Women During the War

There have been a lot of pieces written about women during the Civil War. You’ll read about women like Clara Barton, the Angel of the Battlefield; Rose Greenhow, a famous female Confederate Spy; and even Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” There are the accounts of the women who dressed as boys in order to fight in the War; one book which comes to mind is “They Fought Like Demons.” Yet, how often do you hear about the common every day woman during that time? I don’t know about you, but I come from a long line of farmers. I know that none of my ancestors would have been associating with the O’Haras or the Wilkes. As part of a long line of rural dwellers I often have imagined that it must have been similar to what you saw on Little House on the Prairie. If you are interested in the lives of American women throughout our history, then you definitely need to check out the book “America’s Women; 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines” by Gail Collins. She paints a very detailed picture of life for American women from the first settling all the way up to the 1960’s. Today, however, we’re just going to concentrate on the Civil War.

Perhaps I should have warned you that this is not a PG rated post. After all, I’m posting pictures of women in their underwear!! Yikes!

When you picture women during the war you can’t help but picture them gracefully sitting in their hoop skirts, perhaps working on their sewing or maybe reading a book. Women during this time were not known for their be-bopping around, or generally just moving around a lot at all. Why? Because of the amount of fabric they had imprisoned themselves in. If you’ve ever tried on period clothing you will know what I’m talking about. Let me step you through the process of getting dressed during the Civil War:

1) Pull on your pantalets/bloomers, tying the ribbons around the waist to keep them in place. Historically correct pantalets will have an open crotch because once you were completely dressed there was no way that you would be able to undo anything to drop them for potty breaks. This sounds icky, but that’s how it was back then. Younger women would wear their bloomers down to their knees, while older women wore them down to their ankles.

2) The second article of clothing was the chemise. This was just a thin cotton gown that was meant to keep the corset clean of bodily oils and sweat. It also helped to keep the corset from pinching or hurting the woman who was wearing it. The chemise also doubled as a night gown.


3) The corset. Perhaps one of the most familiar pieces of the 1860’s woman’s  wardrobe. Some will argue that the corset was not actually worn to cinch in the waist, it was merely worn to smooth out the woman’s line from the waist to the bust. If that was the case then nobody bothered to tell the majority of the women during the 1800’s. EVERY woman wore corsets… old women, young girls, teenagers, even pregnant women! A tiny waist was thought to define a woman to be among the leisure class, “wives and daughters so well taken care of that they were never required to take a deep breath” per Gail Collin’s book. Even factory girls and servants began to wear corsets because they were easily made thanks to the advances in the manufacturing process.

Women were constantly told how bad wearing a corset was for their health. It caused shortness of breath and miscarriages (true), and even curvature of the spine and cancer (false). However, just like today’s women look at the fashion magazines in order to determine what was in style and what wasn’t, many women were looking at Godey’s magazine and seeing illustrations of voluminous skirts, constricting sleeves, tiny waists, and heavy fabrics. Nobody wanted to be unfashionable, so despite the actual risks of wearing the corset too tight, the scene from Gone With the Wind where Mammy is cinching Scarlett into her corset was actually happening in real life.

On a personal note, if you’ve ever worn a corset as it was meant to be worn (not horribly constricting or too tight) then you’ll know that it can be quite a comfortable piece of clothing. For those of us who are ample on top it’s nice to not have straps cutting and pulling into your shoulder. It also helps your posture tremendously. Oh, and one other thing… if you’ve ever seen the movie Gangs of New York there is a scene where Leo DiCaprio takes off Cameron Diaz’s corset. Poor Jay had to sit there as I lamented the fact that Leo was removing the corset incorrectly and completely messing up the lacing. Corsets have a busk in the front that make it easier for a woman to put it on by herself. The lacing in the back is done in such a way that you can tighten it by yourself. So to remove the lacing in the back is to make even more work for Cameron later on. *sigh*

4) The corset cover. This particular article of clothing is meant to act as another layer of protection to keep the corset from being dirtied by the dyes in the dress fabric. Corsets were very hard to launder so they did all that they could to keep the laundering to a minimum. Already a woman in 1860 is wearing more clothing than most teenaged girls wear to school, and yet she would be mortified if she would have been seen in this state of dress.

5) Now we start layering on the bottom. The Under Petticoat is the next article of clothing to be donned. This layer is meant for utility and modesty. It was worn under the hoop skirt to keep the hoop from getting soiled and also to keep the woman’s modesty should the wind (or something else) tip the hoop and give a peek of what’s underneath (remember the breezy pantalets….). In the winter this would also help with warmth.

6) The hoop skirt! This is what gives the skirt that bell shape. It’s what instantly pops into your head when you picture the Civil War era dress. This was often made of steel hoops covered in cotton. The diameter of the skirt would enlarge as the Civil War was waged. The standard hoop skirt had a 120″ diameter. It takes some practice to be able to sit modestly in a hoop skirt. You have to be able to position your buns so that it doesn’t cause the skirt to fly up and show the world your goods.

7) The over petticoats. I’m counting all of these as one, but a woman might have as few as 2 petticoats on over her hoops or she could have five or six. It all depended on what dress you were wearing and what effect you were trying to achieve. The petticoats were meant to keep the hoops from showing through the dress’s fabric and to smooth out the entire look. They often had flounces to help poof the skirt up even more.

8) Finally comes the skirt and bodice/blouse. In this picture I’m wearing a two piece outfit. First comes the skirt, which closes on the side with an eye and hook closure. Then comes the bodice with eye and hook closures all up the front. The collar and undersleeves are sewn onto the bodice and can easily be removed for cleaning or repairing. This dress typically would have been worn in the afternoon if you were going out to visit or accepting guests. If any of my family had owned a dress like this it would have been their good dress that they would wear to church or be married in. If I remember correctly, I have all of the layers as mentioned above, except for the corset cover. I still haven’t had a chance to make one of those. I believe that I’m only wearing two petticoats over my hoop, too.

After reading about all of those layers you can begin to understand why women didn’t move around a whole lot. It may not sound like it, but when you have all of those layers on it feels very heavy. Factory workers and servants had to wear fewer petticoats and smaller hoops because they needed to be able to get close to the machines, etc. They would have also worn tighter sleeves so that they wouldn’t get caught on gears or dragged through dirt. As long as the basic shape was there, the width at the shoulders and hips plus the cinched in waist to draw attention to it, then that was the important part. A tiny waist was the goal. That’s why the seams to attach the sleeves to the bodice are lower, and the sleeves themselves usually billow out at around the waist area. It was all meant to draw your eye down.

I have now prattled on for a long time about the clothes, so I will have to continue next week on Women’s issues. There are a few other things that our ancestors were doing that I feel you might enjoy learning. Hopefully you have at least learned something interesting from today’s post. Enjoy!

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