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Detail from painting of
Pauline, Princesse de Broglie, 1853,
Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres

 

 

 

What Shall I Wear?


Ballgowns and

Ladies' Evening & Formal Wear During the Civil War Era
by Kay Gnagey

 

Just as today, in the 1860's not everyone attended formal events regularly. Actually, depending on their socio-economic background, many people never attended any balls, dinner parties or similar events. But if we portray a fashionable person of upper or upper middle class or one aspiring to such, we will need to know what we should wear.

Looking through Godey's, Peterson's, or other period fashion publications, it can become confusing: there are ballgowns, dinner gowns, and evening gowns of all types. What to choose?

The rule of thumb is: The more formal the event, the more skin is shown.

But let's start with the types of events:

Dinnerdress

Fashionable Americans did not always change for dinner during our period. However, if there were guests or some festivity, they did. Dinner gowns may just be best day dresses or a type of high necked, long sleeved gown of fancier material. For more formal dinners, the gown may have a low body, and long or short sleeves. The variations are endless.

Another style, often worn for dinner, were very elaborate sheer white bodices with colored silk skirts.

Gloves are never worn for dinner. 

(Petersons, June 1861)
The dress at right is described as a "dinner dress". Particularly appropriate for a fashionable young lady, it features a pink silk skirt and a body of white muslin accented with black velvet.


Older women, and perhaps most women during the colder months, might have worn a fichu of lace or net with the low body. Another style was a lace canezou (jacket open in the front with a basque) over the low body. The fabrics chosen for a dinner dress were usually better, heavier, and of brilliant colors. The trims may be anything from lace to fringe. Married women often wore fancy dinner caps.

Godeys, 1861, p. 158, "Fichu of black and white lace for evening dress; it is trimmed between the rows of lace by narrow black velvet and a rosette of the same, with long loops, fastens it at the waist."

Eveningdress:

Peterson's, January 1862
Left: Evening dress of pink tulle,
Right: Ball gown of white tarletane,
trimmed with black lace.

For more formal evening entertainment, like the opera or formal receptions, but not balls, evening or formal gowns were worn. These were often very low, similar in look to ball gowns, but of heavier materials like velvet or heavy silk. Even though the usual neckline is a low boat, square necks were also worn.

The colors were mostly rich and brilliant, except perhaps for young misses. Pastel colored or white gloves should be worn. 


 

Ballgowns:
Note: Balls were very formal occasions and the dances put on for reenactors at reenactments, often outdoors, do not really qualify as such. They fit more with the "dinner dress" or "best summer dress" level of formality.

(Peterson's, January 1863)
Right:
Ball dress of white silk trimmed with quillings of white ribbon. The upper dress is of spotted lace trimmed with Vesuvius red ribbon.

Head-dress of blue cornflowers and blue velvet ribbon. (Note. the dress on the left is described as a "house dress").


For those who intend to dance at balls, lightness of the gown must be a consideration. For those who are perhaps older and rather sit out, the proper dress is an evening gown as described above. The age and marital status of the wearer must be taken into account when choosing the ball gown fabric and design.

All ages wore low bodies for ball gowns, much lower than we consider "proper" today. The neckline is usually a boat neck, where the top of the shoulders should be exposed. Square necklines are extremely rare. Often the design of the actual dress is very simple, but there is a profusion of trim tacked on with only large stitches. This allows the dress to be re-trimmed for a different look next time.

White or very light pastel colored gloves should always be worn when dancing, regardless of the dress color.

It appears that a vast majority of ballgowns were white and many of the rest were also of a light color. The lighting in a ballroom of the 1860's made any lady wearing a dark gown only visible as a "floating head".

Today we usually have electric lighting at these events, but the color choices we need to consider were made in the 1860's.

Just as today, people in the 1860's felt that certain styles and colors are more suitable for different age groups. And the period fashion periodicals and advice books are full of what was deemed suitable for whom. Some people followed this advice carefully, and others made do with what they had.

Diaries talk about re-making a mother's last year dress for the daughter, or even mother and daughter wearing dresses on alternating occasions. But the ideal described in the fashion periodicals is what people sought to emulate, so we do need to be familiar with it as living historians. And if we want to portray society ballgoers of the past, we also need to strive to emulate it:


(Peterson's, January 1861)
Both dresses are described as
"evening dresses", not ball gowns.

Fashion print from the early 1850s showing a older lady and a younger lady. The older lady also wears a low cut dress but she has accessorized it with a white lace fichu and sheer long sleeves. Her dress is pearl gray, a particularly popular color for older women.

The young woman wears a white dress trimmed with flowers.

Girls and young, unmarried women should wear frothy, pouffy tarlatan or sheer cotton, tulle, or similar designs. The colors should be light and delicate. The decoration should be flowers or something similar, metallic trims are not really suitable for this age group. Sashes of brilliant silk colors can be worn.

A very pretty option was to have a sheer white cotton over a stronger colored silk skirt.

A newly married woman of society, who had a white dress made for her wedding, was usually expected to wear her wedding gown for her ball gown for about one season. For this purpose, the wedding gowns, which were usually made with long sleeved high bodies, often had another low body and were re-trimmed with colored flowers instead of orange blossoms.

Married and mature women could choose brighter (jewel) colors for their ballgowns, however, white is also suitable. The trims are much richer, though, and metallic accents of gold and silver are appropriate. Pale colors suitable for older women particularly include pale gray and lavender. The designs are richer, but perhaps somewhat less fussy. Trims may be lace or any thing else that works. The fabrics should be light, ie. taffeta or something similar.

For a short while after the death of Queen Victoria's husband in 1861, black evening dresses and ballgowns were in fashion, but these were then often trimmed richly with glittering metallic trim to ensure visibility in the ballroom. Ladies in deep mourning did not attend balls.

Dresses which are not richly trimmed may be "dressed up" with lacy fichus or small lace capes or lace jackets, which again is also a solution for those who do not wish to expose that much skin.

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