Monday, April 27, 2015

Anatomy of a Civil War Ball Gown

Since we help to host three Civil War balls in the South Carolina Upstate, we often get questions about what a Civil War ball dress looks like. Some folks think all you need is a Big Skirt and presto - an 1860s ball gown! Um, sorry folks - not quite! :)

Think of how fashion works today. Can you immediately tell the different between a 1981 wedding dress and a 2011 wedding dress? Of course! But let's a say a Time Traveler from AD 2200 looks at a photo of Princess Diana and Princess Kate side by side in their wedding dresses.

Her first impression might be, "Hey, they look pretty much the same! Big skirt, tiara, long veil, white and green bouquet. Cool, now I know how to make a vintage wedding dress!" But of course, there are quite a number of differences that make Diana's dress 1980s and Kate's dress 2000s.

The same is true with Victorian dresses. We may think a ballgown from the 1840s looks pretty much the same as 1850s or 1860s. We may even have seen so many Hollywood versions of a Civil War ball gown that we think that is authentic. But a little study will show us that there are some unique features of Civil War era ballgowns that make them distinct from other eras (real or movie version).

If you want to look beautifully period-correct, keep the following details in mind!

Dress from Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession Number 1983.479.1a–c.

The Fit
A rumpled look on the bodice
is not period-correct
The first thing to note about a period ballgown is how it fits - like a glove! Ballgown bodices of the era looked like they were molded to your body - which they were. To achieve the most period look, you'll need a well-fitted corset, chemise and cage crinoline (also known as a hoop). However, if you're only seeking to buy a costume and don't intend to fully reenact, then you can get by with putting a LOT of boning in your bodice. Either way, what you want to avoid is the "unmade bed" look of a rumpled, badly fitting bodice.

Notice this "pretty dress." See all the rumples and wrinkles on the waist? This immediately tells the experienced viewer that this is an off-the-shelf dress not made to fit you properly. If you're just looking for a fun costume, this is fine. But don't be fooled into thinking it looks like a period 1860s ballgown!

The Figure
When you see a ballgown from the 60s, you are looking at a beautiful hourglass figure. Even short chubby ladies (like the 5'2" Mary Todd Lincoln) look slim-waisted wearing the 1860s style. A properly fitted corset is the best foundational garment to start your look off right. After that, there are three main things that achieve this look:

- Dropped shoulder seams. This is universal for all dresses in the Civil War era. Lots of lace, ruffles, and flowers are added to the shoulder/bust area to widen out the "top of the hourglass."

- A high waistline. It should be just under the bottom edge of your rib cage, right about where you elbows are

- A smoothly flaring skirt. There should be enough bones in the hoop underneath to create a smooth outline. And there should be enough fullness is the skirt and petticoats to be full and "swishy!"

The Fabric 
Nothing screams "Cheap Costume" like a dress made with the wrong fabric. Also, nothing is more uncomfortable than a dress made with the wrong fabric! Our ancestors were pretty smart when they chose the fabrics for their ballgowns. Period-correct material for an 1860s ballgown will have the following features:

- Natural fiber. This usually means silk, although there are some very fine, sheer cottons that can work as well. NO POLYESTER. Polyester is plastic. It's like wearing plastic wrap around yourself. Picture yourself doing an energetic dance in a warm room covered in plastic. UGH! Natural fibers "breath" and are therefore far more comfortable for warm activities like dancing. 

Calico fabric on a ballgown?
Perish the thought!
- Light weight. Don't make the mistake I did when I made my first ballgown - I chose a heavy, gorgeous drapery fabric! Yowzers, that ballgown was heavy and stiff enough to stand on its own! 1860s ladies knew that extremely light and "floaty" fabrics would be much easier to dance in. And they look absolutely breathtaking when you are swirling around the ballroom! 

- No cotton calicoes, small prints, or "bedspread-looking" material. In the 1860s, small prints and calicoes were considered materials for work dresses - or even men's shirts! Definitely not ballgown material. Go for silks in solids, stripes, plaids, or old-fashioned embossed/embroidered designs (if you're confident enough to tell whether it's truly an 1860s design). No "Little House on the Prairie" fabric for the ballroom!

- All colors. Nearly all of the colors we have now were available to our ancestors. Contrary to Hollywood myths, there were no colors assigned only to "ladies of the night." In fact, middle-aged and older ladies could wear just about any color they pleased. It was considered decorous for young ladies to stick to whites and pastels. A silk ballgown could be any solid color from white to yellow to red to black. Plaids and stripes mixed up several colors. Civil War ballrooms were brilliant and colorful!

The Frills
A lovely, well-fitting, swishy silk ballgown can still be ruined by adding incorrect trim. So let's look at what types of "frills and furbelows" the Civil War era ladies used.

- Lace. Not our modern, heavy, shiny, polyester lace. Our ancestors used beautiful, fine lace made from cotton or silk. And the only colors available were black, white or cream. Yes, it's hard to find good reproductions! However, if you shop on eBay, Etsy, and other sites that sell vintage materials, you can often find pieces of original lace that are in good enough condition to use on a ball gown. I have also occasionally found modern lace that was workable, but it's important that it be very fine and not have that shiny look of polyester.

- Ribbon. If you can find silk taffeta ribbon, nab it for your ball gown! But if you can't (it's hardly ever made any more), a faux silk taffeta or a silk satin ribbon can work also. Ladies of the 1860s used silk ribbon for ruching (intricate pleating designs), bows, and rosettes. Check out original fashion plates to get ideas!

- Flowers. Silk, velvet or parchment flowers are your best option. Once in a while I find a cotton or polyester flower at Hobby Lobby that can be made to work by removing all traces of the plastic middle and plastic leaves. The options for floral decorations are endless. Some ideas are: A single corsage for your bodice, a garland around your shoulders, knots of flowers at your shoulders, flowers used to loop up an overskirt, and flowers at your waist. Once again, original fashion plates are a great resource.

- Overskirt. This is a good place to mention those overskirts. Too often we see reenactors wearing heavy, clunky overskirts that sag in between the loop-ups like a tired bedskirt. :) Overskirts of the 1860s were often made of light and airy fabrics such as silk organza or Chantilly lace. Both of those options can be expensive so some budget-conscious substitutes can be polyester organza or a very fine, light-weight re-purposed lace curtain. (At which point, my audience says, "I saw it in the window and just couldn't resist it!" :giggle:)

The Real Thing
So let's take take a look at some original ballgowns and see how these features look in real life!

This gorgeous plaid gown from The Graceful Lady's website is a great example of what the basic dress should look like. The bodice fits smoothly, the sleeves are darling little puffs with a self-ruffle of scallops, and the skirt is full and beautifully pleated to the waistband.

This dress would have included some type of trim, which was probably removed later to be reused on another gown. Lace was expensive and was re-purposed whenever the fashions changed. Flowers and ribbons would have been lightly tacked on so they could be removed and refreshed as the seasons passed and fashions were updated.

This beautiful lilac silk gown, seen on eBay, is early 1860s as evidenced by the tiered skirt which was a holdover from the 50s. The edges of the tiers are cut in scallops.

Another evidence of the date is the long pointed waist. Points were "in" during the 50s, but by 1865 the straight waist was becoming more popular. (The plaid dress above is thus probably a later date than the lilac dress.)

Noticed the fine, filmy lace on the bodice. This dress likely had some ribbons or a corsage originally, and it was removed to be reused.

This dress is an excellent foundational design that can be embellished in many ways with ribbons, lace and flowers.

This gown is a wonderful mixture of lines and contrasts. The dark portions are olive green velvet ribbon. The tucker really stands out on this dress. A tucker, by the way, is a lace or netted channel around the bodice edge through which ribbon was thread. This ribbon could then be tightened to hold the bodice edge smoothly against your skin.

The ruffles are some type of sheer silk, probably organza. I love how the bottom ruffle is straight around the skirt, but the middle ruffles are wavy. That's a bit complicated to pull off.

Once again, the pointed waistline tells us that this may be early 1860s. Can you imagine this dress floating around the ballroom?

Here's a final confection for us to drool over. This dress was worn in 1860 by Mrs. David Lyon Gardiner to a ball in honor of the Prince of Wales at the Academy of Music, New York City. It is one of the famous "Worth Collection." I love the designs in the fabric in this gown!

I do believe I "need" a ball dress like this for myself! :)

If you'd like to look at more ballgowns from the Civil War era, I have a Pinterest board you might enjoy. I have included some gowns from the 1850s (right before the war) as well as the 1870s (after the war) so you can compare their features to the 1860s gowns. Enjoy!

If you are making or ordering a ballgown for yourself and would like more detailed input on its design, I recommend you join the Facebook group, The Civilian Civil War Closet. The members there are happy to help those who are interested in research.

So there you have it! Just keep in mind the proper Fit, Figure, Fabric and Frills, and you'll be on your way to creating a lovely period-correct ball gown!


  1. It should be noted that the final ball gown is actually a costume from an Italian movie called (in English) the Leopard, and using it as inspiration for a ball gown is like using a fellow reenactor's reproduction as inspiration. It's a great reproduction, from one of my favorite movies!

    1. Good catch, LMarie! I have now switched it out with a gown that is actually a REAL ballgown from the 1860s. It's amazing how easy it is to think you've found an "original" on Pinterest, only to later discover it's a beautiful copy instead.