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Abraham's Lady

An educational guide for Civil War
Shopping and Reenacting

The Right Construction Details of Clothing


Dress Your Age
Certain aspects of fashion are followed by all ages and classes of society. But like today, the young have the most desire to be fashionable, middle and poor classes of married women tending their families’ needs would not have the desire or means to be high fashion conscious. (If you were 30 years old, according to the stats of the 19th century, you were already middle aged! Don’t get mad at me I am only quoting an original 1860’s article from Ballou’s Monthly Magazine published in Boston, MA.) Society expected you to dress according to your age. Check the types of somber looking dresses ladies of middle age and beyond wore to help plan your wardrobe.

A Note on Fabric
Metal rollers used to print the cloth were used since just before the 1820’s. Cloth using more than one color in its design had to be passed through the machine that many times. Each time a color was added the cloth became more expensive. When you are looking at a camp dress keep in mind how many colors the cloth has. Dress fabric employing more than 3 colors would be put to better use in a day dress. It just makes economic sense.

Clothing that has the right look should possess some if not all of the following characteristics:

  • Camp dresses
    This is a modern term used within the hobby to identify a dress which is commonly worn for labor. The bodice and skirt are attached. Looking at the inside of the bodice, the skirt is mounted on a waistband and the bodice is stitched on top hiding the waistband. It should not be attached like you see 20th century clothing. The skirt of originals examined are usually about 100 inches at the bottom. These dresses should be of sturdy cotton, the bodice lined, and durably constructed to bring you many seasons of service.
  • Day Dresses
    The bodice and skirt may be attached, but a middle class woman would have had more than one bodice per dress such as a day, dinner, and ball gown bodice. This helped her expand her wardrobe and would be a smart choice for you too. Day dresses seen in many photos are generally plain compared to any fashion engraving you see. The sleeves are generally not all that different from most camp dresses, the bishop and the coat style sleeve being the most popular for plainer dresses. Dresses worn by the upper middle classes generally had fuller skirts made from rich materials such as silks and moires. Dresses were trimmed with ruffles on the skirt and sleeves, or lavish bodice decorations, and often, pagoda sleeves.

General Construction Details

Stitches are important. Machine stitching is used on reproductions because of its time saving attributes. This does not make you wrong by using one. Sewing machines have been used since the late 1850’s in households that could afford them. (Wilcox and Gibbs offered one model for $25 on the installment plan). Examples of machine applied trim has been found on originals. You should be conscious of the stitch lengths used. Any machine stitched originals I have seen had small stitches - about 10 - 16 to the inch. Sturdy reproduction clothing of any quality should also be done with close stitches.

Bodices were close fitting. (Gain 5 pounds and you are altering it) Even the gathered bodices hung on a fitted lining. Not to do so would result in a sloppy looking, ill-fitting dress, If you do not wear the proper undergarment and corset you will not achieve the correct period silhouette (already mentioned earlier.)

Piping was common! Some researchers say some bodices were piped and some were not. I have seen more originals piped than unpiped, so you are best off to stick with the research results. Piped seams added body to the garment. If you have a decently made dress in your hand it should have the neck, armholes, and waistline piped. The seams should be rolled under and hand hemmed onto the lining at the waist and neck.

Hooks & Eyes
Hooks and eyes or buttons close the front closing bodice. Snaps, zippers and velcro were not used.

Buttons should be wood, vegetable ivory (from the nut from the Corozo palm tree which grows in South America). genuine ivory, horn, pottery, bone and jet (mined in Whitby England, from petrified materials - black in color), pewter, pearl (majority imported from Germany), silver, brass, enamel, cloth covered or glass - no plastic! Button holes should be hand finished unless the buttons are used for decorative purposes instead of functional. Buttons used were shank styles, two, four and in the case of some bone buttons, five holes. Typically four hole buttons were stitched with an “X” pattern. Horizontal stitching came from machine mounted button holes. Get a button book to see examples of 19th century buttons. You will be surprised at the variety. Keep away from plastic, even if the plastic is made to look like a natural material.

See Abraham's Lady's Selection of Buttons

Even work dresses were lined. White cotton, tan, or even a print from an old dress or sheeting has been used in originals. The lining and fashion layers were treated as one. You will see seams as you look inside. If you see the bodice is finished like a coat or 20th century dress, steer clear. Alterations will be a nightmare later. Two layers of cloth give more strength to a tight fitting bodice than one done in this fashion.

Seam Construction
The inside bodice should have the seams finished in some way - overcast by hand is ideal. The bodice should have covered boning, attached to the seam allowances to add shape to the garment. Some will argue that not all bodices were boned, but a majority were, and a boned bodice will give a smoother fit.

See Abraham's Lady's selection of metal stays

Vertical darts were used in the bodice shaping only. The horizontal bust dart from under the arm is a 20th century design. Four bust darts extending from the waist was common after 1856. Six darted bodices went out of vogue by 1857. A gathered bodice will have the fashion fabric gathered in place of darts, but the lining will have darts for shaping. If you see anything to the contrary, think twice about purchasing it.

‘The sleeves are important especially for a work or common day dress. They should be bishop or even a prairie sleeve that can be rolled up for work. Carte de Visites have shown more cotton dresses with bishop sleeves than any other design. Full open, fancy sleeves such as the pagoda only seem to appear on silk dresses reinforcing the idea that they are intended to emphasize high fashion. The pagoda sleeve is worn with an under sleeve and is lined at least half way up with fashion fabric. These sleeves hang open and people can get a good look inside, so if the details are lacking, your fancy day dress will loose its visual impact.

Abraham's Lady carries undersleeves in various fabric and colors

The skirt should have an ample hem. This can vary from 4 to 6 inches in depth. This helps to add weight to the skirt. Most original skirts are found lined, but unlined is acceptable. A lined skirt will hang better.

A hem saver of wool or cotton tape will prevent wear at the bottom. Due to the scarcity of this item heavy cotton tape and ribbon have been used and are considered acceptable. Others have made reproduction dresses with twill tape on the bottom which is too thin and can not withstand being dragged through one season without have to be replaced.

Cotton Hem Tape in a Variety of Colors is Available on our sewing supplies page

Wear collars with your dresses. Clothes were not washed after wearing them just once (as today). To keep the neck of the dress cleaner, a collar was worn to help keep the dress fresher. Photographic evidence supports this, very few dresses lacked collars.

See Abraham's Lady's Selection of Collars

The Shirt waist and Medici Belt
This was a youthful fashion only. Teen girls and those in their early 20’s wore a blouse with a skirt. This was due in part that she may have outgrown or outworn the dress bodice.. Rather than discard the whole dress, the bodice was removed and the blouse worn with it. This was more commonly practiced with the middle class. No photographic evidence shows women in their 30’s and up wearing such a fashion combination. (Think of this one as the poodle skirt from the 1950’s. Women in their 30’s and 40’s wouldn’t wear fashion meant for sub-teens- and this rule seems to apply here.) There may have been enterprising women who did have blouses to wear with their skirts, but fashion plates show the ensemble completed with a jacket.

The Shirt waist Alone
Ladies did wear blouses, but they were part of a suit. The blouse worn alone with a Swiss belt or Swiss body was not that common among older women. Old photographs rarely show women in anything but dresses.

See Abraham's Lady's Selection of Patterns


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All items sold from Abraham´s Lady LLC via the website, eBay store or sutlery are intended and sold as functional fashion garments. We assume no responsibility or liability for the misuse of our products, possible injury or any undesirable effects resulting from the purchase and wear of an ill fitting garment. Abraham´s Lady LLC makes no claims regarding the use of corsets for general health or medical purposes.