Women's Dress Basics

This is a very basic overview of women's dress worn in the mid 19th century.   For more detailed information, please look at our other authenticity guidelines or visit the Links page.

  •  Most dresses worn during the day were made of cotton,  wool, silk, or a combination of these fibers.   Cotton dresses should be made of period correct prints.  Those are widely available in all good quilt shops. Hancock Fabrics usually carries nice period cottons at affordable prices.

  • If made of wool or silk, the dress bodice was always worn quite fitted.  Ideally, cotton bodices should be gathered.  Darted cotton dresses did exist, but they were less common and should not be worn with fashion bonnets or dressy shawls.  A cotton dress can be worn with a slat or corded bonnet, or a plain straw bonnet.  some women wore cotton "work" or "wash" dresses over smaller cages or hoops; there is documentation for servants who annoyed their employers by knocking over knick knacks while dusting in their hoops.  Work dresses can also be worn over  corded petticoats, but please be aware that we are still researching this topic.
  • Most cotton dresses were made with a full gathered sleeve (sometimes called bishop sleeves.)  Coat sleeves were also very popular.  Pagoda sleeves were more popular in the late 1850s and should be  saved for finer fabrics such as silk, a very fine sheer cotton or wool. Pagoda sleeves are never appropriate for printed cottons or calicoes.   (Just imagine doing laundry or cooking over a fire with pagoda sleeves!)
  • Skirts are very full;  pleated or gauged to the bodice.  They should be long enough to hide the ankles but short enough to permit walking and working.  1 1/2 to 3" off the ground is about right for most ladies.
  • A small white collar (usually around 1 - 1 1/2" wide) or a neck-kerchief and white cuffs. These should be removed frequently for cleaning.
  • For women, dresses worn during the day  should fasten in the front either with hooks and eyes and/or buttons.  Shank buttons could be sewn to the front for decoration while the bodice itself fastens with hooks and eyes. For girls and young teens, dresses fasten in the back.  Low bodied evening gowns are usually fastened in the back.  Low necks should never be worn during the day. 
  • A ribbon cravat or a broochworn at the neck makes a nice touch.  Earrings can be small gold hoops or "bobs," but they should always be pierced. 

  • Please, no modern undergarments or shoes.  Please wear a chemise and several (not just one) petticoats.  Two are usually a minimum.  While it is true that not every Civil War era lady wore a corset, absolutely none ever wore a bra.  The lines of modern undergarments show very clearly.
  • I'll also add that women did NOT have bangs and almost always parted their hair in the middle. It's pretty rare to see a girl with her hair parted on the side. Little girls usually had short hair, but then started to grow it out as they got older so they could pull it back.  Please do not wear a snood.  A fine hairnet is lovely, especially on a pretty pleated ribbon.

  • Please, no modern makeup; yes, it does show.   And you will look beautiful without it.  Trust us!  "Sun remedy" is certainly a good idea.  Please, no modern spectacles, no cigarettes, no cell phones.  Keep your modern health and other necessities well hidden.

  • There are many excellent shoe makers who reproduce Civil War era ladies' footwear.  (See Links page).  Until you can afford a good pair, you might look for a plain lace-up ankle boot and remove the "speed laces."  These days nice plain black ballerina flats are widely available at very good prices.  You should wear plain white stockings (we have found no documentation for striped stockings.)   You can find good cotton knee-highs at the Vermont Country store and at many internet sites.
Click on the pictures for a larger view.

Lady with solid color dress probably wool with trim on coat sleeves and bodice.

Basic printed dress, probably darted bodice with fitted sleeves and a large puff at the top.

Very nice dress with large pagoda sleeves and white undersleeves worn for better occasions or perhaps this is an upper middle class woman.

Another basic printed dress. Coat sleeves, darted bodice, collar and cravat.

Basic print dress with gathered bodice, gathered bishop sleeves, collar and it looks like she's wearing wristlets.

Here's a lady wearing a stand-up collar. These were worn more towards the end of the war.

Nice simple dress with minimal trim and she's wearing a large cravat.

More of a fancier dress with lots of trim on the bodice and coat sleeves.

Short sleeves weren't worn during the day, unless they were worn by a little girl or teenager. And that goes for low necklines as well, unless she was young.

That brings me to another type of dress, which is made of sheer fabric. Here's a perfect example:

This would be appropriate to wear any time of the day and it's especially nice during hot weather.

(Note: Not all of these images are from the Midwest.)