The look of the ladies

The look of the ladies

Leisch, Juanita

Having stated here that women working in the war effort “mirror the statistical norms,” it might be useful to describe that statistical norm. Here, then, is a head-to-toe run-down for the ordinary “look of the ladies,” Civil War style.

The information in this section is based on a statistical analysis of characteristics of clothing seen in thousands of cartes de visite from the war period 1861-65, and comparing them to photographs which pre- and postdate the war years.

In the typical portrait, the hair is confined, the part at or near the center, the hair smoothed down on top of the head. Rolls and curls that add height but not width are generally late- or postwar. Generally the hair is confined at the back. The extreme width of the mid- and late-fifties “horns” had modified to extend outward at the back more than out to the side. Ringlets and short hair are not unknown, but they are not the norm.

The head is more often uncovered than adorned with a visible hairnet or cap. In general when hair nets are worn, it is by teens and younger ladies. When caps are worn, it is by the older and elderly women.

The dress itself is most commonly made with the bodice (portion of the skirt above the waist) and skirt (portion of the skirt below the waist) made of the same fabric. At the time of the war, wearing a bodice and skirt of different fabrics was considered something one did only in an emergency or economic distress. Southern women complained that they had to do this when the shortages caused by the blockade became severe. However, a new style, that of wearing a contrasting shirt and skirt, was being introduced into use by some fashionable women in the middle and later years of the war. Most commonly, shirts which were white were worn with jackets, but this is not a universal rule.

The neckline is most often round, and fits rather closely at the base of the nape of the neck. This “jewel” neckline does not extend upward onto the neck, a feature more common to postwar clothing. Collars are also round, and generally lay down on the dress rather than standing up. Collars tend to be relatively narrow; most young and middle-aged women wear them less than 2″ wide. Collars wider than that are seen mainly only on the clothes of elderly women. Two significant variations are seen: when very young women still wore the wide necklines of their childhood clothing into their teen years. Older women sometimes wore the “v” necks most common to fan-front bodices of the prewar years. On these bodices, the fabric was pleated or gathered at the shoulders, lay in folds over the bosom, and was gathered at the center front of the waist. The “v” neckline of these bodices was generally filled in with cloth from a dickey-like half shirt undergarment known as a chemisette.

The bodice, or portion of the dress above the waist fits rather closely to the body. The fabric of the most common bodice style is sewn with darts so that it fits closely and smoothly. A slightly less common bodice style allow the fabric to lay in gentle folds which extend from waist to shoulder. Evidence of original garments still extant indicates that these “gathered” or modified fan-front bodices may have been used for work dresses and less formal attire, and so occurred in the general population more commonly than they appear in formal studio portraits.

The shoulder line is a key feature of Civil War dress; the shoulders of the bodice tend to extend outward and downward so that the top of the sleeve is several inches down on the arm from the top of the shoulder. This “dropped armscye” makes the shoulders appear longer and more sloping than the body is actually shaped.

The skirt, or portion of the dress below the waist, is full at top and bottom, laying over petticoats or a crinoline (“hoop skirt” in modern terminology) to form a bell or pagoda shape. The skirts are pleated or gathered all the way around, making the skirt full at the hips as well as at the bottom of the skirt. Toward the end of the war, more stylish individuals were wearing elliptical hoops which, along with shaped skirt panels, caused the skirt to be fuller at the back than the front. The fullness of skirts continued to migrate to the back after the war, until skirts were flat in the front. Generally, skirts which are evenly pleated or gathered at the front date before or during the war, while skirts with a flat area more than a couple inches wide at the front date after the war.

Copyright Military Images May/Jun 2000

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