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  • Writer's pictureLisa Sysun

Hoop Skirts, Corsets and Whale Bone

Updated: Jan 4, 2019

Fashion plates, like this sample from Godey’s Ladies Book, were hand-colored engravings that appeared in women’s magazines. Credit: Godey’s Ladies Book, 1862.

I had the pleasure of visiting Gettysburg a few summers ago with my husband and daughters. While doing research for the trip, I came across and happened upon the section on Civil War Women’s Clothing. Having just begun research for an upcoming book on the period, I found the information very helpful. The article, in part, is captured here, along with images from other sources.

Women from this era had dresses for every occasion: ball gowns, riding habits, mourning gowns, dinner dress, and walking costumes, to name a few. Godey’s Ladies Book gives wonderful descriptions of these garments, as it offered useful information to dressmakers and home seamstresses on the latest fashion trends. I bought an 1863 copy of Godey’s on eBay, and the color plates are exquisite!

Here’s a sample description of a dress from Godey’s, spelling and grammar left untouched (Fig. 1 being on the far left in the illustration above): “Fig. 1— Costume for a watering-place, and suitable for half mourning. Black French grenadine dress, made over black silk; White pique sacque, bound with braid, and trimmed with braid and buttons. Standing collar, with black silk neck-tie. Low-crowned leghorn hat, bound with black velvet, and decorated with a black velvet bow and black plume.” Not sure if the shoes worn with Fig. 1 were waterproof (for a watering-place), or if half mourning meant you were half-sad. Must dig deeper.

The Hoop Skirt

Civil War Southern women are best known for their hoops (think Scarlett in Gone With the Wind.) The hoop extended farther out in the back than the front and could take up to five yards of fabric to make. When the cloth supply from the northern mills was cut off during the war, some women made smaller skirts to help the war effort. Women who helped (nurses in hospitals, for instance) did not wear hoop skirts, for practical reasons.

"It is necessary to emphasize the double confinement of women; moral, in being slaves to social conventions, and physical, in the lacing of their corset and the cage of their hoop skirt." – Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, France

Wealthy Victorian women wore several dresses each day. A “morning dress” was plainer. An “evening dress” was low on the shoulders, and suitable for a party. A “walking dress” added a longer peltote (a type of jacket essential to the outfit) over the dress that matched the skirt.

Conversely, working-class women during the Civil War likely had two or three everyday dresses. One Sunday best outfit and a newer-styled dress reserved for going to town or visits with friends.

Layers of Clothing, from the Inside Out

The following are the layers that a typical Civil War era woman wore, starting with Layer 1 being closest to her skin. Remember this in the heat of the summer when you’re in a pair of shorts and flip-flops:

Layer 1

  • Drawers (underpants) made of cotton or linen and trimmed with lace.

  • Chemise (long undershirt) usually made of linen.

  • Stockings held up with garters

Layer 2

  • Corset or stays stiffened with whale bone

  • Crinoline, hoop skirt, or 1 or 2 petticoats (dark color if traveling due to mud and dirt)

Layer 3

  • Petticoat bodice, corset cover, or camisole

Layer 4

  • Bodice

  • Skirt, often held up with “braces” (suspenders)

  • Belt

  • Slippers made of satin, velvet, done in knitting, or crochet

Layer 5 (outerwear for leaving the house)

  • Shawl, jacket, or mantle

  • Gloves or mitts

  • Button-up boots

  • Parasol

  • Bonnet, Hat or Snood (lacy type of hairnet used to cover a hair bun)

  • Bag or purse

  • Handkerchief

  • Fan (sometimes made of sandalwood)

  • Watch pocket

“Health corsets” made with elastic fabric were introduced as a way to alleviate pressure on the ribs caused by the heavily boned corsets of the Victorian era.
This woman obviously loved the Greek key pattern style!


Various styles of trim and braid were popular; the Greek Key trim style exceptionally so. Clothing color, according to the magazines of the day, emphasized harmony, simplicity and nature’s influence. Most ensembles were made up of two color choices. During festive occasions, young women wore a nosegay (or small bouquet) of flowers in their hair.


Victorian modesty dictated that ladies should wear gloves when going to church or social events. Kid (leather) gloves extending to cover the wrist were the most popular. Women also wore fabric and lace gloves. For day wear, gloves came in a wide variety of colors, but only white was proper for evening and formal wear. Mary Todd Lincoln purportedly owned three hundred pairs of kid gloves!

15 carat yellow gold hair bracelet with tiny seed pearls and curl over plaited gray-blonde hair, and blue enamel.

Hair Jewelry

Hair jewelry was used to remember a loved one separated by distance or death. Rings, brooches, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and even watch chains included pieces of hair. This accessory was first given as a token of friendship or love. Rings might be engraved with loving messages and memorials either on the face or inside the band, and might also have hidden compartments for the hair. As death was a common and accepted part of everyday life, especially due to the higher infant mortality rate of the time and the devastation of the Civil War, mourning jewelry also became popular. How many of us still have envelopes of hair from our children’s first haircuts? I never considered creating jewelry from the hair, but now…? Possibly!

Back of blue corset. Silk stiffened with whale bone and metals eyelets, 1864.

This corset and hoop skirt were commissioned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for display in the 2004-05 textile department exhibit “High Style and Hoop Skirts: Fashions of the 1850s”. The drawers and shift are authentic garments from the MFA collection. Star Rabinowitz : Corset, 1858


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