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.
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.