What to wear ?

As a lady, you will have several items to complete your impression. Remember…start out simple and add as you go along. No one wants you to break the bank to put together an acceptable outfit.

In doing a lady’s impression there are several parts of your dressing:

underpinnings (underclothing)
dress or shirt/skirt
outer wear

I will start with how I would dress myself and give you the basics on each.



These were either of silk or cotton depending upon your social standing in 1860s. The colors would vary. Black or striped were common for everyday use and for fancier occasions white or black may be used. You can find these as any event where there is a sutler and many places on line. In a pinch you can find knee socks at places like Target or Walmart that might work. Do not use anything polyester or nylon. Even though these are under your dress, they can still be viewed now and then when walking or dancing. It would be rare for a woman not to wear stockings, even the poorest women would have had at least one pair.


This is a night-gown like undergarment that was worn next to the skin as a layer between the corset and dress. It is made of thin, light cotton and almost always white. I cannot think of any research where I have seen another color. The neckline would be a drawstring to adjust according to the dress to be worn and the sleeves short. There are many patterns for these if you wish to make your own. Great place to start if you want to sew. Also, sutlers and on line sources carry these. Sometimes they may have some lace on them if you are of high social standing but over all these were practical underclothes, washed often and made to last.

Pantalettes (or pantaloons):

These could be compared to modern capri pants…in a way. They are calf  length, baggy and tied with a drawstring. Like the chemise, these would be of thin, white light cotton.

Also, they would have been crotchless. With all those layers It made it easier to use the loo.

Something you will need to remember is people of the Victorian era did not have the “luxuries” we have today and had to be practical about their underclothes.

Female historians are divided on the issue of whether to wear open-crotched drawers or close-crotched drawers because many seem to feel exposed without some semblance of modern panties.  It’s really a matter of personal preference as to whether your drawers are open or closed. If you’re looking for the most authenticity, however, you will want to stay true to the crotchless pantalettes.


Ladies of the time would have worn a boot for everyday activities and a soft slipper for formal occasions such as balls or dances. The boots of the time would have buttons along the side for fastening but these are difficult to come by and expensive. If you are wanting to go highly authentic, then the button up kind are what you should look for. It is acceptable, however to wear boots that lace up. There are many sutlers that sell these and if at all possible I suggest you try them on rather than purchasing on line. If you can find a pair of modern black boots that look similar, these will serve you fine until you can purchase more accurate footwear.

The slippers of the day, looked much like a modern day ballet slipper. The soft flats girls wear today would work. If you attend a dance where you are outside, though, I would not recommend wearing a soft shoe slipper. Most ladies wear boots for all occasions and that is fine.

Note: I usually put the boots on at this point in my dress because once you get your corset on…it is not very easy to do! 


This is perhaps one of the most important and most expensive pieces of clothing you will have to purchase. It, alone, defines the fashion of the period and without one, your dresses will never quite have the “look”.

Now, having said that, there are many opinions on what kind of corset you should have, where to buy them ,etc. You definitely do not want to get a corset from Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s of Hollywood.  Lingere-style corsets are not period proper and if worn for long periods of time would probably be very uncomfortable.

It is NOT true that corsets are painful and uncomfortable.

Yours should be flexible enough to allow normal movement but firm enough to help you stand/sit tall. It should be form-fitting so that your dresses and gowns fit properly.

There are two forms of corset…working corset and traditional or formal corset.
Working corsets are more of a modern corset designed by ladies to make us more comfortable while in camp. They are usually hook and eye, have less ribbing and more flexible, allowing you to bend and move. Particularly if you have work to perform in camp (i.e. bending over a fire to cook, moving up and down hanging wash, etc…) .

These are very simple in design, usually cotton. There are some good sutlers that  make them  (as well as patterns to make your own). These are not as form-fitting as a formal corset, but they sure can be comfortable. Also, if you haven’t the time or money for a custom made formal corset, this could be a good place to start.

Formal corset is exactly as it sounds. These will have strong boning  (the more the better) with grommet fittings in the front and traditional lacing for the back. These can are usually also made of heavy cotton to withstand wearing and washing. The myth of tightening the corset to make sure waist ten sizes smaller is not realistic. The corset should be fitting but comfortable. Tight, to give good back support, but not to the point you cannot breathe.

Because each woman is shaped differently, you will suffer if you buy an “off the rack” corset and it will sour you to wearing one quickly. If at all possible be fitted for one and have one custom made to your body shape. There are usually one or to corset-makers at events and they schedule for a fitting right then and there! The Paper Lady and Originals by Kay are probably the two best.


Before the invention of the hoop or cage crinoline, ladies wore layers of petticoats to give their dresses the bell-shape flow. I know of ladies that will wear up to four petticoats as opposed to a hoop (I am one of them!).

Even after the hoop came into fashion, most ladies of a lower societal status had no need for hoops and continued to wear petticoats. High society ladies would wear petticoats while at home or places where they were out of the public eye, using hoops and crinolines for social calls and formal events.

Like the other underpinnings, these are made of light cotton.
You will hear the terms Under Petticoat or Modesty Petticoat and Over Petticoat.

Under petticoats were worn over pantalettes/chemise/corset but under a hoop. This kept others from seeing your ankles (big taboo!) and also gave an extra layer of warmth in the winter. Over Petticoats are worn over the hoop but under dress to keep the rungs of the hoop for showing and to give a smooth, neat appearance to your skirt.

Petticoats usually have lace or trim of some fashion, usually of white. There are simple sewing patterns for making these if you wish. Also, you can find sutlers at events and makers on line just about anywhere for all manner of price.

Hoop or Cage Crinoline:

You want to avoid at all cost the “wedding hoop” girls used today for modern clothes. These not only will be uncomfortable but will not give your dress the correct shape. One thing you will find is that the hoop is more elliptical in shape than round. This is in order to give a trailing effect to the dress, similar to what a train on a wedding dress would do.

There are quite a few sutlers that sell these. You can find them with flounces on them or without; each are acceptable.

A lot of times  you can find these on Ebay or web sites. Blockade Runner, Fall Creek Sutler and a few others sell the standard ones. There are people that make their own and there are patterns out there to help with this if you choose.

Corded Petticoat:

This is an alternative to wearing a lot of petticoats and can be less cumbersome than a full hoop. Blockade Runner has some nice ones and this is a nice starting “hoop” if you are on a budget.


There are all kinds of dresses out there and I could write an entire book on those. Because there are too many to discuss here, I will give some brief pointers. If you want more information on the styles and such, just contact me.

-Most dresses are either one piece or two (bodice and skirt). Some people find the bodice/skirt method more easier to mess with. Personally, I find the one piece nicer. It is a personal choice.

-Dresses will either button up the front or will have a hook/eye closures. Some people use both—hook/eye closer with decorative buttons on the outside.

-Ball dresses are a little different. They are almost always two-piece and lace up the back . You will see ball gowns with hook/eye closures in the back but this isn’t proper.

-Many people believe that dresses, other than ball gowns were simple, plain and solid color. Nothing could be further from the truth! Ladies of the 1860s not only loved color, but loved bright colors.

-Also, like today, fashion was defined by not just the dress itself but the embellishments on the dress, the accessories a lady might have upon her as well as fabric of the dress itself.

-Almost every lady looks at Godey’s and Peterson’s (ladies magazines of the times) as the Bible of Civil War fashion. Whenever I look to make a new dress I always look through these old fashion plates first for ideas (then see if it is in my budget!).

-Fashion has not changed much over the generations when it comes to “age appropriate clothing.” The length of dress from floor to hem would be longer as a girl got older. As a young lady got older she would be allowed to wear blouse, skirt and Garibaldi jacket; married ladies, not so much. Younger women could wear a straw hat in the summer but an older lady would be expected to wear a bonnet. It sounds confusing but after a few tips from fellow ladies and looking at images on line or in books, you will get the hang of it.

Two more words on dresses and I will stop before I get carried away.

Fabric and Pattern.

This is where the new living historian can get burned.

Using material that is modern both in fabric pattern and fabric itself can be costly and uncomfortable. No synthetic material should be used if at all possible. First of all it is wrong and second of all it will be hot when you are outside in summer heat.

The pattern on the fabric can be floral, paisley and even solid, but be mindful of the “type” of pattern. A little research on line and a visit to a reputable sutler will give you a sense of what works for this. And when in doubt, always ask another lady for help! We are happy to make suggestions within your budget and would hate to see you waste a lot of money only to find out it is wrong.


Just like the dress, shawls, capes, capelets and cloaks came in many different styles, patterns and fabric. These would also be varied depending upon the season and the occasion.

Shawls, capes, capelets, paletots (a style of cloak) could be fine, delicate lacey wraps used during a dance or for summer use.

A cloak could be made of heavy wool or flannel and are for function as well as fashion.

Capes and caplets would be similar but for cool spring or autumn days.

There are always ladies in our group who knit or crochet (both were done in the 1860s) that make shawls and wraps. Lots of patterns are out there as well as a books.

A lady of the 1860s would never have gone outside without a bonnet and her gloves. These you may want to add to your accessories sooner than later.

Bonnets would be decorated with all manner of ribbon, feathers and flowers and would be detachable so that the bonnet could be used over and over, but a new look given to it with change of season.

Straw hats would be fine for summer but be careful. Head coverings change as a lady gets older.

Snoods were also worn and you will see these all over at events. Avoid synthetic ones and too colorful. The snood usually matches the color of the lady’s hair. For balls and dances, colored snoods are sometimes worn to coordinate with the dress.

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