not always applied. Generally, if you are wearing a white shirt, you should wear a waistcoat and if you are wearing a checked or patterned shirt of a more casual / working type, you should leave your sack coat on, unless doing manual labor.

3. Other Items: If you are coming from doing Federal, you will probably also need trowsers and a civilian-type hat. If you are coming into civilian reenacting as a new reenactor, you will need all of the items detailed above. As trowsers, shoes, etc that are used for military impressions are over-represented among male civilian reenactors, as most have come from military, we encourage you to focus on styles that were specifically civilian in acquiring these new items, where budgets permit.

Sources for Gear:

We recommend the Homespun Patterns civilian sack coat pattern, which is based on an original. Their waistcoat pattern is also good, as it has the right collar construction. Neither is particularly user-friendly for a novice sewist. If you are new to sewing, we suggest you enlist an experienced friend or period clothing maker.

Good sources of fabric include Family Heirloom Weavers for reproductions of fabrics common for sack coats in the era such as cassimere and satinette. Good wool broadcloth can be obtained from a variety of sources, as can appropriate linen, sometimes at discount prices. Needle & Thread in Gettysburg routinely carries a wide range of fabrics appropriate for period menswear. Avoid making your sack coat and waistcoat in jeancloth, unless you intend always to portray poorer people, as it was considered a work clothing fabric, often used for slave clothing.

In addition to the fabrics listed above, another good option for a civilian waistcoat for an in-town sort of portrayal is plain black silk. Black silk waistcoats were worn even by fairly poor men, and there was a vibrant used clothing industry in the era as well. However, this would not be appropriate for portraying someone engaged in heavy work and is a better option for your second waistcoat.

Expanding Your Impression:

For men, a serviceable sack coat will be useful for portraying a variety of social classes, either a working man dressed to go into town or a middle class person in informal circumstances. A sack coat made of finer fabrics such as wool broadcloth or linen, particularly when part of a "suit of dittoes" (matching coat and trowsers) will also do for a wealthier gentleman in an informal context. If you want a lot of latitude in your impression possibilities from the start, a good initial purchase might be a linen or broadcloth "suit of dittoes" in a neutral color. It can be worn as a suit, with a waistcoat and boiled white shirt and cravat for a more up-market look and the jacket worn with non-matching trowsers and a checked shirt for a more working class look.

Middle Class to Upper Middle:

In addition to your sack coat, waistcoat and trowsers, whether a suit of dittoes or not, your first additional acquisitions should be a good black silk cravat (accurate reproduction "cheater" ties are the easiest and are documented) and a white "boiled" shirt. If you have been wearing heavy military brogans, this would be a good time to upgrade to a civilian style shoe, although you can still get away with boots worn under the trowsers as they give a nice, smooth look.

If you want a more up-market look, portraying perhaps a professional man such as a doctor, lawyer, parson or a more prosperous merchant or land owner, a frock coat or paletot is extremely helpful to have. It is very hard to get an accurate frock coat made as the construction is quite complicated and they should be well tailored to the body, lined and padded and should have accurate detailing such as tailcoat pockets and quilted lining. Seek advice! The new Past Patterns gentleman's paletot pattern is a little easier to make than a frock coat as it is slightly less fitted. These are cut like a frock in the back but do not have the waist seam in the front, sort of a hybrid between a frock and a sack. Frock coats should generally be in tones of black to gray rather than brown, worn with matching trowsers, although a black frock with gray or striped trowsers might also be an option. The fabric used should be wool, tightly fulled, like a melton or barathea. Some people have had good luck using billiard cloth.

Frock coats should be worn with beaver, silk or "plush' (a period silk/fur mix) top hats. Silk had begun to replace beaver by the 1840's and silk and plush were considerable more common by the War era, although beaver hats were still around. Unfortunately, the most accurate option here is to wear originals, thereby risking damage to irreplaceable artifacts. This should be avoided whenever possible. Tim Bender is now making beaver felt top hats that are pretty good, and probably the best available option.

Working Class:

As an expansion from your core wardrobe, you might now consider a work overshirt or a workingman's smock, as these looks are underrepresented in reenacting and a joy to behold when done right. A neckerchief or bandanna is another nice touch, in a period appropriate pattern (NOT the traditional "bandanna print" cotton, which dates to the 1880s).

A tarred canvas "mechanics cap" is an interesting variation in headgear worth considering, as they are somewhat underrepresented in reenacting relative to the photographic evidence. These would also do for an artisan type portrayal and can be used as civilian headgear in a military portrayal.

Key Links: Men's Civilian Clothing How-To:

  • Jon Isaacson's article on civilian clothing used for the Burbridge Battalion portrayal at Wilson's Creek 2000 remains the most comprehensive article on men's civilian clothing currently online. Although it was written specificially for a late 1861 Missouri state militia impression, most of the information is of general relevance.
  • Bill Christen's "Quick Reference Guide on Men's Attire In the 1860's" is extremely useful. Bill and Phillip Whiteman are the co-owners of the "Aurora Collection" of period menswear. If you get a chance to see the collection when it is on exhibit, it is VERY worth seeing.
  • Bill Christen and Phillip Whiteman are collaborating on a book on men's clothing, as are Who Wore What author Juanita Leisch and artist/clothing historian Gil Hocker, so eventually the lack of good books on men's clothing of the era will be remedied. In the meantime, the only book out there that's very useful is the R.L. Shep book, Civil War Gentlemen: 1860's Apparel Arts & Uniform and, on shirts, Thoughts on Men's Shirts in America, 1750-1900 by William L. Brown