What’s Under the Hoop?
I recently attended a Civil War presentation during which a female reenactor in period dress took a young woman from the audience to the front of the room and layered onto her (over the girl’s own clothes of course), the clothing a woman of the Civil War era would have worn.
Drawers—large, baggy short pants which went to just below the knee and were split for bathroom convenience. They were secured at the waist with a drawstring or buttons. As they were washed frequently, there was no decorative trim.
Chemise—was a shapeless, cotton garment which had a very wide neckline and fell to just above the knees. The chemise was worn over the drawers and under the corset. Its function was to absorb sweat and body oils and to keep both the corset and the inside of the dress clean. As it was also to be washed frequently it was a plain garment without trim.
Corset—had hooks and eyes in the front and laces in back. It was cinched up over the chemise and drawers. The image of Scarlett O’Hara having her corset tightened to a seventeen inch waist belongs in a later era. Waistlines of the period were normal in size. Also, not all women of the Civil War era wore corsets. Elderly women, reform dressers, the overweight and those too poor to afford such a fashion garment went without and without support, had sagging bosoms.
Corset Cover—also called a camisole.
Stockings—were made of cotton or wool. They encased the foot snuggly and rose to just above the knee. They came in white, black, colors and stripes.
Garters—were usually very plain consisting of an elastic band to hold the stockings in place.
Petticoat—the first one was worn under the hoop for modesty and to keep the dress clean by avoiding contact with the skin. They were very full at the hem and had a ruffle on the bottom. They were also heavily starched for more fullness. They were not trimmed either, so they could be washed and starched many times. The petticoat was held up by a drawstring at the waist. During winter they had flannel and even quilted petticoats. Victorians loved color and petticoats were sometimes made of colored fabric.
Hoops—or cage crinolines were shaped with boning made of watch-spring steel, steel bands or boning, with some low cost hoops made of rattan. Hoops came in various widths and number of bands. The smaller hoops were generally worn for evening and making social calls. Some were designed to be flatter in the front and bigger in the back. The widest hoops were worn for balls and other formal occasions. The wearing of hoops was reflective of a woman’s social standing. A smaller hoop or no hoop at all would be worn by working women. Nurses were forbidden to wear hoops as they needed to walk between rows of cots and could not have a boned sweep of a skirt flogging the wounded as she passed. Hoops were also dangerous around a fire. Laundresses, farm wives and cooks did not wear them. Instead, a simpler cotton day dress was worn with an apron and two layers of flounced petticoats to give the skirt fullness.
Petticoat—an over-the-hoop petticoat came next, to cover the hoop and give a smooth line to the skirt. Hoops can make the skirt look harsh and lumpy if it is not covered with a petticoat or flounces.
Skirt and bodice—came last. They were in 2-pieces, sewn with the same fabric and basted together. Sometimes a dress was worn where the bodice and skirt were gathered together into a single waist band. This was a functional dress used for getting serious work done. Bodices fastened in front with hooks and eyes or buttons. They were fitted tightly on the upper body and gathered into the waist band with pleats or darts. Shoulder seams hung down the arm and sleeves were full with extra fullness at the elbow with either a two piece coat sleeve or the cuff sleeve which was gathered at the shoulder and at the wrist into a cuff.
A woman would wear her hair parted in the middle and gathered into a bun. She might hold it in place with a hair net (they weren’t called snoods until the 1920’s), which closely matched her hair color. Collars were basted in place so they could be easily removed for washing. And a brooch might be pinned to the bodice if she were going out.