Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Civil War Fashion



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? 





14 comments:

  1. Wow- the fashion in these pictures are amazing. I can't imagine being dressed up like that: corsets and hoops are not for me. If I lived in that era, I would do without them. I wonder how exciting it must have been for these women to follow the latest fashion styles as possible! I imagine the fabrics were of high quality and the prints very pretty.

    I think historical fashion is quite an interesting subject. I remember reading Little House on the Prairie as a girl, and how excited the characters would get when it came time to go to the shops and purchase new fabrics for their clothes. It was so much to imagine that picture while reading!

    Cheers!
    Akshara
    Simply Akshara

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  2. Kristyn @ Milk + CrownSeptember 10, 2013 at 8:09 PM

    I love historical fashion! Anything from Jane Austen's time :) These are so pretty too! Also, I always think it's so funny that people didn't used to smile in photographs back in the day haha.....so different from today!

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  3. It's true that they put so much more thought into fashion! They studied French fashion magazines and carefully picked out fabrics and had dresses and hats custom-sewn for them. So very different than our way of buying and wearing clothing.

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  4. It is funny! I think they didn't smile partly because it took so much longer to take a photo so they had to remain as still as possible! I love Jane Austen-era clothing too, with the empire waists and simple a-line skirts. So pretty!

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  5. Oh I adore vintage fashion! In fact, for many years I attended a Vintage Ball around Christmastime. I loved wearing my hoop skirts and huge crinolines! Just this year, I finally sold my ball gown collection with bittersweet feelings, but they took up SO much of my closet space, I had to let them go. Such fun memories!

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  6. Oh that's SO neat. I would love to wear one of these big ball gowns!! I bet it's so fun to wear hoops! Do you feel super feminine in them? :)

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  7. I love these fashions. Always makes me think of Little Women. :) The black is even just so beautiful.

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  8. It is, and I'm so impressed by the formality of their everyday clothing. Hats, veils if in mourning, layers of corsets and hoops and petticoats. It took effort, that's for sure!

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  9. I doubt it is still there, but I was always fascinated with the First Lady's exhibit at the Museum of American History.

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  10. those dresses are AMAZING! I almost wrote my AP US History term paper on how WWII impacted fashion - I can't remember why I changed my topic, because I wish I had done all the research! (Part of the reason you get the huge skirts of the '50s is because of a backlash against wartime austerity in the 40s, when women mostly wore pencil skirts because of fabric rationing!) These sorts of things are FASCINATING.

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  11. I love old dresses, period! So fun, and I wish I had an excuse to put on one of those vintage ball gowns!

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  12. Oh that's so fascinating! Really neat. I always wonder how fashion will change throughout our lifetimes, and if we'll look back on our current clothes and think we looked ridiculous. That seems to be how it works, but it's kind of unimaginable right now....fun to think about.

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  13. I just found your blog and love reading your entries. The wonderful thing about the historical fashion is that all theses beautiful dress were all hand-made, re-modified, recycled, and worn almost daily, changing only for the two of three different times/occasions of day and evening. The mass production had not come on the scene; the wastefulness and problems to our environment were never an issue. Bravo to thrift shops!!! I agree with you on pondering how these women dealt with the weather conditions and managing life in general. The artistry and creativity were something to be valued, for sure. The pendulum has swung so much the other way; I'd love to see a more balanced approach to fashion but not sure the industry would like to support that view.

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  14. I'm so happy you found my blog! Welcome! This is a great comment and I really agree with what you say. I really don't like wastefulness (and love thrift shops!) so it's fascinating and admirable to look back and see how much these women got out of their possessions. Looking forward to having you follow along! :)

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