Civil War Dress On A Budget

A simple cotton everyday dress is usually the least expensive and most versatile option to start your reenacting impression. You can dress it down for a working impression, and dress it up for a tea or barn dance.

When working with a small budget it helps to check with reenacting friends or online reenactor forums to see if you can get items used. Patterns, fabric, shoes, even ready-made garments may all be available for free or a significant discount.

It is also helpful to check with these forums to make sure you're choosing appropriate fabric for your dress. These groups are invaluable for advice on how to sew 1860s clothing. Some modern sewing techniques were not used in the 19th century.

In order to make your dress fit properly, you must create your undergarments first. Your biggest investment will be a corset and cage. With the exception of the corset and cage, undergarments are fairly easy and cheap for a beginning seamstress to sew. And if you make minor mistakes, well, no one sees your undergarments!

Be sure to choose white, 100% cotton fabric. White was most easily laundered in the 1860s, and undergarments were laundered frequently. Cotton will breath and provide the most comfort against your skin. Even a blend that includes polyester will be hot and uncomfortable. White 100% cotton is the best choice.

This free handout is available for you to print as many copies as you'd like. It's great for teas, reenactments, workshops, you name it!





Corset

A custom-fitted corset is often better than one off-the-shelf. Only get an off-the-shelf corset if you can try it on in person and the vendor has a good return/alteration policy. A corset is a necessity to give your body the correct shape for the 1860s, and support your clothing comfortably. Because a good custom corset is labor-intensive, it will cost around $100-$200 unless you make it yourself.

Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Moderate-Hard


Cage or Hoop Skirt

Sew It Yourself 


Chemise

A chemise is the first layer you put on and it protects your body from being rubbed by your garments - and protects your garments from your persperation. You will want 100% cotton as it breathes the best. Pimatex cotton broadcloth is the closest modern fabric to the fabrics used on original underpinnings. 

Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Easy-Moderate

Drawers

1860s drawers were crotchless, which makes using the facilities much easier! (Yes, this is both modest and comfortable.) They were typically on a fitted waistband that buttoned. You will want 100% cotton as it breathes the best. Pimatex cotton broadcloth is the closest modern fabric to the fabrics used on original underpinnings.

Sew It Yourself 
Difficulty Level: Easy-Moderate
The Sewing Academy free pattern
Past Patterns 706  (Includes Petticoat pattern)

Buy It

Petticoats

A petticoat or two smooths the outline of your skirt against your cage. An under-petticoat helps with modesty when your skirt inevitably swishes around. If you choose to go without a cage while doing heavy chores, your petticoats will definitely need to be starched to hold their shape.

Sew It Yourself 
Difficulty Level: Easy

Buy It




Stockings

Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Moderate

Buy It
Generic cotton or wool knee socks are an easy choice to start with. Black or white are safe colors. Some stockings were patterned but make sure you choose a design that looks authentic. See our Stockings page for more info. 


Boots

Used or "good enough to pass" new boots can be as low as $20. Look for leather, very low heel or no heel, square toes. Both button-up and lace-up styles were common. No zippers, logos, or obvious plastic or nylon pieces.

Plain everyday "wear in the street or the dirt" boots would generally be brown or black leather. However, many colors could be worn for nicer boots made of either leather or silk. 

If you choose to invest in authentic boots, here are some vendors:
American Duchess
Fugawee
Blockade Runner

Dress

Early 1860s styles aimed for the "hourglass look." The top of the dress (the "bodice" or "body") was well fitted with dropped shoulders. The waist was defined and sat smoothly on the corset underneath. The waistline was just below the modern bra line. The skirt was very full, usually worn over a cage or hoop skirt and the hem touched or nearly touched the ground. For most types of outfits (including everyday cotton dresses) the bodice and the skirt fabric matched.


If you’ve never sewn an 1860s dress, even if you’re an accomplished seamstress, it is recommended you join one of the reenacting forums listed on our website for discussion on period sewing methods. These methods will make a big difference in how the dress fits, sits and looks.

Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Moderate-Hard
Cotton or Wool Fabric - 2-3 yards for the bodice, 5 yards for the skirt 
Notions - thread, hooks & eyes, piping cord

Collar and Cuffs


Collars are not optional on 1860s dresses. Cuffs were nearly always present as well, though not always visible. Collars are tacked on to the dress and can be easily removed for laundering. Pima cotton batiste is the closest modern fabric to the fabrics used on original collars and cuffs.

Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Moderate

OPTIONAL ACCESSORIES

HANDKERCHIEF
Every lady, rich or poor, had a hanky. 1860s handkerchiefs were large, at least 12" square and often larger. Simple fine muslin or linen with a rolled hem is sufficient. See our handkerchiefs page for more info.

PURSE
Be sure to sew pockets in your dress for items such as keys, phone, wallet. If you need to carry more, there are a number of options for period-correct purses. Note - Haversacks are for soldiers and not appropriate for women to carry.

Poche Pompadour - This traveling purse appears in Godey's Lady's Book, December 1864.

Basket - A period-appropriate basket is useful for hiding larger items or for shopping. Read the linked article for details on 1860s baskets.

Small Reticule - Fashion magazines had a number of patterns for small reticules, miser's purses, etc. These were mostly for show and only held very small items such as coins, hankies or keys. Patterns, supplies and ready-made reticules available at Barnyard Biddy.

BELT
Simple belts can be made of the dress fabric itself. Finish the edges and close with a hook and eye.
Belts can also be made from nice silk or petersham ribbon and a buckle. See our Belts Page for more info and buckle vendors.

APRON
Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Easy

SHAWL
Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Easy
4'-5' X 4'-5' piece of wool, optional fringed edge

SONTAG
Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Moderate

GLOVES
Look for used leather or cotton gloves in antique stores. They should fit snugly and be wrist-length.
The Glove Goddess also carries vintage gloves.

BONNET
Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Easy-Moderate
See the pattern for instructions on fabric and notions