Friday, January 29, 2016

The Victorian Little Black Dress: Mourning or Not?

A quick eBay search for Victorian photographs turns up the fact that most Victorian dresses look black or gray. Of course, that may be because Victorian photography was only in black and white! (Ya think?) However, a common misconception (furthered by eBay sellers) is that any lady with a dress that looks black MUST be in mourning.


Victorians were a lot like us in their color choices. They liked a variety. But they also liked their basic black dress.

Black silks, black wools, black velvets, and gauzy black sheers are very common for the middle 1800s. Black was appropriate for many occasions, from morning to evening. And it was a useful color - any colored dress that had been spotted or faded could always be dyed black and used again!

Black for Mourning

Of course, black was an appropriate color for mourning attire. If a widow or a mother who lost her child could afford to do so, she would often wear an entire outfit of black. However, middle class or poor ladies often had to make do with what they had. Thus they might dye a dress black and wear whatever somber accessories they had with it during the period of mourning. Fashion magazines of the mid-1800s are full of suggestions for clothing and accessories for mourning.

An example of what a wealthy family might do is found in a fictional story in Godeys Lady's Book, 1863. In the story, a family in mourning for a fallen son/brother decided that all three of the ladies needed new black dresses. Mrs. Murray and her two daughters are “well to do in the world.” So they have the village dressmaker make them each three new dresses for mourning - a black bombazine, alpaca and calico.

Black for Non-Mourning

But in addition to mourning, black was a highly versatile color for so much more! Rather than tell you what black dresses were used for, I decided it would be fun to show you instead. So here are some original pictures and descriptions of ladies' clothing that was black and not necessarily for mourning.

This "Dinner Dress" is from Godeys Lady's Book, 1862. The description reads: "Made of black poplin, trimmed with flutings of purple silk and black velvet ribbon. Black and purple belt, fastened with a clasp. Linen collar and cuffs." 


Black dresses were definitely suitable for older ladies, as this quote from Godeys Lady's Book implies: "This was Virginia’s first impression of her hostess. At a glimpse she saw the silvery hair which sheds a pleasant radiance over the face, like moonlight; the soft lace about the throat, in which the head seems to nestle lovingly, like a dove’s in its snowy plumage. Of course she wore a black silk dress and a small black shawl over her shoulders; such a costume belongs to a woman of her age as much as white to a bride." 


Home-dress of black alpaca. The corsage and skirt are in one, and the trimming consists of cuir-colored velvet buttons, and bands of cuir-colored velvet. Godeys Lady's Book, 1863.


Young ladies wore black too, as this story about a young minister and his wife indicates. "'I must learn to economize more. There’s the cyclopaedia I had promised myself for this year; I must do without it.'

'And I the new black silk I thought of having in the spring,' said Mrs. Trueberry.

'No, Carolina, you need the dress,' replied her husband.

'Not till we are out debt, my dear,' she said gently, but firmly; 'and that will be when you get your quarter’s salary in April. I can turn and make over that blue cashmere I have, and it will do with my others.'"


"Look at the Time" by Gustave-Leonard de Jonghe
This is obviously a fashionable lady about to go out. She's clearly not in mourning because her bonnet is yellow and she has a bright multi-colored shawl. This is a daytime dress, as it appears to be either mid-morning or mid-afternoon, based on the clock.


Portrait of Maria Sawiczewska,
Leopold Loeffler, 1861
This lady is in formal evening dress suitable for a ball, dinner or other "after five" event. Again, this is unlikely to be a mourning outfit since she is wearing gorgeous coral jewelry with it.


The Governess, by Emily Mary Osborn, 1860
As a contrast to the wealthy ladies above, this is a low-income lady. The poor, downtrodden governess is clearly being berated by the indulgent mother. Her depressing plight is accented by her daytime working dress - likely either black wool or silk with lovely sheer sleeves.


Afternoon Tea 1865 George Dunlop Leslie
And just as another contrast, this time it's the employer who is wearing a black dress while her maid wears gray. White collar and cuffs indicate that she is likely not in mourning.


Black dresses were so ubiquitous that Godeys even included suggestions on how to reuse them when they were worn-out. "Two mothers had each a good black satin dress; in the course of time they became, as unfortunately all dresses will, too shabby or two old-fashioned for their wearers’ use. One mother picked hers to pieces, washed and ironed it, and made from it two handsome-looking mantles for her daughters. The other adapted hers for a petticoat, and spent five-and-twenty shillings in the purchase of new mantles for her two daughters. The mantles made of this old material were far the best-looking, and most serviceable. Now, five shillings would have bought a petticoat; and thus the saving of twenty shillings might have been made for the pocket of the husband."


A final fashion magazine image - this one of a striking black ensemble trimmed with red! Le Follet, October 1861.


And just for fun, I'll throw in an entertaining description I found in an 1863 fictional story. Even "Deacon Moody's" wife had a black dress!

Deacon Moody was a little glum man, and looked as if he was asleep half the time; but if ever you see anybody wide awake it was his wife. Her eyes was big, and round, and black, and she would look at your over her specs for ever so long without winkin’. She was so fat and round that she looked for all the world jest like a great bolster tied in the middle. She had on a black bombazine frock, a checked apron, a black silk neck hankercher on her neck, and a great red knittin’ sheath, shaped like a heart pinned on her side. She sot in the big rockin’-chair, and rocked, and knit, and talked all the afternoon. 

So if you are a living historian, you can wear a black dress for many occasions - not just for mourning! And next time you're looking at old pictures of Great-Grandma, wondering if the black dress meant she was in mourning - it might have just been her favorite "little black dress!"


If you have a Victorian little black dress, my mom and I have some lovely accessories in our shops! Check out headpieces and jewelry at Southern Serendipity and rosette belts and cockades at Creative Cockades. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Civil War Skirt and Blouse: Right or Wrong?

If you're a first-time reenacting lady, heading for "sutler row" to buy your first outfit, you'll see them everywhere. Beautiful billowing white peasant blouses and lovely full flowered skirts. Perfect! You find a set in your size and POOF! You're a reenactress!

Then you get on a reenactor online forum and you see this discussion about "the dreaded skirt and blouse combo." You read it and you're in the dumps - apparently the mismatched skirt and blouse are ALL WRONG and were never worn during the war. You sadly consider the cost of buying an entirely new outfit.

But THEN you start looking on Pinterest at original photos of Civil War ladies. WAIT! There are ladies in real 1860s photographs wearing a skirt and blouse!

Okayyyyy, what's going on here?

US National Archives 111-B-1686
Mis-Matched vs Matched
The first item to consider is whether Civil War ladies only wore outfits with matching skirt and top, or if they wore mis-matched outfits too. The answer is, they wore both. Sort of.

The mainstay of all female wardrobes in the 1860s was the matched skirt and bodice. Sometimes it was a one-piece dress, sometimes the pieces were separate, allowing for two different styles of matching bodice to be worn (a day bodice and an evening bodice, for example). If you looked in any woman's closet, the majority of what you'd find would be dresses with matching skirt and top.

Barrington House photo. 1860s.
But in the 1860s, a new fashion was just beginning to take hold. A young lady, or a fashionable woman might have an outfit or two in this new style. The style was - you guessed it - a mis-matched skirt and top. BUT... there were very particular parameters for this style.

And that's where fashion historians blow a gasket, because the modern sutler version of a white blouse and calico skirt doesn't even come close to fitting the 1860s parameters for what we now call a "skirt and blouse."

So let's take a look at what these outfits really looked like.

Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais
The Typical Blouse
A "blouse" was originally a man's garment. Using the term "blouse" for woman's clothing is still a fairly new thing in this era, and it refers to a certain kind of top, one that imitates a gentleman's shirt. Up till now, we have been calling a ladies' top a "bodice," a "waist," or a "body." These terms could mean slightly different things depending on your region.

What we call the "blouse" of the 1860s (and I will use this term the rest of this post because it's familiar) was almost always white and almost always very fine, beautiful fabric. Sheer cottons, silks and wools were often used. Tucks, frills, and furbelows of all sorts were generally included. Many times we see ribbon woven into the collar, or even into the whole blouse. It was a sharp looking, well-fitting, high fashion garment.

Here is a blouse from the Met Museum made from sheer window-pane fine cotton. It is partially lined and includes a fitted waistband and some lovely ruffles.

This gorgeous sheer blouse (it appears to be silk) is puffed to kingdom come! A fitted waistband and frilly collar complete this little piece of elegance.

And just one more example (someone please stop me!). This one is so pretty with its detailed white-work flowers. It's likely that white-work was done by hand.

The Garibaldi Blouse
As I said, blouses were almost always white. The exception was for an outfit mimicking the famous Guiseppe Garibaldi, a freedom fighter in Italy. Garibaldi blouses worn by ladies were generally red, like his was, and included intricate, military-style black trim. You'll often see mock epaulettes on the shoulders. These gorgeous blouses were usually made of fine wool or silk. Because they were solid colored, they were almost never made of cotton - solid cottons were very rare in the 1860s.

Lovely - but not for Civil War era!
No Peasant Blouses
So even though those lovely flowing white blouses on sutler row look so enticing, they're not accurate. The cotton fabric is usually too coarse and heavy, the blouse is too loose and floppy, there is almost never a proper collar - and I'm just getting started! Basically, a ready-made blouse of any kind will probably not look right for our era. Blouses of the 1860s were made to fit YOU and you only.

Conversation Piece, Lilly Martin Spencer
The Skirt
So now we come to the second part of the ensemble. Remember that a "skirt and blouse" combo is considered a high fashion outfit. The cheap floppy calico skirts on sutler row don't make the cut.

Skirts of the 1860s were generally fine tightly woven silk or wool. Both solids and patterns were used - but watch out which patterns you choose! Some of our modern designs simply weren't around back then. Plaids and stripes are generally pretty safe (and if you're concerned about a plaid, you can research it online to see when it was created).

1864 Ladies Friend Magazine 
If you are wearing the typical 1860s white blouse, you can pair it with a skirt of many colors and designs. However, if you're wearing a Garibaldi blouse, it was almost always paired with a black, or black-and-white skirt to complete the look of Garibaldi's uniform.

The Belt
Now we come to the optional finishing touch. A belt is not necessary for this ensemble, but it does make a nice statement and was quite popular. Here are some types of belts that were worn with these outfits:

- Velvet or silk with rectangular metal buckle (like the fashion plate above)
- Velvet or silk with double buckle
- Rosette belt (came into fashion in the mid-1860s)
- Medici belt - these were generally silk, fitted your waist (no bow in the back, a la sutler row) and sometimes beautifully embroidered
- Swiss waist - a silk, corset-like garment

So if you're a young lady, or if you're portraying a fashion-forward lady, a skirt and blouse ensemble may be for you. But save yourself some money by avoiding sutler row and instead go for the stunning original design: a high-quality finely designed blouse and silk or wool skirt.

This young woman shows off the perfect ensemble: Frilly sheer blouse with ribbon woven in, silk medici belt and silk taffeta skirt. Her hair is smoothly in order and her lacy hankie provides the perfect finishing touch.

Here's another photo from my sister's collection. Though mother and daughter's faces look almost alike, mama has a fashionable but predictable lady's outfit, probably a one-piece dress with lovely trim. Daughter, on the other hand, is more fashion-forward and is wearing a beautifully trimmed Garibaldi blouse - she probably sewed all that trim on herself! Her dark solid skirt is likely black silk. Both she and mama complete their ensembles with neck bows and ribbon hairnets. Such a lovely couple!

If you want to see more gorgeous blouse outfits from the 1860s, check out my Pinterest board on the subject.

This outfit was so fun that sis and I decided to attempt it ourselves. We found some lovely sheer cotton and sis made our gorgeous blouses with plenty of tucks and frills. I made the skirts - mine is swishy silk taffeta and sis's is a rich wool. I also made our cockades. And Mom made our snazzy hairnets! I think the whole effect turned out nicely!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Girls Day Out

For Mom's birthday, we decided to do something FOOFY this year! And what's more foofy than having tea with your girlfriends?

So we and the afore-mentioned girlfriends made a trek out to Ridgeway, South Carolina and had tea at Laura's Tea Room, followed by a leisurely antiquing trip back home. The ultimate day of girly FOOF!

Laura's Tea Room loans you a hat!
This was our first visit to Laura's Tea Room so we had fun taking extra pictures. Except for the fact that it seemed a little pricey to us, and the "tea" had some odd American twists, we thought it was a lovely place.

Here are the conspiratorial girlfriends, ready to have a party for Mom! Naturally, if you're going to have tea, you must wear hats and gloves. Laura's Tea Room provides hats for ladies who don't have one (we heard a lot of giggles as ladies tried them on). But we felt Highly Elegant since we already had our classy hats on!

Have hats, will travel!
Miss Rose's hat is what she calls the "Aunt Bea style" (watch the Andy Griffith Show if you're not sure what that is). Miss Jeannie's hat was dramatically decorated with strawberries because - as she pointed out - it is now strawberry season! Raquelle's hat might have looked rather tame with just black and white, until you notice that it has feathers that wave around while Raquelle guestures. (Note: Raquelle guestures a lot.) My hat is a pretty vintage straw hat that still has it's original velvet flowers - and just happens to match my dress perfectly!

The birthday girl!
Now, for the birthday girl! Mom decided today to wear something that she wouldn't need to take off later while antique shopping. So she opted for a "fascinator." She came up with the idea the night before and made one for herself that exactly matched her outfit! If you've never seen a fascinator before, I once heard a British newsperson describe it as a "sea urchin on your head." Actually, it's a lot cuter than that!

Laura's Tea Room not only serves high tea, they also have a more casual cafe where they serve soups, sandwiches and salads (how alliterative!). The cafe is on the main floor and is combined with a shop of all things tea-ish. When we arrived, they gave us a few minutes to look around the shop (and pick out hats to wear, except we already had ours). Then they took us upstairs to the "tea room" proper.

As another fun touch, we gave the birthday girl a tussie mussie - a Victorian handheld bouquet. Here are a couple pictures. And the flowers looked smashing with Mom's outfit!

There were lots of fun tea-themed decorating touches, like the little teapot napkin rings. And - what fun! - you get to choose your own tea cup as you head for the table! Decisions, decisions... I chose a pretty white and gold cup because I liked the way it looked with the little gold tea spoon. 

Everyone had a yummy cold iced tea glass at their plate. The odd Americanism was that they only gave us two teapots of hot tea for the whole table - one flavor they chose and one we chose. I prefer the English way of giving everyone their own pot so can choose your own flavor. But in this case, it was easy to decide what flavor to pick - we just had the birthday girl do the choosing! 

Another interesting Americanism was that we were served a pasta and spinach salad first. I suspect this was supposed to fill us up so we wouldn't notice that the "tea" part of the meal was a trifle on the skimpy side. However, it was definitely a tasty salad!

Once the salad dishes were cleared, we were served scones - that is, one scone a piece. They were American sized scones (i.e. not very big) but quite delicious. And naturally, one must have lemon curd with your scones! 
And for the grand finale, we were finally served the "real" part of the tea (in our opinion!). It was all scrumptious! Tasty little sandwiches, trifles, chocolate covered strawberries, and more! Of course, when you eat calories with friends, they don't count - right? 

After we finished eating, Mom opened her gifts and then we sat and chatted for quite a while. It was a slow day with a number of empty tables so we just had a good time yakking in the quiet room and catching up on each other's lives.

Here are a couple more pictures of the room so you can see how elegant we felt.

Then on our way out, we did one more quick pass through the shop to admire all the pretty items on the shelves. This is a fun place to "window shop" even if you don't purchase something!

Nope, we didn't buy anything - that's Mom carrying the "loot" she received for her birthday! Don't the ladies look color coordinated with all those teapots behind them? 

Before we left, we did what all good bloggers do - took a picture of ourselves by the sign! By the way, this is also a great way to keep your photos organized and remember where you went. (Free tip from a Dumb Blond Photographer! You're welcome.)

Then we all piled into the van with our assorted hats, flowers, and bags and proceeded to fill up the rest of the afternoon with stops at antique stores! Everybody found a "treasure" of some sort and we enjoyed looking at "treasures" we didn't need - such as the Confederate soldier garden statue. He was quite handsome, but just didn't seem right for our rose gardens. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen (are there any gentlemen reading this?)...was our fun girly day together! 

Monday, May 18, 2015

How To Choose A Civil War Fabric

It's pretty... but NOT authentic!
My first dress was a lovely solid blue polyester that looked sorta like cotton. I put black soutache trim on it and felt "perty." Later I discovered that my choices of fabric and trim were completely wrong! So, in order to save you some aggravation, I've asked the lovely Jennifer McCardell Green if I can repost her awesome Fabric Overview! So here you go - a summary of how to choose Civil War fabric! ~Heather

Which Fabric To Choose?
In the world of period correct clothing, choosing a fabric can be a bear, especially when you’re just starting out.  It looks daunting, and can be terribly discouraging.  Hopefully, this will help solve your problems, and make starting out a tad bit easier. First, let me start with a quick glossary of terms, put into my own, particular vernacular.

COTTON - Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants.  The fiber is most often spun into yarn or thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile.  While cotton was known in the ancient world, it didn’t become a superstar until the period after the American Revolution.  In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which lead to mass production, and in the early part of the 19th century, cotton was like the biggest thing since sliced bread…   If they had sliced bread…  Maybe I should research that!  But anyway, cotton was awesome!  

By the 1840s, Britain and India could no longer compete with the United States, owing to slave labor, which allowed the American south to produce cotton at around half the cost of non-slave labor plantations.  American Cotton was king.  However, for whatever reason, by the 1860s, cotton simply wasn’t popular for certain styles.  I could get into it and try to do a dissertation on why, but the purpose of this article is to be a short, helpful read.  To steal a phrase, cotton had become sweatpants, and you wouldn’t make an Oscar gown out of sweatpants material.

WOOL - Wool is the textile fiber obtained from sheep and certain other animals, including cashmere from goats, mohair from goats, and so on and so on, but for our purposes, we’re really only worried about sheep and goats.  Wool has several qualities that distinguish it from hair or fur: it is crimped, it is elastic, and it grows in staples (clusters).  Wool's scaling and crimp make it easier to spin the fleece by helping the individual fibers attach to each other, so they stay together. Because of the crimp, wool fabrics can have greater bulk than other textiles, and they hold air, which causes the fabric to retain heat. Insulation works both ways: Bedouins and Tuaregs use wool clothes to keep heat out and protect the body.

Wool fibers readily absorb moisture, but are not hollow. Wool can absorb almost one-third of its own weight in water.  Wool ignites at a higher temperature than cotton and most synthetic fibers. It has a lower rate of flame spread, a lower rate of heat release, a lower heat of combustion, and does not melt or drip; it forms a char which is insulating and self-extinguishing, and it contributes less to toxic gases and smoke than other flooring products when used in carpets. Wool carpets are specified for high safety environments, such as trains and aircraft. Wool is usually specified for garments for firefighters, soldiers, and others in occupations where they are exposed to the likelihood of fire.  Wool is also considered by the medical profession to be hypoallergenic.  Wool is a freaking rockstar!

Most reenactors look for a tropical weight wool or a lightweight worsted suiting when choosing a wool.  Order some samples and hold them up against a quilting weight cotton:  I can guarantee you both wool samples will be lighter weight, and will move better too.  Also, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say, without using any research and pulling random numbers out of my head, that every single person in the 1860s had and regularly used a wool garment, in the summer and in the winter.

SILK - Ah, Silk!  Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The protein fiber of silk is composed mainly of fibroin and is produced by certain insect larvae to form cocoons. The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.  Silk has been used for thousands of years, and was super popular during the 1860s.

However, not all silks were used.  Silk dupioni, perhaps the most commonly used silk today, was not used.  The high number of slubs in the fabric was highly undesirable then, and it wouldn’t have made it onto the market.  Some modern silks sold as dupioni can be used due to a lack of slubs, usually it’s other silk that has been mislabeled, but unless you’re experienced in silks, I wouldn’t recommend bothering to look for acceptable dupioni.  Also, I wouldn’t recommend an online purchase.  Dupioni is expensive, and unless you have amazing good luck, you probably just wasted that money.

Silk taffeta, however, was the most popular silk of the 1860s.  It is lovely, light, crisp, and makes a wonderful swishing noise.  However, most brick and mortar fabric stores don’t carry silk taffeta.  There are several reputable merchants online who do, however, and usually at a lower price than the inferior dupioni!

LINEN - Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant.  Linen is laborious to manufacture, but the fiber is very absorbent and garments made of linen are valued for their exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather.  Possibly, because of the manufacturing cost, linen just wasn’t used in women’s clothing.  You will see some linen undergarments, specialty garments like traveling costumes and habits, and a whole lot of men’s attire, but not women’s dresses, so I’m not going to write a dissertation here.  If you’re starting out and making your first dress, just don’t choose linen.  

RAYON - Rayon is a manufactured regenerated cellulose fiber. It is made from purified cellulose, primarily from wood pulp, which is chemically converted into a soluble compound. It is then dissolved and forced through a spinneret to produce filaments which are chemically solidified, resulting in synthetic fibers of nearly pure cellulose. Because rayon is manufactured from naturally occurring polymers, it is considered a semi-synthetic fiber. Specific types of rayon include viscose, modal and lyocell, each of which differs in manufacturing process and properties of the finished product.  However, Rayon wasn’t invented until 1894, so this will be my last mention.  They wouldn’t have used it if they had it, because they didn’t have it!

NYLON AND POLYESTER - No.  Just no.  Nylon is a generic designation for a family of synthetic polymers, more specifically aliphatic or semi-aromatic polyamides. They can be melt processed into fibers, films or shapes.  Polyester is a category of polymers that contain the ester functional group in their main chain. As a specific material, it most commonly refers to a type called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Polyesters include naturally occurring chemicals, such as in the cutin of plant cuticles, as well as synthetics through step-growth polymerization such as polybutyrate.

Thank God for Wikipedia, because I didn’t understand any of that!  If you can’t understand the words used to describe the fabric, they probably didn’t have it.  Man-made fabrics are undesirable for a number of reasons.  Firstly, and most importantly, man-made fabrics are HIGHLY FLAMMABLE.  It is not recommended to be in a place with open flames, like in a lantern, oil lamp, camp fire, candle, etc., etc., when wearing a man-made fabric.  I am not kidding.  You will ignite.  Remember that “melt processing” thing above?  The fibers will melt INTO your skin.  Even if the burn is not bad, they will need to remove your flesh to dig out the fibers that have melted into your skin.  I’m sorry, but ew!

Secondly, they are hot and they do not breathe.  They are hot as the fires of Hades.  Seriously, if you’re thinking about cheating and making your ball gown out of a man-made fabric, please rethink.  You’ll be removed from that ball room suffering from heat stroke.  Well, more likely, you’ll just be miserable, but that’s no fun either!  And thirdly, you may think your “faux” satin, taffeta, etc., is indistinguishable from the real thing.  I’m sorry, it’s not.  Those of us who have been doing this for a long time CAN tell.  We can tell by the sheen and by the way the fabric moves.  We can also tell by the sweat pouring off your face!  J

So now let’s move on to my little checklist of sorts.  I’m going to ask a question about your pattern, and discuss your possible answers.

Matching Your Fabric To Your Pattern
Gathered Dress
Charleston Museum
Does your pattern have a darted waist, or a gathered waist?
If you answered gathered, you have many options.  Gathers put less stress on the fabric than darts do, so you are open to use cotton, sheer cottons, or wools.  Silks don’t appear to have been used on a gathered waists as often, but it can still be done in certain circumstances.
Darted Dress
Shippensburg Museum

If you answered darted, you’re more limited.  Darts put more significant stress on the fabric, so sheer cottons cannot be used.  We don’t really know why, but heavier cottons were not used
either.  It may have been a fad, because we see darted cotton bodices in the 1850s and again in the 1870s, but not in the 1860s!  Who knows!  But wools and silks were very, very commonly made into darted bodices, so if your fabric is one of those, have at!  Go to town on those darts!
If you answered

Bishop Sleeves
Ohio State University
Does your pattern have bishop sleeves, coat sleeves, or pagoda sleeves?
bishop, you have many options.  Sheer cotton, heavier weight cotton, wool, and silk can all be made up into bishop sleeves.  They were perhaps the most common sleeve shape in the 1850s, and carry over into the 60s.  They are not a very fashion forward sleeve, but they are still very common.
Coat Sleeves
Kerry Taylor Auctions

If you answered coat, again you have many options.  Cotton, wool, and silk were all made into coat sleeves of varying widths, and were fashion forward, so you will see more fashionable dresses with coat sleeves, as well as working attire.  Sheer cottons can be made into coat sleeves as well, but a tight coat sleeve in a sheer cotton is less common.
Pagoda Sleeves
Mary and Nicholas Winne

If you answered pagoda, you are again more limited.  Cotton dresses were very, very rarely made with a pagoda sleeve.  In fact, they are so rare they are basically non-existent.  However, sheer cottons are frequently made into pagodas, and are frequently worn without undersleeves.  Wool and silk, however, are commonly made into pagodas.  Pagoda sleeves were widely popular in the 1850s, and begin to diminish as the 60s progress.  You will see a lot of silk and wool pagodas during the early years of the war, and they will get fewer and farther between as the war progresses, as coat sleeves grow and grow in popularity.

Do you want a solid colored or printed dress?
If you answered print, you can use any of your fabric options, cotton, sheer cotton, wool, or silk.  In fact, during the era they had some pretty incredible printed wools and silks that are unfortunately not available to us now.  Florals tend to be tricky, matching a modern floral to florals used in the 1860s takes much training of the eye.  In fact, after 27 years in the hobby, I’m still having trouble recognizing a good floral print without running to my books.  You will nearly always (nearly - some are still not right) be safe with a plaid.  Plaids were HUGELY popular during the 1860s.

However, be wary of Tartans.  Clans can get rather persnickety about usage of a registered tartan by someone not a member of the Clan.  Also, most tartans recognized now were not invented until the early part of the 20th Century.  And also again, while plaids and clothing with Scots influence were popular, there was no traditional Scots clothing for women during the 1860s, and again it is not invented until the early part of the 20th Century.

Solid light purple dress
Metropolitan Museum of Art
If you answered solid, you are much more limited.  Solid cotton dresses are vanishingly rare, possibly because cotton fades so much more quickly than wool or silk, leading to strangely splotchy dresses.  In fact, I have yet to find a solid colored cotton dress dating to the 1860s.  Wools and silks, yes!  Hundreds and hundreds of wools and silks were made in solid colors, likely because they take so much longer to fade.  The exception is a solid colored sheer cotton.  Sheers were commonly made in white or very very light colored pastels. 

Do you want contrasting trim, self-fabric trim, or no trim on your dress?
If you answered no trim, and you plan to “dress up” your dress with belts and other accessories alone, you can make your dress out of cotton, wool, or silk.

If you answered self-fabric trim, meaning a ruffle or pleated trim made from the same fabric as your dress, again, you can make your dress from cotton, wool, or silk.

THIS is how I should have
made my blue dress! Wool fabric
and black velvet trim - so striking!
K Krewer Collection
If you answered contrasting trim, you are limited to wool or silk.  It is very, very rare to find a cotton dress with contrasting trim.  This is due to the washing techniques of the era:  a cotton dress can be washed, and will be boiled, agitated, and dried.  Contrasting trim will shrink, shred, and all sorts of other unpleasant things during the washing process, which means you will need to remove the trim before you wash it, and add it again once it’s washed.  If that sounds like fun (no!) well, go ahead!  But they apparently didn’t get their kicks that way, as cotton dresses with contrasting trim is vanishingly rare.

This little guide is meant to help those starting out, and is in no way intended to be preachy or argumentative.  Use it as you see fit (but please don’t reproduce this without my express permission).  If you can think of a question I haven’t answered, please let me know, and I’ll address it! 

Thanks, Jennifer!! Jennifer McCardell Green is a 2nd generation reenactor with nearly 3 decades in the hobby, She is an avid researcher, and a moderator at the Civilian Civil War Closet on Facebook. Jenny is also a devoted wife to Jason, who she sucked into the hobby, and mother to Mac, 6, and Clara, 8 months, who are now the 3rd generation of McCardells in reenacting. In her spare time, she enjoys napping. If you have more questions for Jennifer, you can ask her and other reenacting veterans in the Civilian Civil War Closet group on Facebook. Jennifer and others there will be happy to help you with period-correct advice for Civil War era outfits!