A Lady's Quick and Easy Guide to Civil War Re-Enacting

This is for those of you who would like to get into American Civil War re-enacting, and would like to do so properly.

First of all, your 'get up' doesn't have to be elaborate, or expensive to get you started.  BUT, try to look a little bit like you did some research before you set out.  You can get quite a few things at thrift stores and yard sales.  Some of the items to pass up would be:

  • peasant blouses
  • strapless dresses
  • sleeveless dresses
  • dresses with spaghetti straps
  • dresses with zippers
  • anything made out of nylon or obvious polyester

The simplest and easiest way to go is to get a long, full skirt (solid color) and a simple, button up, long sleeve, white blouse that is a size or two too large for you, so that the shoulders are falling off of the shoulder.  One without pockets is best, and it needs to button all the way to the neck.

Wear the blouse tucked in, with a belt, and a hoopskirt or crinoline under the skirt.  Simple little slip on shoes (we called them ballerina slippers when I was a kid) will do for your feet - not heels.  These things are usually held out in fields, your heels will get bogged down, and they didn't have the kind we do, anyway.   Part your hair down the middle, pull it back to the back of the neck and make a knot (or bun) back there (if possible).  Oh yeah - NO MAKEUP!!   Only tarts (whores) wore makeup.   Presto!  You have an inexpensive, easy, first time outfit to go to CivWar re-enactments.

Just need an inexpensive petticoat, but "can't sew"?

OK, here are some pointers for you.  An easy petticoat:  go to the thrift store (yard sale) and buy a white (or beige) bedskirt (dust ruffle). 


Doesn't matter really, what size you get.  I prefer a full size or larger, and here's why.  Hold the bedskirt up to yourself (folded in half length-wise) and see how long you need it.  At the 'head' of the bedskirt, mark about an inch higher than the length you need.  If it is a king size, you can probably get 2 lengths out of the bedskirt.  Lay the bedskirt down on the floor, mark the length you need down the entire length of the bedskirt, and cut.  When you get to the 'foot' of the bedskirt, don't cut through the ruffle.  Instead, cut along the ruffle to the side (corner) and continue the cut until you have a length of cloth with a ruffle on one side.

Take the length of fabric and fold it 'head' to 'foot' with the seam of the ruffle out towards you, and make a seam (stitch it together).  This results in a tube with a ruffle on the bottom.  Once you have done that, at the top of the tube, fold the top edge down and stitch it down around the top, making a casing or tube for a drawstring, leaving about half an inch unsewn by the seam.  Now your tube with the ruffle at the bottom has a casing running around the top edge, not closing it off.

Using a safety pin and about 2 yards of  narrow ribbon (about 1/2" wide ribbon is just fine), thread the ribbon through the casing you made in the top.  Once you have both ends of the ribbon in hand again, you can step into your new petticoat.  Quick, cheap and easy.  And it doesn't matter if you "don't know how to sew" to make this one!!


Big DON'T!!

Please, please PLEASE, don't throw on a satin prom dress and say it's a ball gown!  They didn't even wear things like that under their clothing, much less as clothing.  A lady would never think of wearing a strapless  or sleeveless dress, or a dress with spaghetti straps!  Everything had sleeves! And forget Gone With the Wind.  It was a movie.  Yes, it was based on a book, but one that was written in the 1930's!  What on earth makes anyone think that the book, much less the MOVIE is expert on the antebellum south?  A proper lady would never, ever wear short sleeves outside during the daytime!!  Heavens!  She might catch some sun!  That would absolutely ruin her completion, and her reputation, for all time.  Speaking of which - hat or parasol - one, the other or both.  Dire necessity!  No tan or sunburn ever!!


The calico question - let's settle it once and for all!

OK, something that apparently a lot of people are unaware of these days, is that in the 'South', calico was for the slaves and crackers.  You had to be real hard up to wear calico.  That was not the case out west.  The two areas are not the same.  If you are doing frontier, calico is fine.  If you are doing authentic CivWar re-enacting, and you are not dirt poor, calico is not fine.  I remember reading an excerpt from a letter that had been written home by an Army wife (from the South), having moved west with her husband when he was sent to the frontier.  In a letter to her mother back in Georgia, she confessed to pity for the poor wives of other officers - the dear ladies obviously were barely getting by, they actually had to wear calico!   Now, calico and sprigging are different colored horses.  A calico is usually multicolored, and most often has a dark background, although it is not a hard and fast rule. To use the vernacular of the day, it was 'vulgar, cheap, bright and appealing to children and the lower orders'.  Here are some examples of calico:



 Sprigging is almost always a single color, usually widely dispersed in a small print on a light colored, most often white or natural, background.  Sprigged muslin would be perfectly acceptable for a lady's dress, while calico would not be.  Stripes and plaids are acceptable, polka dots are not.  'Window pane' check was quite popular, as a matter of fact, but gingham was not.  In the deep south, gingham is used as kitchen decor - not clothing.   Here are some examples of sprigging.  I hope you can see the detail of the blue sprigging.  It is an almost PERFECT example.  But in this example (the blue), it is WHITE sprigging on a light blue background.  Gorgeous!  Wish I had enough to make a dress out of it.  However, I don't even know where I got it [grin].



Tiny prints are acceptable, large prints are not.   Getting the idea?  While the genteel south had odd ideas as to 'taste' and style, they were quite strict.  And if you really want to know what I mean by 'odd', try reading some of the descriptions from Harpers Weekly!!  Egads!  Some of the color combinations would curl your hair.