As I've been reading Gone With The Wind, I've become really fascinated with Margaret Mitchell's descriptions of fashion and clothing, particularly how the women dressed and the importance and significance of what they wore. It's reminded me of a class I took in college for my American Studies majored called "American Colonial Fashion," which was one of the most interesting classes I ever took. We talked about everything from specific fabrics and materials to wigs to shoes and buckles, and how all of these details of dress clue you in to so much about the person underneath. In the past, fashion was very much connected to your class, your family and upbringing, and the kind of impression you intended to make in your social circles, and so much care and thought went into dressing and presenting yourself appropriately.
It's been really interesting to read about Southern fashion before, during, and after the Civil War, because it changed so dramatically. Before the war, Scarlett O'Hara's main occupations were making sure she looked her prettiest and effectively showed off her "17-inch waist" so that the county boys would find her charming. That meant very tight corsets and stays and very wide hoops, and green dresses that made her eyes look emerald. I also loved reading about the pains these girls took to avoid having any sort of contact with the sun. They couldn't go out without gloves, a shawl, a bonnet, and probably a parasol too. I can't even imagine how they enjoyed themselves in the Georgia heat and humidity with all of those layers!
Then, during the war and especially in the early Reconstruction years, when there was barely enough money for Scarlett's family to eat, everything changed dramatically. For the first time, upper-class women had to mend their old, worn dresses, and make do with the same ones for months on end. Scarlett's slippers had holes in them and her beautiful, ladylike white hands became calloused from all of the physical labor she did to keep Tara alive. They made clothing out of curtains, flour sacks, and old linens. For many women, being seen in their worn dresses was a point of pride, a way of proclaiming their allegiance to the South through thick and thin, an open acknowledgment of their dignity and lack of shame in the face of newfound poverty. (Scarlett didn't feel that way, however--she never stopped missing looking pretty and fresh-faced and couldn't stand her ratty old dresses.)
Anyway, my curiosity about Southern Civil War era fashion has been totally piqued, so I did some searching and found these terrific old photographs in the Library of Congress archives. These aren't all Southern women--there are Northern women in these photos too--but I imagine the style of dress was similar and the photos are all from the same time period.
There were so many more, but aren't these just beautiful? I noticed how many of the dresses were black--Civil War women lost so many husbands, brothers, and sons, and many of them were in "mourning" attire for years and years. It's hard for us to imagine the sorts of losses these families went through.
What do you think? Are you interested in historical fashion?