Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Adventures In Women’s Underwear

Or: What a Man Needs to Know about Dressing a Woman

It is a typical scenario: a man comfortable in military impressions meets a nice woman. They fall in love, or at least deep like. He wishes to interest her in his fascinating hobby, and suggests she attend an event or two. She agrees, and he sets about finding some clothes for her to wear.

That should be pretty easy, right? After all, she just needs a dress.

That’s rather like saying a military impression just needs some sort of gun.

Any gun, really.

Squirt gun, Mauser, Jiminy Cricket rifle—a gun is a gun, isn’t it?

The reality is, creating a functional, accurate woman’s wardrobe for the mid-century is a multi-step process, and should command just as much research and attention as creating an accurate military impression. This brief article serves as an overview only, but includes the basics of what to look for, and why.

From the Skin Out
A woman’s wardrobe is a system that works from the skin out. Fully dressed for a day or work or pleasure, the average working class woman (to be paired with an average private soldier, socially) will don:

Chemise: a white cotton undergarment with a wide neckline, short sleeves, and mid-thigh to knee length hem, cut full in the body.

Stockings: knee or above-knee length, natural fibers.

Garters: knit or elastic garters to support stockings; garters may be worn below or above the knee as a matter of personal preference.

Shoes: shoe or boot style appropriate for women.

Corset: the supportive undergarment, firming the torso and supporting the breasts. This needs to be custom-fit to her figure, and should not be purchased “off the rack”.

Drawers: white cotton, mid-calf hem, split crutch seam, full in the body–and also, optional, though if she’s wearing a hoop, it’s more required than if the impression is for pre-1857.

Petticoat The First: mid-calf hem, moderately full-gathered (90” to 120” or so) on a fitted band.

Skirt support: small to moderate cage or hoop (85” to 115”), ending at mid-calf and set on a fitted waistband.

Underskirts (Or, Petticoats the Second and Third): one to two full-gathered (150” to 180”) underskirts give loft to the dress and soften any hoop lines. (These are often well-starched.)

Dress: for the working class, typically a wool or printed cotton with a fitted bodice, bishop or shaped coat sleeves, high neckline, full skirts set onto the bodice. Dresses do need customized fitting, and are difficult to purchase off the rack.

White Accessories & Protective Accessories: white collar and cuff or undersleeve basted into the dress to protect it from body oil and grime. Neckerchiefs may be used for an active working impression (such as farming, cleaning, factory-work, etc). Half-aprons ending in a band at the waist, or pinner aprons with a pinned-up bib, are vital if there is work to be done. Remember, dresses are not so easily laundered as undergarments and accessory pieces. A functional mid-century wardrobe might have a total of three dresses, but seven or more sets of undergarments and accessory items.

Headwear: a sunbonnet, fashion bonnet, or warm winter hood, depending on environmental requirements.

Wrap: a large wool shawl with fringed hems all around is a very basic outer wrap for any wardrobe.

Additional outer and undergarments may be required for cold weather.

Fabrics
Every garment should be made in 100% natural fibers (silk, wool, cotton, or linen.) White cotton is very common for everyday undergarments, with the addition of wool flannel for cold weather undergarments.

The wardrobe items should be acquired or made in the order listed above. Dresses come after all undergarments, as the dressmaker (whether at home or hired) needs to take measurements over all the underlayers for the most accurate fit. Indeed, reputable historic dressmakers will not usually make a bodice over an uncorseted figure.

What To Look For
Only a few highly-accurate women’s clothing makers attend events. The individualized nature of female clothing mid-century makes stocking accurate clothing fairly complex. Do Not Send Your Beloved To Merchant Row In Person or On-Line Without An Experienced Female Mentor. Doing so is a sure plan for spending a great deal of money on a great deal of useless farb, as the majority of merchants at non-juried-vendor events do not carry accurate items.

Becoming an educated customer is vital, and the best way to do that is to follow the same process you used as a military person: view as many original garments and images as possible, and look for merchants who replicate those items as closely as possible. If a merchant advertises that they replicate garments, and has pictures of originals and their goods, evaluate the two very closely for consistency; some wishing to sell to history-heavy markets tout their “based on originals” status, but fail utterly in the execution, while others do a truly superb job.

Beware any merchant using the following key words and characteristics:

  • Machine gauged skirts (this is not possible, mechanically)
  • Poly-cotton for easy care
  • Wool blend
  • Artificial silk
  • “Zouave” dress or “Garibaldi” dress, particularly if done in cotton prints
  • Dresses with less than 150” in the skirt circumference
  • Belts in cotton
  • Blouses for women
  • Tuck-in white bodices that are not see-through/sheer.
  • Low-cost items with lace—it is sure to be polyester/nylon
  • Colored lace
  • Skirts sold un-hemmed
  • Only bust and waist measurements are requested
  • Drawstrings
  • Cotton print bodices separate from cotton print skirts
  • Solid-color cotton garments
  • Zippers, Velcro, or snaps at any point
  • Tent-grommets at back lacing closures
  • Images of the makers that look like “reenactors” rather than The Original Cast.

What To Budget
Women’s clothing requires a good amount of time. If you are buying ready-made or custom-sewn clothing, you can expect to pay for skilled labor rates on every item. If budget is a large concern, you or your beloved need to consider learning a few basic sewing skills, and making at least a portion of the wardrobe at home—undergarments such as chemise, drawers, and petticoats are an ideal way to learn historic sewing.

The average prices listed here are taken from the current listings of merchants whom I consider to have a high degree of accuracy and quality, with good-value pricing. Home sewing prices include a national-average cost for fabric allowances and patterns. See the Resource list at the end of the article for pattern companies.

Chemises: $50-$80 each. Need not be custom cut in most cases and generally safe to purchase ready-made. If made at home with a purchased historic pattern, allow $25 for the first chemise, and $5 ($15 for Pimatex broadcloth) each after that.

Drawers: $50-$70 each. Some degree of customization is necessary to accommodate individual body depth and inseam length. If made at home with a purchased historic pattern, allow $25 for the first pair of drawers, and $5 ($15 for Pimatex broadcloth) each after that.

Corset: $100-$200 labor. This is a highly individual garment, and needs to be custom cut and fit. It is very possible to learn to fit and construct a corset at home if you and your beloved are so inclined; see the Resource section for educational helps.

Petticoats and Underskirts: $50-$100 each. These may need some slight customization, mostly in a fitted waistband measurements and length adjustment to suit her figure, but they can generally be safely purchase ready-made. Keep in mind that a full outfit needs one petticoat and one or more underskirts. Petticoats and underskirts do not require a purchased pattern (see the Resource section for free pattern options), and can be made at home for under $10 each ($40 if using Pimatex broadcloth).

Skirt Support: cage crinolines and hoops, ready-made, run between $85 and $300. Along with the corset, this is another investment piece. Kits are available in the $70-$200 range, and patterns plus supplies will generally run around $60-$80.

Dress: $150-$300 in labor, depending on the complexity of fitting and style demands, plus additional fabric costs. A really good historic cotton print can average $11-$15 per yard; a dress takes 7.5 to 8 yards generally.

Accessories: $20-$30 for collars, cuffs, and undersleeves (each piece; most dressmakers give a small discount on matched sets); aprons in the $30-$50 range. Made at home, allow $20 for the first set of white accessories, $6 thereafter; $15 for the first apron, $5 thereafter.

Headwear: $40-$60 sunbonnets; $110-$200 completed fashion bonnets; $60-$120fashion bonnet blanks and semi-finished bonnets; $100-$200 winter hoods. Sunbonnets and winter hoods can be made very inexpensively ($5-$30) at home with purchased patterns or free on-line instructional materials.

Home sewing costs vary, of course. Here’s a quick breakdown of supplies for a winter hood, for instance, compiled by Anna Worden-Bauersmith: 1/2 yard silk ($7.50 – $10.00 est); 1/2 yard period cotton print or polished cotton ($5-$7.50); wool wadding – $2-$4); thread ($1 on a good sale, $3-$4 regularly); silk ties 1 yard ($4+).

Wraps: a simple shawl can be made by those without sewing experience for the cost of two yards of wool fabric.

Shoes: accurate repro shoes run between $80 and $150.

Stockings: $6-$10 per pair

Garters: $8-$20 per pair

All told, if you are purchasing every garment from a highly-accurate merchant or seamstress, you’ll spend between $1070 and $1750 on a wardrobe for a weekend-long event (three sets chemise/drawers, one set petticoats, skirt support, corset, accessories, dress, outerwear).

Blending specific purchases and homemade items, you’ll spend between $400 and $650.

The more home-sewn items you’re willing to undertake, the lower the total can go—as low as $180 with careful planning.

What If She Hates It?
Yes, there is that possibility. Not every woman finds living history fascinating. There’s nothing wrong with having a separate hobby from your significant other—just be prepared for her to take up something with equal time and budget factors to your chosen obsession/hobby. If you have children, and wish this to be a family hobby, plan to adopt a citizen’s impression for at least a portion of your event weekends; otherwise, many women find their portion of the hobby to be Regular Life, Less Convenient, and you may encounter vast resistance.

If there is any doubt in your mind that she will love the hobby, it is best to wait on acquiring a wardrobe. Instead, find a citizen-oriented group to take her under wing, and fit her out for an event or two from the loaner wardrobe box. (Be sure the citizen’s group is as focused on accuracy as your own group! After the work and expense of putting together an accurate military impression, don’t spoil it by stepping out with someone dressed in borrowed farbery.) Loaner clothing will not fit so well as her own wardrobe, but it’s a great way to get started, allowing her the fun of dressing out and getting to know people, with a much smaller budget outlay right at the first.

Most citizen’s groups are happy to provide mentoring, and many have between-event sewing days and other activities designed to help your beloved create many of her own wardrobe items, even if she has no background in sewing.

Women’s Wardrobe Resources

Pattern Lines for Home or Hired Sewing

Discussion Forums & Educational Opportunities

Additionally, some dressmakers will teach sewing classes.

And yes, this is the short, glossy overview. Women’s clothing encompasses a huge range and variety (we have no “uniform” to speak of!). There is something accurate for every personality and personal budget, but the undertaking is not a small one. Your beloved deserves as much consideration in her own things as you do in yours.

Don’t fail her with farb.

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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