Blue Checked 1860's Day Dress

This post has been reprinted from the archives of my now-defunct sewing blog, Dressing From the Past. It was originally published on June 8, 2017.

 I got into Civil War reenacting in 2013, and began sewing my own dresses at that time, but didn't start really seriously researching mid-Victorian clothing until early 2016.  Since then it's become my favorite hobby and I have more sewing projects than time to do them! But the more I learned about actual extant clothing from the Civil War era (and the less I based my impressions on costumes seen in movies and things I saw other reenactors wearing), the more I wanted to start from scratch and make a whole new ensemble to wear to living history events, since the first dress I ever made... while fun... was not really very historically accurate at all.

Enter the Blue Plaid Day Dress.  I was (and still am!) very excited about and proud of the fact that I made this dress for under $25.  Civil War reenacting is not a cheap hobby, and whenever I get a chance to do something inexpensively, I take it and run with it. This material was on sale for $2.67 per yard from Fashion Fabrics Club, and it's 100% pima cotton so I snapped it up.  I used Past Patterns #702, which is a pleated bodice, and gauged the skirt by hand to fit.  It was a fun, somewhat time-consuming project, and I wish I'd taken a few more photos of the construction, but here's what I've got.

Day dresses in the 1860's (by "day dress" I mean an outfit that could be worn by a middle-class woman around the house for everyday tasks, out in town for shopping, or to a nice event in the evening that didn't require formal attire - not a work dress, and not an elegant evening gown) could be made of silk, wool, or cotton.  Since I, being cheap, chose cotton, my options for this bodice were a little more limited than if I had used wool or silk.  Cotton dresses were generally made with pleated or gathered bodices, as this method of controlling fabric at the waistline put less strain on the fabric.  (Wool and silk tend to be hardier than cotton, in most cases.) The checked fabric makes the pleats a bit difficult to see in the photo above, but if you look closely, they angle to the left on the right side and to the right on the left side.  The waistband was finished along the bottom with a contrasting strip of fabric, and the bodice was completely finished as a separate piece from the skirt.

I don't have a photo of the skirt by itself (yes, I probably should have taken one) but it also has a finished waistband, and can be connected to the bodice with hooks and eyes.  From what I could find in my research (mainly looking at museum photos of extant garments from the 1860's), this wasn't a very common method of construction for a day dress, but it did exist.  I chose this method so that I could change out the day bodice for an evening-appropriate, short-sleeved bodice to wear to dances.  (More on that in a later post.)

Here's the whole dress, full-length.  Note that my skirt shape isn't quite as authentically 1860's as it could be.  I'm wearing a bridal hoop and one petticoat underneath - the silhouette is much better when worn with two petticoats to help smooth the boning lines in the hoop skirt. Plus, a modern bridal hoop isn't quite the same shape as a mid-Victorian hoop (generally called a cage or cage crinoline) would be.  As you can see, the skirt moves down and outward in a triangle, rather than a bell shape.  I've managed to improve this a bit since that photo was taken by resizing the rungs of the hoop, but that is a temporary fix until I can purchase or make a cage crinoline

The belt I'm wearing is made of vintage petersham ribbon (slightly ribbed texture) and a reproduction silver-plated belt buckle.  It closes in the back with hooks and eyes, and is a replica of a very popular ladies' style from the Civil War era.  Plus, it helps with covering up the fact that the bodice and skirt are two separate pieces, if any gapping should happen. ;)  

The gloves I'm wearing are 100% cotton, though kid leather would be more authentic (too expensive!), and the bonnet is a lightweight summer piece, appropriate for a young woman not doing outdoor work, a hand-me-down from a friend who has been doing Civil War reenacting much longer than I have.  (Underneath I have a chemise, corset, cotton stockings and lace-up boots... not pictured.)


Same dress, different day, with the addition of my handsome beau (and a sepia tone, just for fun).  This picture was taken after I reshaped the hoop, but unfortunately you can't see it too well in this shot.  There are still some fixes I'd like to make to this dress (including taking the bodice in so it's more closely fitted, and making a muslin collar with a rolled hem rather than the pre-made lace collar that's currently there), but overall I'm very pleased with it.

Do you sew at all? What are you currently working on?

You Might Also Like