Ladies Civil War Shopping: Like sex, it’s over faster than you think

As we rapidly head towards mid-October, a young (cough cough) girl’s thoughts turn towards the Final Reenacting Event of the Season and the promise of being in Gettysburg.  Gettysburg is one of the few places–and yeah, it’s because of the rampant commercialism, lets be honest–where you can shop at Civil War “sutlers” and buy period correct items.  The Regimental Quartermaster.  The Jeweler’s Daughter.  Abraham’s Lady.  Back in the day, there was Dirty Billy’s, S&S Sutler, and the Gettysburg Sutler.

And if you don’t have a penis or don’t plan on portraying someone with a penis, be prepared to pay huge sums of money for clothes.

I’m not even kidding.  Google it.

As of this moment in time, I own three reenacting dresses.  One was given to me.  Two were made by my mom.  And one currently fits.

If this was 1862 and the 120 pound weakling that I am needed a new dress, I’d have to make it.  Or, better yet, pay someone else to make it.  “Ready Made Clothing” stores, or stores where you could buy standardized clothes, were for men only.  Not fashionable men either: these were travelers or poor men; men who couldn’t afford the expense of hiring a tailor to custom fit a suit for them.  He also couldn’t expect “ready made” clothing to fit like tailor made clothes fit.  Standardized sizes (i.e. 32 inch waist, 36 in waist, etc) didn’t come until later on.  Men were choosing from “small,” “medium,” and “large.”

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, 2004 (I’m in the top row, second from the left in the blue dress with the white belt)

Women, on the other hand, didn’t get “ready made” clothing options until around the 1920s.  Women’s clothing was custom made.  Custom fit.  The really good reenacting clothing still is: as with anything, you get what you pay for.  Which is why back in 2004, I spent around $90.00 for a custom made corset.  It’s marvelous.   And it’s worth every penny.

So, what could women shop for?  Fabric.  Hats.  Corsets.  Stockings.  Shoes.  Hoop skirts/cage crinolines.  If you set aside time at the Ready Made Clothing Store, maybe you could go in and buy something for your husband, say, a new cravat or a Gutter Percha cane (like Senator Brooks beat Senator Sumner over the head with in1856.  Classy).  As a woman, it would be scandalous to be in the store when actual men were actually dressing, so you had to pre-plan these kind of trips.

You could hand sew your dress.  Time consuming.  Or, if your hubs really loves you and, moreover, really values your time, he might buy you a sewing machine.  This will cut your sewing time down drastically.  But sewing machines are insanely expensive.  If your husband can’t afford a sewing machine, maybe some of your friend’s husbands can pitch in some funds too and you can all buy one to share.

I’ve sewn on a period machine.  They’re a bitch.

In 1862, these were your options.  Nowadays, you can to a certain degree, shop around.  Or make your clothes.  Or by like me had bribe my mother to make your clothes.  Your options are kind of the same as they were during the Civil War.  Make it.  Pay to have it made.  Or you don’t need it.

I’ve decided I need it.  My dresses make me look like I survived a winter at Andersonville and I’m currently stuffing my corset with washable nursing pads because I’m so horrifically flat chested I look like a twelve year old boy from my neck to my waist.  Weight loss comes from your entire body, kids.  Not just your belly and butt.

But anyway.

Plan B is to convince my mom to start a new dress for me.  This time I won’t insist on it being finished before the event, especially seeing how the event is about twelve days away.  Not that I’m counting.


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