You are late – really late. Books are shoved into bags, the top piece of clothing from each drawer is haphazardly thrown on and you run out the door. Two weeks pass when finally a paycheck arrives. Six hours of shopping lie ahead – store after store is scoured until you can barely hold all the bags of new clothes. Three years have gone and it is your wedding day. Months of tedious preparation wrapped around weeks of finding a dress made of fantasies. Clothing is not only essential to everyday life but is definitive, to who you are, landmark moments throughout your life and even your place in society. Despite the obvious importance of clothing, rarely does one stop to think “Where did these materials come from and how are they made?” Even more rarely does one consider what would happen if suddenly the means by which they were used to receiving their clothing were stripped from them. During the American Civil War, women in the South were confronted with this issue and the consequences, which followed, rippled throughout society, affecting every aspect of life, especially women’s fashion.
Mariah Clarke, a recent graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the major of Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management explored the different aspects of the Civil War, which caused the major changes in women’s apparel and the ways women dealt with them. In order to begin her understanding of the integration experienced by women of the Civil War of domestic responsibilities and those spheres normally managed by men, Clarke first looked at several reasons these changes became necessary. Then, noting a similarity between the United States of America's trade position today and that of the South before the American Civil War, she explored what it would entail for women today to face the same situation and created a modern gown, with selected Civil War era inspirations, from recycled garments.
“Men had left for the front lines, making many of the activities once managed by them fall under women’s control. The South’s agriculturally based economic system suffered greatly from the loss of men and this, combined with the blockade of many of the South’s ports by the North, brought scarcity of common resources which women, especially the elite, had come to depend upon.” Following the huge absence of men from Southern society, women saw themselves in a greater capacity to support not only their families, but the war effort as well by spinning, weaving, sewing, and knitting.
“Thousands of ladies who had never worked before found themselves hard at work on coarse sewing.” Even more notable is the fact that “most elite Southern women did not sew, spin, weave, or knit before the war because these were considered below them; however, they quickly learned all of these trades in an effort to support the troops.” For those women not working in the areas of sewing and production, many found themselves drawn to nursing – “with the increased number of injured and ill people from battlefields, poor nutrition and poor living conditions during the war, there simply were not enough doctor’s” and nurses became invaluable. The traditional, fancy evening dresses of the antebellum balls became impractical for Southern women. “Working clothes were often made of reversible, solid fabrics or fabrics with wovenin prints that had no ‘up’ or ‘down,’ so that the fabric panels (especially those in the skirt) could be turned upside down and inside out to re-use the fabric when a garment became faded.”
Quality and quantity of a woman’s clothing were also greatly affected. “As men were dragged to the battlefields, many women found themselves moving in with friends or family – there were often multiple families under one roof. They were forced to reduce their possessions, especially their wardrobes, which were seen as superfluous and unnecessary during the war.” Furthermore, the blockade of the South’s ports removed trade with the North and Europe. “Since the South already had limited manufacturing capabilities even before the war, the little production they were able to maintain during the war was used solely for military uses. Inflation became a major problem on top of the already high prices for the limited supplies of goods Clarke Featured Articles available. Many families who before the war were extremely affluent were quite poor after the war.” As is always true in times of economic crisis, people had to make do with what they already had and discard things which were no longer vital to their well-being. For women, this meant fashion.
It became a point of pride for Southern women to be innovative and find ways of doing without certain items. Berry juices were used as inks and dyes, hats were woven of straw, shoes constructed of paper or cloth, and fabrics from curtains, old clothing and bed linens were reused
In addition to these changes, women were denied the fabrics and goods that they wereused to – now caught in a time when it was necessary for them to construct their own clothing, they did not even have the correct materials to do so and found themselves improvising. “It became a point of pride for Southern women to be innovative and find ways of doing without certain items. Berry juices were used as inks and dyes, hats were woven of straw, shoes constructed of paper or cloth, and fabrics from curtains, old clothing and bed linens were reused.”
Utilizing her research of Southern women and historical inspirations, Clarke began her construction of two modern versions of dresses with period influences. Using a purple and black plaid buttoned shirt, three pairs of black denim jeans and one pair of purple scrub pants, she cut and reused the fabric for her first garment. Larger sizes of these items were preferred since they provided more fabric. As Clarke began the design of the dress, she implemented such Civil War era trends as plaid, hand-sewn eyelets and lacing. First, the original pieces of clothing had to be disassembled into large sections of usable fabric. Clarke saved flat felt seams to use as boning where the lacing in the dress would be and also used the draw string from the scrub pants as the lacing. The only element of the dress that was not made from recycled materials was the thread, which Clarke already had and most women in the South during the beginning of the Civil War would have had some form of as well.
For her second dress, Clarke used a raw silk fabric with a similar weave and appearance to homespun, or fabrics spun and woven by hand, which is what the women of the Civil War would have been using to produce their clothing. Several different styles of the era were incorporated together into this dress to complement one another and use many design details from the period. Rectangular panels were sewn together and pleated at the top to make the skirt of the dress. The front of the bodice mimicked the double pointed bodices of the era while the back closely resembled coats, which would have been worn by Civil War era women. The use of piping was also chosen as an aspect of the dress because clothing of that period often had seams highlighted with some sort of trim.
After constructing these garments, Clarke was able to better understand some of the obstacles facing Southern women and the steps which had to be taken in order to produce their own clothing in the midst of war. Faced with “changing demographics, social expectations, poor economics, a lack of available resources, and a new definition of practicality, Southern women’s clothing was forced to reshape itself” and adapt to the struggles of war.