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"Peeling Onions", by Lilly Martin Spencer, 1862 (Original in the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester, New York)

 
 


More About "Work Dresses" of the Civil War Era:
What is a "work dress"? On this site we've discussed the vexed question of "work" versus "day" dresses in our workdress and daydress sections, as we have used that terminology merely because it has come to mean a certain thing to modern-day reenactors.

By "work dress" nowadays we generally mean an everyday sort of dress, made of cotton calico or homespun for less formal wear, as opposed to a more ornately trimmed calico, or a dress of silk, fine wool or a silk-wool blend. However, the line of distinction is more complicated than that. For example, there were "day dresses" made out of homespun by patriotic young ladies in the South in the early years of the Civil War, they sometimes put elaborate trim (1) on dresses made of the lowly homespun, to show their independence of the northern cloth mills.

In contrast, the work dress of a fashionable dressmaker would probably be silk, as might that of a governess to a wealthy family.

A frequently used period term for cotton work dresses was "wash dresses" -- e.g. dresses that could be washed without fear of them shrinking or coming apart.

Detail from Lilly Martin Spencer's
"Kiss Me And You'll Kiss The Lasses", (1856) one of three famous paintings showing kitchen maids in short or rolled up sleeves and lower necklines, presumably because to make cooking over a fire more comfortable? Very odd - from this angle it almost looks like she's cooking in a balldress! (Not recommended!)

The look usually sought in the reenacting community is the middle to lower middle class look frequently depicted in Carte de Visite photography of a cotton calico or perhaps homespun dress, with a high round "jewel" neckline, long sleeves (either "bishop" or "coat" style), and detachable small white collar to prevent the dresses from being soiled. Studies of contemporary photography, particularly in Juanita Leisch's seminal work, Who Wore What, suggest that this look was undoubtedly the "norm" among those social classes who could afford photography -- the upper working class and points upward on the social scale.

On the other hand, everyday working wear for a rural woman or a kitchen maid doing their chores might have been somewhat different. A number of contemporary images show these women in short sleeved (!) dresses, with lower or "v" necklines, or with their sleeves rolled up, wearing either a neckerchief or nothing at the neck instead of the usual detachable white collar.

Dresses for working wear were also sometimes made of fabrics other than cotton, particularly in the winter. Linsey-woolsey, a linen-wool blend more common in earlier eras was still used (although linen was less common in the South), but probably associated with a poorer social class. In one account a former slave refers to having hated her linsey woolsey dresses as to her they were a badge of slavery. Wool was undoubtedly worn in winter, probably of a coarser grade than the fine woolens used in better dresses. The image above of a "Ladies Working Dress" from Godeys (July 1859) suggests that it be made in a shepherd's check (a black and white small woolen check).

Although paintings and other sources suggest rather a different type of apparel for hard physical labor than what we think of today as a cotton "work dress", the circumstances in which recreating these dresses would fit in with modern reenacting events are somewhat limited. Unless one is actually working at a living history farm or otherwise giving a demonstration of working life, it is generally safer to focus on the kind of clothing a working woman would have worn when out in public -- e.g. the standard long sleeved one piece cotton frock with a jewel neckline and white collar.

While Juanita Leisch in her extensive study concludes that people did not "dress for the photographer" per se, they DID generally put on better (or at least not their grungiest) clothing to go into town, and that is where the photographers generally had their studios. This is probably why we seldom see period photographs of people in clothing like that shown in the Lilly Martin Spencer paintings or the 1859 Godey work dress illustration.

At most events we are portraying people "out in public." Therefore, while the above variants on "working" clothing make for a compelling area of study, I do not mean to suggest that reenactors should dress like this other than in very limited situations. After all, aren't we trying to portray the "norm"?

(Above article contributed by Kathryn Coombs)

 

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Footnotes:

1. One of the dresses documented by clothing historian Vicki Betts, in her study of homespun dresses presented at the Southern Conference in July 2000 was of this type. (Note: this study is not presently online but Ms. Betts is working on a website with an institution of higher learning in Texas which we will link to when it is available).


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