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Standards > Getting Started & Getting it Right > Basic Women's Clothing

Getting Started and Getting it Right:

Women's clothing:

Ambrotype with Shenandoah Valley provenance, collection of Kathryn Coombs. Click here for more information and larger image

Ambrotype with southern Maryland provenance,
collection of Kathryn Coombs
Click picture for larger image & discussion

Core Wardrobe - Checklist:

The Basics:

  • A well-fitting corset (get this BEFORE buying or making dresses)
  • 1-2 chemises
  • 1-2 pairs of drawers (recommended, but not required unless you wear a hoop)
  • A corded petticoat, or work-width hoop
  • A regular petticoat or underskirt (can be a patterned "working" petticoat or an over the hoop type
  • 1-2 dresses, preferably gathered bodiced, in either a period-correct calico or "homespun" type fabric
  • 1-2 pairs of stockings, preferably white or cream colored
  • A period reproduction pair of shoes, or modern shoes that can plausibly pass (see budget options, below)
  • Some form of shawl -- woven or knitted, in a period-plausible style
  • Slat bonnet, or corded bonnet if you prefer, or for cold weather knit or quilted bonnet/cap
  • 1-2 plain white cotton collars or neckerchief
  • If you wear a collar, you also need a period-plausible brooch, unless you are young enough to wear a bow at your neck instead

Recommended Extras:

  • Apron in period-appropriate fabric (calico or homespun / "apron check"), preferably "pinner" style for cottons, preferably in a practical color that won't show dirt. Consider a wool apron if you intend to cook as wool is more fire resistant.
  • If you wear a hoop, an under-petticoat is also recommended.
  • It can get cold at events, so a "bosom buddy" or "sontag" is handy to have
  • Garters: modern repro stockings usually have a bit of lycra and stay up on their own, but garters are a more authentic touch, either elastic (flat, not round) or knitted.
  • Period nightwear, if doing events where you are "sleeping in scenario" and not in a situation (e.g. refugee) where you have to sleep in your day clothing
  • Warm outerwear for winter events -- a heavier shawl, paletot, sacque, etc (capes/cloaks are acceptable but are not recommended if you don't already have one, as they are over-represented in reenacting and not as warm)
  • A wrapper is extremely useful, particularly if you want to go to the lavatory early in the morning before putting on your corset or dressing fully.

Discussion Points:


As reproduction corsetiere Kay Gnagey is fond of saying, "not all women in the era wore a corset -- but NONE of them wore a bra." Unless you ONLY wish to portray quite poor individuals, you will need a corset. If you are a standard size and symmetrically built, you might be able to get away with an "off the shelf" ready made corset. However, for maximum comfort and the best fit, we highly recommend having your corset custom made to your own measurements and figure type.

Get your corset BEFORE taking your measurements for your dresses, or they won't fit properly. Items you can buy while you're waiting for your corset to be made include chemises, drawers, petticoats, shawls, headgear, outerwear, shoes, etc., so this won't slow you down too much.


Having two dresses to start out with is a good strategy, as a lot of reenacting events are held in hot weather where you might appreciate a change of clothing. However, it is not necessary to have more than one dress to start out with, and wearing the same dress all weekend in many circumstances is a more accurate portrayal of an age where the average person didn't have a whole lot of changes of clothing.

Getting the Right Fit:

Take your measurements while wearing your corset and get a friend to help you. It's virtually impossible to measure yourself accurately. If you plan to wear your dress over a hoop, take front and back waist to floor measurements over the hoop as well. The skirt on a dress to be worn over a hoop should be 3-4 inches off the ground.

Perhaps the best investment you can make is to have a custom muslin or personal bodice pattern made for you. Beth Miller Hall, Kay Gnagey and other qualified period seamstresses do this at very reasonable prices. As a secondary option, make your own muslin, with a friend helping you, using the Past Patterns darted bodice pattern as your template.

Options and Tips for the Budget Conscious:

Many people getting into this hobby are limited in funds, but civilian reenacting need not be expensive, particularly for women and particularly if you sew or are willing to learn to sew. If you DO sew and get lucky in finding appropriate fabrics at discount prices, you can produce most of your wardrobe, other than your shoes and a cage crinoline for a total of under $100 and this includes two dresses. Of course, if you have very "deep pockets", you can also spend a fortune on wonderful fabrics, top of the line dressmakers, and other gear. There is plenty of room for both approaches and a lot of ground in the middle.

IF you sew well or are prepared to learn:

  • Recommended patterns are the Homespun Patterns work dress, the Past Patterns gathered bodice, the Chile 'n' Crackers work dress and the Atlantic History Center dress patterns. You don't really need a skirt pattern for an everyday dress -- just sew your skirt panels selvage to selvage and either knife pleat the skirt or follow the gauging instructions online on Elizabeth Clark and Glenna Jo Christen's websites.
  • There is a free drawers pattern on Elizabeth Clark's website, as well as tips for making a chemise and a petticoat. The Past Patterns underpinnings patterns are also very good. The new Simplicity patterns aren't bad, but you'll learn more about period construction techniques going with Past Patterns
  • There is an online "recipe for a corded petticoat" that is pretty good, although geared to Renaissance Faire people. For Civil War, make yours narrower than they suggest, ca. 70-80 inches in diameter depending on your height, and use heavier cord such as 1/4 inch hemp rope, as they will hold up better without having to starch them too heavily.
  • You can save money on a cage crinoline by buying a kit from Needle & Thread or from Kay Gnagey, or by taking a cage crinoline workshop using one of these kits.

IF you can sew a little but are new at it and not very confident:

  • You can save a LOT of money by getting a good period dressmaker to just make the bodice for you and then doing the skirt yourself and also potentially the sleeves. Beth Miller Hall and Kay Gnagey will both do bodices only and most of the other good dressmakers will as well. Start by making a petticoat -- this is very easy. 
  • Slat bonnets aren't expensive but you can save a bit of money on a slat bonnet by buying a pre-cut kit from Susanne Isaacson at The Stevenson House

Budget Shoes:

High quality reproduction shoes from the two top makers, Robert Land and Robert Serio are priced in the $120-$150 range, which might be beyond a lot of people's budgets, unless you find a pair ready-made on sale that fit for less. We highly recommend the ladies front-lacing walking shoes/boots made by Tom Mattimore (Mattimore Harness --CivilWarBoots.com) as they are virtually identical to the ones made by Serio, are hand made and cost only $80. He does not have them shown on the website, but they can be ordered by email and the Blanket Brigade Sutlery also carries them. Another good option, a bit fancier looking, are the reproduction elastic sided boots made by Fugawee, either the Victoria or Rose models, which cost $72. These might be outside the budgets of many reenactors. Sometimes, you can find modern manufactured ankle boots that look right or almost right, particularly now that square toes are back in fashion. Some people have had good luck at places like Payless. The key is to avoid "speed laces", thick soles, clunky heels and modern trim. If a shoe is otherwise decent looking and has speed laces, these can be removed and replaced with eyelets by a good shoemaker. However, unless the shoes are real leather and fairly sturdy and otherwise good, this is a false economy. Elastic sided jodphur boots used for horseback riding are also a good option. Apart from the toes being rounded instead of squared, they are virtually identical to the Fugawee "Rose" model. Front lacing "paddock boots" are also an option and are generally good leather where speed lacing can be replaced with eyelets.

Converting from the Mainstream:

We are luckier than military reenactors, in that quite a lot of "bad gear" bought as a mainstreamer can be recycled for an authentic impression if the fabric is good. For example:

  • Incorrectly made cotton calico and homespun dresses can often be remade: You can take out the darts from a darted bodice and gather the material instead. Pagoda sleeves can be easily pieced into coat sleeves. A great many original dresses have sleeves that have been pieced, so this is very accurate.
  • A so-called "camp skirt" in an otherwise good fabric can be used as a working petticoat / underskirt
  • Two piece "work dresses" like the ones offered by R&K that are constructed as a garibaldi blouse and matching skirt usually come in period appropriate fabrics and can be quite easily defarbed as there's quite a lot of extra fabric there. The blouses have very long shirt tails that can be cut off to give you the fabric you need for piping the armscyes and making a waistband. Detach sleeves, add piping and reattach. Make a waistband for the bodice, then gather the front and back to fit, and encase the bottom of the bodice in the waistband. Then, whipstitch the skirt waistband underneath the bodice waistband and you have a plausible dress.
  • Other items with good fabric and bad construction can be recycled into slat and corded bonnets, pinner aprons, men's shirts and children's clothing.

Expanding Your Impression:

A couple of well-made, serviceable calico or "homespun" type dresses will enable you to portray a fairly wide range of social classes and you'll be fine for all the events we do. For example, a good basic dress can be dressed up by wearing it with a hoop and with a collar and brooch -- suitable for "best'" for a member of the yeomanry and everyday wear for a wealthier person in a rural area. It can be dressed down by wearing it with a corded petticoat or multiple regular petticoats, an apron and a neckerchief -- suitable for the everyday apparel for a poorer farmer or artisan's family or a servant girl, but could also work for "doing the chores" clothes for middle class farm families not wealthy enough to have sufficient slaves or hired hands to do all the chores for them. Real work dresses were generally shorter than dresses worn over hoops -- you can redress this by doing functional ties inside the skirt to loop it up, or by pinning it up. Workdresses pinned up over colored/printed "work petticoats" are an underrepresented look and are encouraged.

Middle Class and Upper Middle:

The following additional items will be useful to acquire if you wish to expand your impression to portray more prosperous middle class and upper middle class people. (Please note that these items are NOT required for the core AGSAS impression, so if this is beyong your means, don't worry!)

  • If you're using a corded petticoat for your core impression rather than a working-width hoop, if you want to expand your impression range to upper middle to middle-middle class, you should also get cage crinoline in a circumference appropriate for a day dress (usually ca. 90" to 110" depending on your height, possibly 120" if you're very tall)
  • A good quality antique brooch (or, the repro mourning brooches from "Mourning Glories" are a good budget option)
  • For colder weather wear, a lightweight woolen (challis, lightweight gabardine, not heavy wool) day dress. This may be fitted bodiced if you wish
  • For hot weather wear, a nice gathered bodiced sheer cotton dress.
  • A silk covered buckram bonnet (wear with silk, sheer or woolen dresses) or a straw bonnet (wear with cotton dresses)
  • A wrapper if you don't already have one
  • Upgraded outerwear (paletot, etc) if you dont already have one
  • An evening or ball dress, if you intend to go to formal balls - or a nice silk day dress would be suitable for most such events and give you wider use. Another option to make silk dresses more economically practical is dresses with two bodices, or with evening bodices that modify for daytime wear through the addition of sleeves and a capelet.
  • A folding parasol, either a re-covered original or a reproduction

Working Class:

Portraying very poor people is often a major challenge for reenactors with our modern middle class backgrounds, particularly portraying someone who is illiterate. Many people therefore find it easier to start out portraying the lower middle class "yeomanry" and artisan class, which were the largest demographic group of the era rather than the very poor. This is also practical from a clothing standpoint.

As you become more comfortable and confident in reenacting, your first two everyday calico or homespun dresses will start to get a bit faded and ratty looking with age and wear. When they get into this condition, they are ready to use for your working class / poor folks impression. If the dresses were hoop length, you will probably want to shorten them somewhat. This is most easily done by putting in a couple of growth tucks in the skirt. This would also be a good time to get a serviceable work petticoat if you don't already have one, in a sturdy striped or checked cotton, red flannel or just a recycled homespun skirt and pinning up or tying up your skirts to cook, do chores, or in bad weather.

If your first choice of shoes was more formal looking, going for something a bit more rustic and practical like the Serio or Mattimore front-lacing boots would also be a good option for developing this impression. Another possibility is to find men's brogans in your size, given the documented shortages of manufactured shoes and leather in the wartime South. Or, for middle to late War, some variant of "make do" shoes from old carpet, etc would be a particularly interesting option. One of our members reproduced original "make do" shoes at the Museum of the Confederacy that were wooden clogs with uppers made from carpeting.

At some events, bare feet might be an option, but check event regulations and be mindful of safety considerations. While hookworm, stepping on a nail or a piece of metal might be "period", they're best avoided!

If you've been wearing collars and brooches, now is the time to make a couple of white cotton neckerchiefs -- about 18-24 inches square, folded into a triangle is the most common. Otherwise, all the items you acquired for your core impression, once they age up a little, will be perfect for portraying a poorer person.

If your are portraying a poor person from an urban area, there was a thriving market in used clothing in the era. Another interesting option that would add depth to a group portrayal might be to wear "nicer" clothes that are in an earlier, ca. late 50's style but a bit the worse for wear.

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