The Working Woman's Ensemble, On a Strict Budget

This post has been reprinted from the archives of my now defunct sewing blog, Dressing From The Past. It was originally published on December 11, 2017.

I started out in Civil War reenacting in 2013. In reenacting years, that's not very long at all! Yet, somehow, there are always people around who are newer even than I, and therefore I've heard quite a few questions from those just starting out. The most common question I hear is "how can you afford XYZ for reenacting?? The whole hobby just seems so expensive!"

Full disclosure - I'm a (nearly full-time) college student working two part-time  jobs that don't exactly pay a fortune. I'm also saving for a wedding next year, so believe me when I say I don't have a ton of money to throw around. But with a lot of trial and error, a lot of pinching pennies, waiting for sales, finding coupons and combing through thrift stores, I was able to put together a period correct, comfortable, and even pretty working woman's impression for under $100.

And you can too!

I recently went through my circa-1863 young woman's work impression and broke the cost down by item.  Here's what I came up with.

Now, a few caveats: First of all, this post is geared toward those who sew. If you do not sew, you will find yourself immediately facing much larger costs in the form of the actual labor needed to produce nice historical garments. Don't despair! You can search for used items (many reenactors sell their old items online, though extreme caution must be exercised to ensure what you are buying is actually historically correct), ask a friend who sews if they might be willing to do an exchange of labor, or... well, you too can learn to sew but that's a topic for another day. ;)

Second, it is important to set your sights on an attainable impression. Just as a silk taffeta ball gown is expensive today, that kind of evening attire would have been costly in the 1860's too - so why not start with a solid working class ensemble? I made (either by hand or with the help of a very basic Singer sewing machine) everything that I am wearing in these photos, with the exception of my shoes and stockings. All fabrics are 100% cotton (yes, I checked and tested!).

Dress - Homespun fabric from JoAnn purchased with a 60% off coupon. 7 yards for $22.50.
(I will be posting a much more thorough breakdown of how I made this dress... sometime in the future. If you want.)

Neckerchief (alternative to a collar, though a collar can be easily made for the same price!) - Thrifted pillowcase from Goodwill, $2.00.

Chemise (not pictured) - Thrifted bedsheets from Goodwill, $2.50.

I'm not sure what I dropped here (maybe my bonnet?) but this photo made me laugh.
Corset fabric (also not pictured) - Thrifted (100% cotton percale) bedsheets from Goodwill, $2.50.
Corset boning and busk -, $15.00.

Brown leather laced boots - Goodwill, $7.00. (These, I will admit, are not quite as accurate as they could be.)

Green striped petticoat, dip-starched - Thrifted (100% cotton percale) bedsheets from Goodwill, $2.50.
White petticoat, dip-starched - Thrifted bedsheets from Goodwill, $2.50.

Split drawers (definitely not pictured) - Thrifted bedsheets from Goodwill, $2.50.
Cotton stockings - Abraham's Lady, $6.00

*empathy for Laura Ingalls increases*
Bonnets are hard, guys.
Corded sunbonnet fabric- Thrifted curtains from Goodwill, $2.50.
Cording - Peaches N' Cream cotton yarn, AC Moore (with coupon), $1.50.

Apron - 2 yards quilting cotton, purchased (though not by me) from JoAnn with a coupon, $6.00.
Thread for entire ensemble (estimated) - $10.00

The shawl thing in this photo is another project entirely and will be Dealt With accordingly in a future post.

GRAND TOTAL - $85.00
((Please note that this does not factor in the cost of patterns - I used the Past Patterns pleated bodice (#702) for my dress, the Laughing Moon Silverado pattern for my corset, and relied heavily on the free patterns in the Sewing Academy Compendium for my underpinnings and the basic shape of my bonnet & apron.))

Now, a caveat - I do understand that even $85 for a full reenacting ensemble is still a good chunk of change, and if you're operating on a $10 budget, I'm afraid this post won't be of much help. But you know what you can do when you have $10? RESEARCH! Spend your period of broke-ness reading everything you possibly can about clothing in the 1860's, and when you *do* have expendable dollars, you'll find yourself much better able to put them to good use. If you need some resources on where to start, let me know! I'm beginning to compile a list.

IN CONCLUSION - you too can do this. It just takes time, effort, penny-pinching, saving, thrift store scavenging, lots of work, lots of effort, lots of ripping things out and starting over, and a frigate-load of ironing. Gah. The ironing.

The sunbonnet believes in you. Go forth and conquer.

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