A proper lady always had a chemise (foundation slip), a corset, and drawers. She also had petticoats and some form of support for her dress (hoop skirt or corded petticoat). This photograph shows a young lady with her chemise, drawers, corset and "cage crinoline." Another petticoat or two (probably starched) would go over the cage to fluff out her skirt. Stockings and boots complete her foundation wardrobe items.
Her dress would be a skirt, about 5 yards in fulness. Her bodice would be fitted with off-the-shoulder seams and full sleeves. In most outfits, the bodice and skirt fabric matched. Sometimes the bodice and skirt were permanently sewn together.
The fabrics available in 1860 were wool, linen, cotton and silk. Cotton was often used for "day" dresses, and especially for "wash" dresses since it was easiest to clean. Since not all dyes were colorfast in this time period, there are almost no examples of solid colored cottons. Plaids, stripes, dots and other geometric designs were preferred.
Silk was used for nice dresses such as for church, visiting and light shopping. It was also used for evening and ball gowns. Silks could be solid, "changeable" (woven with two different colors so it shimmered), as well as the list of prints above for cotton.
Wool was available in a wide variety of weights, from light-weight sheer fabric to heavier coat-weight fabric. Wool is fire retardant and it also wicks moisture very well. It was therefore often used for petticoats, outer wear and cooking outfits, as well as for regular dresses.
This is a beautiful silk day dress from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, probably worn for visiting and social events. This dress has pagoda sleeves, which allow the lovely lacy undersleeves to show. Ladies almost always wore undersleeves and collars to protect their garments from body perspiration. The laundry techniques were hard on fabric in those days, so dress fabric was protected as much as possible. White underclothing was easily washed, bleached, and replaced when necessary.
Here is an original sheer dress from the collection of K. Krewer. Sheer dresses were worn in the summer for coolness as well as fashion.
Since a lady would be wearing a chemise, corset, drawers and petticoats, there was no indecency in a see-through gown.
The delicacy of the fabric usually meant these dresses were trimmed with self-fabric as this one is, instead of having heavy trim sewn on them. They also did not have to be worn with undersleeves if a lady desired maximum coolness.
This is a ball gown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ball gowns were short-sleeved and often off-the-shoulder. The bodice was fitted and usually (not always) fastened in the back.
Light-weight fabrics such as thin silks or sheer cottons were preferred for ball gowns, for coolness and ease in dancing.
Light colors were preferred for young ladies, but married and older ladies could wear any color they wished. Contrary to some legends, there is no indication that certain colors were reserved for "ladies of the night."
And finally, here is a homespun every-day dress owned by Vick Betts. Every-day dresses were often one piece, instead of bodice and skirt being separate, and the closure is in front.
Work dresses were of sturdy material, wool being the favorite as it was fire-retardant. Cotton was also used, however, as it was more easily washable.
Note once again the geometric designs in the fabric and the dropped shoulder seams. This hand-sewn dress is an enduring testimony to some lady's sewing abilities!