Civil War Chic

When looking at some clothing trends of today, with their bright colors and patterns, daring necklines, couture price tags and sometimes general wackiness, it’s hard to imagine how far fashion has actually come.

Silk Ikat dress, ca. 1855. Ikat is a dyeing technique that makes the pattern in fabric. Photo by Mary D. Doering.

According to Mary D. Doering, an heirloom-clothing collector, despite the trauma imposed by the Civil War, the mid-19th century witnessed the development of ready-to-wear garments and the growth of urban department stores, both of which were essential contributions to the modern American fashion industry.

Doering delivered a lecture at the Library of Congress last month discussing fashions from the period of 1855 to 1870, with an emphasis on the Northern states. She also addressed the evolution of the garments’ styles, the accompanying foundations, related technology and media marketing.

Technological innovations had much to do with the culture of clothing during the era. The growth of the mill and the Industrial Revolution were essential in providing fabric and democratizing fashion by making it affordable.

“In the 19th century, pricing was based on the volume of textiles used, which allowed for more modest pricing,” said Doering.

Roller printing technology ensured that the replication of patterns could be printed on cotton cloth – a technique that was also less labor intensive than hard woodblock printing. In addition, the invention of the power loom and sewing machine made for rapid production of clothing items.

Much like today, fashion magazines aided in marketing the clothing. Godey’s Lady’s Book, founded in 1830, was a leader in the industry. Almost every issue included an illustration and pattern – like ones from Butterick – with measurements for a garment to be sewn at home.

“Godey’s had a national distribution,” said Doering. “The railroad and improvement of transportation methods evened the playing field in reaching a broad spectrum of the population.”

Godey’s success inspired other publications, including Peterson’s Magazine and Graham’s Magazine, of which Edgar Allan Poe was editor from 1841-1842.

Thanks to the fashion media, designers were coming into their own, as well as retailers.

Godey’s fashions for February 1865. Prints and Photographs Division.

“Fashion advertisements tended to be generic, but you would also see specific retailers referenced,” said Doering.

One of the principal department stores of the time was A.T. Stewart Department Store in New York. According to Doering, A.T. Stewart’s was not only a place to shop but also a travel destination.

“It occupied a whole city block,” said Doering. “Women would make a pilgrimage to visit.”

Mail order sales were also becoming increasingly popular, and Marshall Field’s was an innovative leader.

So, what did fashion of the Civil War era actually look like? Doering brought several examples of dresses, separates and other accessories. One could not talk about this period without highlighting the hoop skirt, which personified the fashion of the time.

“It was innovative because women could reduce the number of petticoats,” she explained.

Style-wise, pagoda-like sleeves, military-inspired details and white-shirt separates were very popular.

“By the time of the Civil War, women’s undergarments also became more decorative and feminine,” said Doering.

One of the garments Doering showcased was a corset that featured an 18-inch circumference, expandable to 20 inches.

“That’s about the circumference of a roll of Bounty paper towels,” she said.

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