Started & Getting it Right
> Basic Women's Clothing
Getting Started and Getting it Right:
As reproduction corsetiere Kay Gnagey is fond of saying, "not all women in the era wore a corset -- but NONE of them wore a bra." Unless you ONLY wish to portray quite poor individuals, you will need a corset. If you are a standard size and symmetrically built, you might be able to get away with an "off the shelf" ready made corset. However, for maximum comfort and the best fit, we highly recommend having your corset custom made to your own measurements and figure type.
Get your corset BEFORE taking your measurements for your dresses, or they won't fit properly. Items you can buy while you're waiting for your corset to be made include chemises, drawers, petticoats, shawls, headgear, outerwear, shoes, etc., so this won't slow you down too much.
Having two dresses to start out with is a good strategy, as a lot of reenacting events are held in hot weather where you might appreciate a change of clothing. However, it is not necessary to have more than one dress to start out with, and wearing the same dress all weekend in many circumstances is a more accurate portrayal of an age where the average person didn't have a whole lot of changes of clothing.
Getting the Right Fit:
Take your measurements while wearing your corset and get a friend to help you. It's virtually impossible to measure yourself accurately. If you plan to wear your dress over a hoop, take front and back waist to floor measurements over the hoop as well. The skirt on a dress to be worn over a hoop should be 3-4 inches off the ground.
Perhaps the best investment you can make is to have a custom muslin or personal bodice pattern made for you. Beth Miller Hall, Kay Gnagey and other qualified period seamstresses do this at very reasonable prices. As a secondary option, make your own muslin, with a friend helping you, using the Past Patterns darted bodice pattern as your template.
Options and Tips for the Budget Conscious:
Many people getting into this hobby are limited in funds, but civilian reenacting need not be expensive, particularly for women and particularly if you sew or are willing to learn to sew. If you DO sew and get lucky in finding appropriate fabrics at discount prices, you can produce most of your wardrobe, other than your shoes and a cage crinoline for a total of under $100 and this includes two dresses. Of course, if you have very "deep pockets", you can also spend a fortune on wonderful fabrics, top of the line dressmakers, and other gear. There is plenty of room for both approaches and a lot of ground in the middle.
IF you sew well or are prepared to learn:
IF you can sew a little but are new at it and not very confident:
High quality reproduction shoes from the two top makers, Robert Land and Robert Serio are priced in the $120-$150 range, which might be beyond a lot of people's budgets, unless you find a pair ready-made on sale that fit for less. We highly recommend the ladies front-lacing walking shoes/boots made by Tom Mattimore (Mattimore Harness --CivilWarBoots.com) as they are virtually identical to the ones made by Serio, are hand made and cost only $80. He does not have them shown on the website, but they can be ordered by email and the Blanket Brigade Sutlery also carries them. Another good option, a bit fancier looking, are the reproduction elastic sided boots made by Fugawee, either the Victoria or Rose models, which cost $72. These might be outside the budgets of many reenactors. Sometimes, you can find modern manufactured ankle boots that look right or almost right, particularly now that square toes are back in fashion. Some people have had good luck at places like Payless. The key is to avoid "speed laces", thick soles, clunky heels and modern trim. If a shoe is otherwise decent looking and has speed laces, these can be removed and replaced with eyelets by a good shoemaker. However, unless the shoes are real leather and fairly sturdy and otherwise good, this is a false economy. Elastic sided jodphur boots used for horseback riding are also a good option. Apart from the toes being rounded instead of squared, they are virtually identical to the Fugawee "Rose" model. Front lacing "paddock boots" are also an option and are generally good leather where speed lacing can be replaced with eyelets.
Converting from the Mainstream:
We are luckier than military reenactors, in that quite a lot of "bad gear" bought as a mainstreamer can be recycled for an authentic impression if the fabric is good. For example:
Expanding Your Impression:
A couple of well-made, serviceable calico or "homespun" type dresses will enable you to portray a fairly wide range of social classes and you'll be fine for all the events we do. For example, a good basic dress can be dressed up by wearing it with a hoop and with a collar and brooch -- suitable for "best'" for a member of the yeomanry and everyday wear for a wealthier person in a rural area. It can be dressed down by wearing it with a corded petticoat or multiple regular petticoats, an apron and a neckerchief -- suitable for the everyday apparel for a poorer farmer or artisan's family or a servant girl, but could also work for "doing the chores" clothes for middle class farm families not wealthy enough to have sufficient slaves or hired hands to do all the chores for them. Real work dresses were generally shorter than dresses worn over hoops -- you can redress this by doing functional ties inside the skirt to loop it up, or by pinning it up. Workdresses pinned up over colored/printed "work petticoats" are an underrepresented look and are encouraged.
Middle Class and Upper Middle:
The following additional items will be useful to acquire if you wish to expand your impression to portray more prosperous middle class and upper middle class people. (Please note that these items are NOT required for the core AGSAS impression, so if this is beyong your means, don't worry!)
Portraying very poor people is often a major challenge for reenactors with our modern middle class backgrounds, particularly portraying someone who is illiterate. Many people therefore find it easier to start out portraying the lower middle class "yeomanry" and artisan class, which were the largest demographic group of the era rather than the very poor. This is also practical from a clothing standpoint.
As you become more comfortable and confident in reenacting, your first two everyday calico or homespun dresses will start to get a bit faded and ratty looking with age and wear. When they get into this condition, they are ready to use for your working class / poor folks impression. If the dresses were hoop length, you will probably want to shorten them somewhat. This is most easily done by putting in a couple of growth tucks in the skirt. This would also be a good time to get a serviceable work petticoat if you don't already have one, in a sturdy striped or checked cotton, red flannel or just a recycled homespun skirt and pinning up or tying up your skirts to cook, do chores, or in bad weather.
If your first choice of shoes was more formal looking, going for something a bit more rustic and practical like the Serio or Mattimore front-lacing boots would also be a good option for developing this impression. Another possibility is to find men's brogans in your size, given the documented shortages of manufactured shoes and leather in the wartime South. Or, for middle to late War, some variant of "make do" shoes from old carpet, etc would be a particularly interesting option. One of our members reproduced original "make do" shoes at the Museum of the Confederacy that were wooden clogs with uppers made from carpeting.
At some events, bare feet might be an option, but check event regulations and be mindful of safety considerations. While hookworm, stepping on a nail or a piece of metal might be "period", they're best avoided!
If you've been wearing collars and brooches, now is the time to make a couple of white cotton neckerchiefs -- about 18-24 inches square, folded into a triangle is the most common. Otherwise, all the items you acquired for your core impression, once they age up a little, will be perfect for portraying a poorer person.
If your are portraying a poor person from an urban area, there was a thriving market in used clothing in the era. Another interesting option that would add depth to a group portrayal might be to wear "nicer" clothes that are in an earlier, ca. late 50's style but a bit the worse for wear.
Key Links: Women's Clothing How-To: