The Civil War occurred during the Victorian Era, during the reign of England's Queen Victoria, and was a period noted for fashion finery. From 1861 until 1865, Americana endured the effects of the Civil War, with blockades preventing fabric availability and many who fell on hard times and could not afford many types of fabric. Civil war fashion often gets confused with the military uniforms of the North and South, however, Victorian fashion did find a way into wartime society, and continued with different fabrics and patterns incorporated into day-to-day styles.
Wool and Cotton
Wool was the most common fabric of the Civil War, both for uniforms and for everyday clothing. Wool was widely available and durable and often high-quality, with very tight weaves that prevented fraying. Cotton was also common during the Civil War, and although a product of the South, was still widely available. In summer, soldiers wore cotton or cotton-based fabrics such as muslin and jean cloth for both shirts and pants. Cotton was also desired for women's fashion, because it held a seam, was easily dyed and took on a shiny finish when steam ironed. Most women's dresses and skirts were made of cotton, wool, or a blend of both.
Fabrics such as the cotton/wool blend linsey woolsey, cotton jean cloth and homespun were popular during the Civil War, often because of economy and availability. Jean cloth, which is essentially denim, was worn by both women and men because of its price and functionality. Jean cloth was widely-used for military uniforms as well, when original-issue wool uniforms wore out, or became too uncomfortable in the heat. Homespun is home-spun fabric made out of what was available, and, according to the "Civil War Garments For Ladies" article on Shasta.com, was considered patriotic in the south, rather than paying high prices for Northern wool.
Silk and linen were the fine fabrics of the era, and were reserved for good dresses and other fancy clothing. Because fine silk and linen were high-maintenance and expensive, they were harder to obtain, often the only piece of nice clothing owned by many. Because linen has a high wrinkle factor and requires regular ironing with a high-heat iron, it was also reserved for fancier outfits.
Fabric patterns during the Civil War were mostly solid colors, stripes and plaids. Plaid patterns were mostly gingham, or window-pane plaid patterns, which were plain for the Victorian era's penchant for fancier patterns, such as chintz and paisley. According to the Shasta.com article, when hundreds of Civil War-era photographs were studied, 80 percent of the fabrics were solid colors, followed by stripes, then plaids. Calico dress patterns were common in poor areas, often made out of scraps and whatever else was available.
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A native of New Haven, Conn., Floyd Drake III began writing in 1984. His work has appeared in the "New Haven Register," Medford's "Mail-Tribune" and the "Ashland Daily Tidings." Drake studied journalism at Southern Connecticut State University. After working as a reporter in Oregon, he is now based back home in New Haven.