Artifact Corner: 1860’s Women’s Fashion

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another Artifact Corner. Today we will be looking at three lovely portraits taken in the 1860’s. The first is of Betsey Delord. This picture was taken in 1864, following the death of her second husband, William Swetland. This was not uncommon to hire a photographer to document important events in people’s lives, including funerals. Betsey is pictured in front of our gate, leading up to the front door of the home. The second portrait is of an unknown woman, probably again taken around the mid 1860’s. She is seated and holding a purse and a handkerchief. In this portrait we can see the intricate detail on her skirt, which is adorned with lace and silk or satin ribbon. The third and final portrait is of a young man and woman, again probably taken in the mid 1860’s. The man is standing, while the woman is seated. All three of these portraits show women in clothing that would have been considered some of their finer clothing, since they were having their portraits taken. Let’s explore women’s fashions in the American Civil War period.

Every woman in the American Civil War period would have gotten dressed in the morning in pretty much the same way. You would start with a chemise. A chemise is a cotton or linen undergarment that was worn to protect your body, and your outer clothes from sweat. The next garment that you would don would be a pair of drawers. Drawers were just coming into fashion in the early to mid 1860’s, and so some women would have chosen not to wear them, but that was a personal preference. These would be worn for warmth, and also comfort under crinoline skirts. Then you would put on your stockings. No self respecting woman would leave the house without her stockings, which would come above the knee, and be held in place with garters made from a variety of different materials. The next step is to put on your corset. There are so many misconceptions in regards to corsets, that we simply do not have time to go over all of them in this video. Maybe we will have another artifact corner dedicated to dispelling some myths about them? A corset in the 1860’s was not designed to make your waist smaller, it was designed to support your body, and all of the layers of clothing you were wearing. If your corset was made to measure, it should fit quite comfortably. Following your corset, it was time for a petticoat, or an underskirt. This was the layer that would protect your skin from our next garment, the cage crinoline or hoops. If you were an upper to middle class woman, you would most definitely be wearing these hoops. If you were lower or working class, you may not have these in your wardrobe. That did not mean working class women did not still try to achieve the fashionable silhouette of the time. Many women without the means would simply wear multiple petticoats to fill out the shape of their skirts. And that completes our undergarments.

The next step was to cover the foundation garments a bit further. Women would wear a corset cover, or a camisole. This was to protect your outer garment from anything on the corset that might snag it. Next you would put your skirt on. This would be held up, often times with suspenders. The average outer skirt required up to five yards of fabric to make! Next you would put your bodice on. Then you would put your shoes on. Once you were done, it was time to add decorative items like jewelry, or hair pins. You would also want your gloves and bonnet. If it was hot outside, you would carry a folding fan made of sandalwood. If it was raining or bright and sunny, you may want to add a parasol to your ensemble. And if it was cold, you would bring a shawl or a mantle to ward off the cold. A woman would also not want to leave the house without her purse or bag. In this period, it was considered gauche for a lady to wear make up. That’s not to say that women didn’t add a little color here and there to their cheeks and lips using beet juice or alkanet, a common weed that provides a lovely red dye. They would also extenuate their pale skin by powdering their faces with rice powder, zinc oxide, or pearl powder (which was a mixture of chloride of bismuth and French chalk). Chloride of bismuth is not a safe thing to put on your face, it can cause headaches, loss of appetite, and serious skin irritation, so please do not try any of these concoctions on yourself.

Our portraits are of younger and older women, dressed in their best clothes to have their picture taken. Their garments are very typical of the time period, and the details are really beautiful. We are so lucky to have these lovely portraits in our collections. If you are interested in seeing a replica Civil War ladies garment up close, come visit us at the museum. We have one on display for the season, and we are open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 to 3. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,