Monday, September 24, 2012

Imagine Them In Their Underwear

By Erin Doane, Curator

For the opening of the museum’s second exhibit in the Civil War Sesquicentennial series, Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Life on the Chemung County Home Front, I gave a presentation on what a woman would have worn during the Civil War.  My presentation showed the specific undergarments that were required to get the wide, belled skirts and narrow waists that were iconic of that period.

There’s the old advice that if you get nervous while public speaking that you should imagine your audience in their underwear.  In this case the tables were turned as I stood before the audience in my underwear - in my 1860s underwear, that is.  I began the presentation wearing a chemise, drawers and a corset.  From there I demonstrated how a woman would have gotten dressed. 

The chemise is the first item of clothing a woman would have put on in the 1860s.  It is a simple, shapeless garment like a slip that is worn next to the skin.  The popularity of wearing drawers increased somewhat at the time because of the hoop skirt.  Wearing drawers helped women avoid embarrassment in cases when their skirts caught on something or flipped up.  Drawers could be knee to ankle length and often had decorative lace.  Corsets at the time were relatively short and could be laced tightly to create a small waist.  Colored corsets were fairly common, including red ones.  Modesty petticoats were worn to provide another level of privacy under the hoop skirt and sometimes for warmth in the winter.

By the 1860s the hoopskirt was almost an essential piece of fashion.  Years earlier, six to eight petticoats were layered upon one another to create full skirts.  The use of the hoop allowed for very wide skirts without so much weight.  At the time, hoops were made of thin, flexible, light-weight steel bands.  The modern hoopskirt is made with plastic in place of the steel.  The hoop I was wearing measured 122” around the bottom.  Overtop of the hoop a woman wore another petticoat.  This petticoat was often made of a stiffer material like taffeta to smooth the lines of the hoop.  During the Civil War small bustles were also increasingly popular.  The bustle was like a narrow stuffed pillow tied at the back of the waist.


Many dresses of the Civil War era were two pieces, the skirt and the bodice.  The pieces were made to be worn together.  There was no mixing and matching of separates as is common today.  Many bodices had removable collars and undersleeves that could be washed or replaced.  Full sleeves on a bodice balanced out the width of the skirt and helped accentuate the narrow waist.  Without the various undergarments worn by women every day during the Civil War era, achieving the silhouette of that time would have been impossible.

1 comment:

  1. Is it well known at the Histororical Society that the words to the WWI song for which the current Civil War exhibit is named - "Keep the Home Fires Burning" - were written by a former Elmiran, Lena Gilbert Ford, an Elmira College alumna who was later killed in the war? The song was adopted as one of the traditional songs at the College and is still sung today.