What follows is a basic description of the typical construction features of women’s dresses for day wear during the Civil War era. These should be guidelines for those who wish to reproduce reproduction dresses. Even the best reproduction patterns tend to be designed with modern figures and tastes in mind. The waists tend to be too long and the fit is often too loose. Think of how women then wore their dresses when you are sewing for their time, not today.
While no two dresses of the period were ever the same, certain features were common to almost all dresses, and other features were very typical. For the purposes of these guidelines I will describe only what appear to be the most typical styles and features. As you continue your own research you will become more familiar with the exceptions to these fashion standards, as well as what types of women were more likely to wear these features. You can then knowledgeably decide to add these exceptions to your wardrobe or not, as you see fit.
The most typical neckline for women’s day wear was the jewel neckline. It fit close to the base of the neck. Very small self-fabric piping was very typical here. A fairly narrow (1-1/2” or less), detachable, lay-down collar was worn with this neckline. These collars were of white cotton or linen. For better dresses, the collar sometimes was of fine lace or included fine whitework embroidery, etc. In very general terms, the wider the collar, the older the woman, as wider collars were fashionable in the 1850s rather than the 1860s.
Very late in the war years the neckline on some dresses started to 'funnel' up higher on the neck. The collar on a dress like this sometimes consisted of a narrow band of the same material as the bodice with a detachable white inner collar showing just slightly above the outer collar or just a plain white standup collar. (see picture above) White neckerchiefs were an alternative to a white collar for women who were doing hard or messy work such as spring cleaning, soap making, etc. These styles are rarely seen in photographs, but can be seen in genre paintings and engravings of women working.
The purpose of all types of white collars, as with all the white undergarments, was to help keep the outer garment clean. It was difficult to impossible to effectively wash most women’s dresses and men’s suits. Instead, removable collars, cuffs or undersleeves and the rest of the 'body linens' worn were boiled clean on a regular basis.
There were three very basic bodice shapes. They all had center front openings and were generally fasten with hooks and eyes. Buttons were a fairly common option, but were frequently sewn on as decoration rather than used as functional closures.
The darted or fitted bodice appears to have been the most popular style bodice of the era for silk and other fine dresses. (see picture above) This style had two long darts either side of the center front, creating a vaguely “V” shape. The bodice was “flat lined." (The lining fabric and the dress fabric were sewn as one piece instead of separately with both sets of seams to the inside as is common today.) This style of bodice would fit as close to the waist and midriff as possible. Original photos often show strain lines across the midriff on women wearing this style bodice. Again, this snug fit served to enhance the appearance of a small waist. To successfully reproduce a period look, a well-fitted corset must be worn with all styles, but it is absolutely required for this style bodice.
Very close in popularity, particularly for younger women, was the gathered bodice, especially for cotton dresses. This bodice had gathers or tucks on either side of the center front instead of darts. This gave a soft rounded or “O” shape to the bodice. The back of this style bodice was flat lined, as was the darted bodice, but the front of the gathered bodice was generally only partially flat lined. The two front lining pieces were darted instead of gathered, then they are sewn as one with the dress fabric at all the seams except the center front opening. The dress fabric and lining edges were finished separately. Frequently, only the lining was closed with hooks and eyes. The dress fabric was then fastened only at the neck and waist. With proper construction, including a very snug fit of the lining over the corset, the dress fabric stayed closed in front without extra fasteners. The exception to the darted front lining was dresses that were made to be worn for working or other very informal wear. The bodices on these dresses are often totally flat lined so the front lining was gathered or tucked right along with the dress fabric. This created a looser fit which probably made wearing soft 'working' stays more practical. allowing for freer movements needed for hard work.
The third style was the fan front. This was a style lingering over from the prior decade and so tended to be worn mainly by elderly women. This style differed from the gathered bodice mainly in that the fabric was gathered or finely pleated at the center front of the waist. The extra fullness in the front was then pleated in at the shoulders. The top and bottom gathering created a soft "Y" shape to the bodice. This style evolved during the 1850s where the waistline shortened and the fullness was lessened. The pleats a the shoulders were eliminated, making the modified fan front closer to a gathered bodice. This modified fan front was worn by younger women than the true fan front carried over by elderly women from the late 1840s and early 1850s. Again, a well fitted corset under this style is critical to the correct look of the period.
The placements of seams in bodices were also important contributors to the appearance of small waists on women.
The shoulder seam started at the neckline, slightly behind the top edge of the shoulder. From that point it gently angled back further behind the shoulder until it reached the armscye (seam where the sleeve joins the bodice.) The armscye should fit fairly close under thearm, with the shoulder line extending in a downward curve well beyond the point of the shoulder. This dropped shoulder line caused the armscye to form a distinctly diagonal, almost horizonal, line. The close fit under the arms allowed more arm movement, even with the low armscye. It also prevented the dress from pulling up when the arms were lifted and prevented the sleeve from tearing out. This diagonal armscyce line also served to further widen the look of the shoulder, which in turn maked the waist look smaller. The armscye usually included very small self-fabric piping, to serve as reinforcement for this highly stressed seam.
Back seams were also very different from modern clothing construction methods. The main difference was the use of side back seams, or tiny tucks that look like seams, to form a vaguely “Y” shaped center panel instead of a center back seam as is common today. The top arms of the “Y” led out from the back of the armcyes, made sweeping curves to generally reach within an inch or so of each other at the middle of the back. From this point they ran roughly parallel to each other until they ended at the waist seam. This “Y” shape also served to enhance the appearance of a small waist. Keep in mind, no matter how large the dress, *ideally* these parallel seams ended up no more than an inch or two apart. As with all things, there were inevitably exceptions to this goal.
As a point of interest, those side back seams often were not actual seams. Very often the seamstress very neatly tucked and top stitched the fabric in the back forming the"Y" lines to create the waist slimming look of side back seams without cutting the fabric. These seams were not piped. The back lining material was one piece, with no tucks or seams and sewn as one with the dress fabric (flat lined).
Side seams were essentially the same as today, *except* they were set further back on the body and did not have any bust darts. They frequently were much deeper than any other seams in a garment and much deeper than modern seams. These deep seams allowed for an expanding waistline without making a new dress.
Waist seams generally were straight across, above the natural
waist. Period dresses were worn short waisted by modern standards. The
short waist also helped to make the waist look smaller as well as preventing
the bodice from bunching up around the midriff. Keep in mind, women had
waistbands for petticoats and hoops at their actual waist. They all need
to fit below the waist line of the dress. Waist seams generally included
very fine self-fabric piping for strength where the skirt was attached.
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Updated 9 March 2002 (c)