September 22, 2016

Getting Dressed in the 1860s

Have you ever wondered what it actually feels like to wear everything your great-great-great grandmothers wore when they were young ladies? What it feels like to walk around in these clothes in a place where no sign of modern life exists?
Ladies, I have the pleasure and honor to know!
I get to work at a historic site set in the mid-1800's, and this weekend I'm going to participate in my first full-scale reenactment. All while wearing 1860's fashion! I thought I'd share with you the process of getting the 1860's.


Chemise  Date: ca. 1856 Culture: American Medium: cotton Dimensions: [no dimensions available] Credit Line: Gift of the Misses Dorcas & Katherine Beer, 1941 Accession Number: C.I.41.125.22:

First to come on is the chemise, a loose white nightgown. If one were to dress in the 1860's for a full 24 hours, the chemise would also be one's nightgown. They're mostly pretty plain, though some have nice embroidery or lace. 


Drawers with eyelet lace trim, American or European, 1860s.:

Drawers are loose-fitting white pants that hit anywhere from your knees to mid-calf. Drawers tie or button around the waist, but there is no, er, crotch to them. Which makes any trips to the outhouse considerably easier!

Shoes and Stockings

Met Museum Date: 1855–65 Culture: French Medium: silk, leather Dimensions: Length: 9 1/2 in. (24.1 cm) Accession Number: 1978.319a, b:

Stockings could be black, white, or even striped or embroidered! They went to about the knee. Ankle boots like these were popular, as well as silk dancing slippers. It is a lot smarter to put shoes and stockings on before the corset. Although it's not impossible to do it after, it can be a lot more uncomfortable!


Image result for 1860s corset

The misconceptions end here. Corsets aren't unbearably comfortable if you know how to wear them right, and they don't have to turn you into an hourglass. In the 1860s, making your waist tiny wasn't necessarily the primary goal. Corsets do, however, make a big difference in how your whole outfit looks. You can definitely tell when someone is wearing modern underwear instead of a corset under a period dress. 
Corsets of the 1860s often had metal hooks like you can see in front and tied with laces in the back or on the sides. The cloth was a heavy, canvas-like material, and had there were busks, or flat sticks of whale bone or steel. Both are flexible and aren't uncomfortable unless they poke all the way through the canvas and into your skin. Yes, personal experience!


Ca.1860, and NOT by Eugene Atget. This has been passed around labelled "The Crinoline Shop, by Eugéne Atge, 1880," but that is obviously wrong. Eugéne Atget (note the final T) was born in 1857 and did not start taking photographs until the late 1880s, nor his famous street scenes until the end of the century. This image is clearly between 1860 and 1864 by the fashions - but it does appear to be French.:

Here comes the fun part: the hoopskirt. You can see one hanging in the upper left corner or the photograph, and the women are all wearing hoops under their dresses. Hoopskirts are a series of cloth-covered, concentric metal rings that you tie around your waist. Some people think this must be really heavy, but it isn't at all! It's the opposite of heavy; bouncy, light, and airy! 


Petticoat  Date: 1855–65 Culture: American Medium: cotton Dimensions: Length at CB: 41 1/2 in. (105.4 cm) Credit Line: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Edward Haynes, 1950 Accession Number: 2009.300.768  This artwork is not on display:

Before the hoopskirt was invented, women who wanted full skirts had to put on as many petticoats as they could muster (or afford!). But even after the hoopskirt became popular, petticoats were still essential, both for modesty's sake and to make sure the gaps between rings didn't show through the dress. Petticoats were often made out of white cotton, and could have fancy pleats and eyelets. Mine, alas, do not. 
After I finish putting my petticoats on, I feel pretty cool. It feels and looks cool to have a big, airy skirt with layers that swish around, and a snug corset and pretty chemise. :) But as I cannot hop off to the 19th century in my underwear, I must put one more thing on...


Mariquinha Junqueira, wifer of Counsrlor Junqueira. Brazil 1860.:

The world of 1860s dresses and gowns is large and varied, but on a basic level, they all cover the silhouette created by the corset and hoopskirt. And they are all gorgeous. :) Most button or hook up the front all the way to the neck. Ballgowns show a bit more skin. I sadly do not own one. :( You can see some accessories in the picture: a scalloped collar, a brooch, earings, a bracelet, and a fan.  And that, my friends, is how one gets dressed in the 1860s! 

Now for the answers to two questions I'm sure some of you are thinking:
a. Is it hot?
If I'm in the direct sun for a lengthy amount of time, yes. However, the layers are all cotton, and the hoopskirt allows air to circulate. Remember that when one is covered head to toe, they are not getting direct sunlight on the skin. That's why people in the desert cover up! The simple answer to this question is that I'm never much warmer than the modern person standing next to me. 
b. Is it fun to twirl?
Yes. :)

Does this post change your thoughts on 1860s fashion?
Did you have any questions to someone who is by no means an expert but an avid amateur? 
If you had the chance. in which era would you dress in all the layers?


  1. Oooh, this was fun!! I got excited when I saw the title. I think it's sooooo cool that you get to do historical reenactment. That sounds like so much fun. I hope you have a wonderful time this weekend!

    1. Thanks Rae! I did have a great time and lots of fun this weekend! :)