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Despite War, Fashion Still Important

June 20, 2013
By JENNIFER COMPSTON-STROUGH - City Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

At no time in its history has the United States faced more serious issues than it did during the Civil War.

But in the face of sectional conflicts over slavery, states' rights and even warfare that pitted family members against one another, people remained very serious about proper etiquette and the fashion of the day.


Article Photos

Members of the Wheeling-based Heritage Dance Association, from left, Rebekah Karelis, John Bowman and Glinda Bowman, wear fashions that would have been typical during the Civil War era. Karelis’ dress is an example of a half-mourning gown, white and black, that would have been worn by a woman who had lost a loved one several months earlier. John Bowman’s morning coat was similar to a modern business suit, while his wife, Glinda’s Zouave-style gown was modeled after a type of uniform worn by some Union troops.

Photos Provided

The most well-known feature of women's clothing during the period was the voluminous hoop skirt, but fashion was much more complicated than one might expect. An online collection on Life & Culture during the Civil War available via the Smithsonian's website explains that life for most people in the 1860s remained relatively simple. Most clothing was still hand-stitched, with many garments made of wool or simple broadcloth. Common women and girls often had every day dresses, with one outfit reserved as their Sunday best. It was during this period that women first began to wear skirts with separate blouses, rather than always a one-piece dress.

According to sources such as Godey's Lady's Book, however, wealthier women changed clothes many times each day. The magazine, published from 1830-78, indicates different styles were appropriate only for particular events or times of the day. In addition, a woman's wardrobe included many layers of clothing, according to, a website dedicated to the history of the community that was home to the most famous battle of the Civil War.

First, a woman would don drawers, or underpants, made of cotton or linen and a chemise, or long undershirt, along with stockings held up with garters. Atop those items was a corset or stays stiffened with whale bone, a crinoline, hoop skirt, or petticoats. Next came a corset cover or camisole.

Over these layers of undergarments a woman wore a bodice and a skirt, often held up with suspenders, perhaps a belt and slippers made of satin, velvet, knit or crochet. Finally came outerwear for leaving the house. These garments could include a shawl, jacket or mantle; gloves or mitts; button-up boots; and accessories such as a parasol, bonnet or hat, bag or purse, handkerchief and a fan.

Angela Feenerty, who heads the Wheeling-based Heritage Dance Association with her husband Don, stressed that various dresses were intended to be worn only for specific occasions during the Civil War. For example, ballgowns were designed only to be worn during the evening. They were generally light in color and tended to expose more skin than would have been considered appropriate during the day.

"Many times, ladies made detachable sleeves and a fichu (a cape-like covering) to add to their ballgown so that it would be appropriate to wear at other times of the day," Feenerty said. "One never exposed their arms and shoulders before evening."

She also pointed out that dark, rich colors were worn for events like going to the opera.

Other clothes were designed specifically to be worn by those who had lost loved ones.

"Many women were in mourning for the entire war," Feenerty added. "When you consider father, brothers, husband, sons, there were many men in her life."

For the first year a lady was in mourning, she wore black only, Feenerty said. For the next few months, she could add black trim or lace to her black dress, and at about 18 months she could begin to wear colors like white, lavender or gray with black trim.

Some fashionable, non-mourning styles and patterns of the day included polka dots and gowns designed in the styles of some military uniforms, she noted.

"Everyone wore gloves while outside, at church and for dances and other formal occasions, except when eating or drinking," Feenerty said.

Hats also were required for women and men. Men removed them indoors, but depending on the type of women's hat it might be left on. Feenerty said bonnets and large straw hats came off, but caps and fancy hats that were pinned into place stayed on.

Hairstyles were just as important for women of the period. A lady's hair was always worn neatly pinned up or covered, often tucked into a bun. Feenerty said such styles could be elaborate with braids embellished with flowers. A few women wore their hair in tight spirals, or "sausage curls," but a woman never wore her hair loose.

Makeup was almost never worn, Feenerty said. The only possible exception would have been for formal events, when a lady might even out her complexion with a touch of something like modern-day foundation.


Standards for men's clothing were just as strict during the Civil War, although men's formal wear would seem much more familiar to modern people than would a woman's outfit of the period.

Feenerty said some coats would have been worn in a manner similar to men's business suits today, but they also could serve as evening formal wear.

John Bowman, a member of the Heritage Dance Association, said men generally wore dark colors, such as black, charcoal gray, dark brown and dark red. Frock or long coats already had been in style for a long time by the 1860s.

Morning coats, designed for daytime formal wear, came in with Queen Victoria, Bowman said. These long coats first appeared in England for the queen's coronation and were picked up in America in the mid-1850s.

A cutaway coat, notched deeply in the front similar to some modern tails, could be was worn for "high formal" evening occasions. Such a coat typically was worn after 6 p.m. with a double-breasted white vest and white tie.

A black tuxedo served as semi-formal wear, as did a white dinner coat - both of which were worn with a bow tie.

Bowman said vests were part of the men's Civil War-period wear, and a cummerbund was worn with the white dinner coat. Bow ties, jabots and cravats all were acceptable.

Top hats were black, gray, brown and dark red. Gloves would have been white or would have matched the hat color. A handkerchief was worn in the coat pocket and showed all four corners in the evening.

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