With over three million soldiers witnessing the horrors of the Civil War between 1861 through 1865, 529,332 dead, and over 400,000 wounded, maimed, and ruined, it may seem ridiculous to even contemplate fashion, and it’s impact on women, particularly Confederate women. That said,I recently came upon images of dresses worn by Southern women during the war, and seeing the rather sad state of the dresses , I was impacted. I became acutely aware of the sacrifice , deprivation, and weariness of that War, all through shabby cotton.
Although the Smithsonian site describes this particular dress as fashionable and not at all dreary, compared to the aniline wonders in mauvine, magenta, and cerulean blue, this would most likely have appeared lackluster in peacetime.
ca.1860 printed cotton with heavy patching
This shabby little dress , of well worn calico is what made me realize the severity of the war. All the playful references of Scarlet improvising with velvet curtains, downplay the seriousness of the situation. This dress is a result of port closures and the subsequent restriction of fashionable European goods. The irony of course is this was the land of King Cotton, raw material was abundant, but the desired finished product unavailable.
As so many of us do, Southerners craved legitimacy, often using fashion, architecture, and manners, to achieve approval from the more sophisticated North. This modest little dress is a poignant reminder of the harsh realities of war.
As a counter point, I will show dresses, all from the Met’s Costume collection, all around 1860-62.
ca.1862 American, cotton/wool
Have to love that key pattern.
Such freshness, such a contrast to the “fashionable” gown.
from the Brooklyn Museum Collection
Again, an extravagance and beauty that contrasts sharply with the Southern dresses.
This may have appeared to be a frivolous post; but for me , the need for luxury in hard times, the reality of war, and national dis-unity, are all illustrated in a few yards of calico.