Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Civil War Fashion at Strawbery Banke

Alexa Price
Strawbery Banke Curatorial Intern, summer 2011

Last week Salem State University held a one-week intensive class at Strawbery Banke, taught by Chief Curator Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D. and Professor Dane Morrison, focusing on New England's contribution to the Civil War. On Tuesday I was asked to do a brief presentation on clothing during the war era, and in preparation I had the chance to look at some wonderful pieces in the Strawbery Banke collections! I thought I would share my photographs of those pieces with our readers.

This blue silk gown is an exquisite piece of 1860s day wear, with gathered self-fabric trim at the dropped shoulders, fringed pagoda sleeves and acorn tassels at the front closure. The pattern is a fashionable one for the time, when large plaids and stripes were popular for women's clothing. The bodice is fitted with darts in the front, placed directly over two bold blue stripes and causing them to taper down towards the skirt, adding to the illusion of a small waist. Interestingly, women in the 1860s did not wear tight-laced corsets to achieve their figures, unlike the fashions of the later 19th century. Rather, corsets mainly provided support while dropped shoulder seams and hoops worn under the skirts made the waist look smaller by comparison. We unfortunately did not have a hoop to display this dress over, so I will have to leave that to your imagination.

Be sure to zoom in on the photographs for a look at the decorative details of this gown-it is well worth it.


This is a simpler day gown, from the very late 1850s or very early 1860s. The cut of the dress is the same as the blue gown, and again the bodice is fitted with darts in the front, but it lacks any form of ornamentation. The bodice has bishop sleeves, a more practical style than the flared pagoda. This particular dress is made from textured silk, but similar gowns with darted or gathered bodices could be made from cotton or calico prints, depending on one's financial means.
The less expensive cotton gowns would be what you might expect to see in a Civil War encampment, if a woman were following her husband in the army. Gathered bishop sleeves were more practical for working in camp; also, hoops were very impractical and would not be worn. The hoop had its dissenters, as working women would have known well. In one example from 1860, a mill owner put out a statement that, "It is always a pleasure for us to see our workpeople, and especially our comely young women, dressed NEAT and TIDY.[but] the present ugly fashion of HOOPS. is almost impossible and highly dangerous. We now request all our Hands, at our Factory to leave HOOPS AND CRINOLINE at home" (http://www.blockaderunner.com/nlc/info.html)


Strawbery Banke also owns a young lady's gown from c. 1840, which I included because it shares some features with young ladies' fashion during the Civil War. Girls and young teenagers could wear gowns with short sleeves, as this example shows. Skirts were also shorter for young people, starting below the knee for girls, and extending gradually to ankle-length by the age of 18. Girls generally did not wear hoops, only enough petticoats to hold their skirts out to a generous size.


And finally, a detail shot of a layered and fringed pagoda sleeve on a deaccessioned gown from Strawbery Banke. The silk is shattering badly on this gown, but it makes an amazing study piece. The pattern is unusual, being almost a watercolor-look broken impression of a plaid!

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