Guideline for a
Rural Southern Impression
The Chattahoochee Refugee Society Less is more - for accurate historical interpretation and a fun weekend!
The Chattahoochee Refugee Society (originally organized as the Women's Living History Society) was the first living history group in the southeast to portray working-class rural southerners. While we also enjoy the opportunity to wear fine dresses and cage crinolines, a working-class impression is often more appropriate for the living history events and sites in our area. We are based in Georgia, and travel throughout the southeast. We have focused on the years leading up to and including the Civil War, but also enjoy earlier periods
This is intended as a very basic checklist for women who wish to portray rural southerners during the Civil War. The clothing is practical for working, which makes it ideal for camping at living histories and re-enactments. We often portray refugees, as this is a logical and documentable reason for women to be fairly near a battlefield. As a refugee, your impression will expand to include eating and cooking utensils, blankets and canvas tarps, and whatever other possessions you may choose to carry. Don't be intimidated by the long list of items - all you need for your first event is a dress, apron, hat or bonnet, bedding, and eating utensils, and you may be able to borrow at least some of these. The rest will beckon to you from every flea market, antique store, cloth store and reputable sutler that you pass. Beware - you may become obsessed!
Nineteenth century undergarments are very different from those we wear today. They help give you both the look and the feeling of a woman of the 1860's. Once you become accustomed to them, they are very comfortable, and you feel quite odd if you leave off any of the layers.
A chemise is a loose, short-sleeved garment, reaching about to the knee. A white cotton nightgown is a good beginner's substitution. The sleeves are important in the long run because they protect your dress from perspiration. Period drawers are not sewn closed at the crotch, and reach just below the knee. Once your waist is encased in a corset or stays, it will be impossible to unbutton the waist of your drawers - thus the very convenient construction! You will not feel immodest - they are quite comfortable.
Your corset (steel boned, with laces in the back and a busk that unfastens in the front) or stays (no boning, just light cording) are worn over the chemise. Either will have to be custom made by you or for you to ensure a good fit. In the meantime, a sports bra helps give the somewhat flattened look of a corset, and a pinner apron will hide an uncorseted midriff. Look at period photographs to see "the look" of a corseted woman.
A petticoat or two will be the final layer under your dress. It is impossible to work in a hoop, but a corded or roped petticoat will help your skirts look fuller. A petticoat can be very simple, just gathered onto a waistband and hemmed - a good first sewing project. In the winter a wool, flannel, quilted or crocheted petticoat adds lots of warmth.
Nineteenth century stockings come up over the knee and are held in place by a garter tied just below the knee. Garters can be knitted or crocheted, or woven from ribbons. Wool yarn, in a braid about the size of your little finger, can serve as a substitute at first, as can a ribbon. These are more comfortable and less incorrect than the rolled elastic garters sold by sutlers. Stockings should be fairly heavy, ideally hand knitted (a forty-hour project for an experienced knitter!). Heavy, textured cotton or wool tights cut off at the top of the leg will do at first. Black is always a good color choice (although the fashions of the day included bright colors, stripes, and embroidery!). It is a good idea to have several pair, especially in wet weather.
A work dress is the most practical choice for outdoor living history. The construction allows freedom of movement for cooking, doing laundry, walking (you will be amazed how quickly you become out of breath when wearing your corset laced tightly under a well-fitted day or evening dress), sitting on the ground, getting rained on, finding firewood, etc! If it gets dirty, you can wash it; if it gets torn, a careful mending just adds character to your impression.
Past Patterns and the Great American Pattern Emporium offer patterns drawn from original garments that are suited for use as a work dress. Choose sleeves that are straight or gathered into a cuff, pagoda sleeves are not appropriate for work clothes. Short sleeves were never worn during the day, but there is plenty of photographic evidence of hard-working women rolling up their sleeves. Work dress bodices are usually less fitted than day or evening dresses, since they are worn with a loosely laced corset or unboned stays to allow for some freedom of movement. In comparison to modern clothing, however, they are still quite form-fitting. Bodices and skirts are usually sewn together. Skirts can be gathered, pleated, or gauged onto the waistband. In the original garments that we have seen, bodices are almost always lined, sleeves often lined, and skirts occasionally lined. Although perhaps more rugged in appearance than a fine dress, the construction techniques and quality are much the same. Many work dresses started out as better dresses and were demoted after lots of wear or a change in fashion. If you have been in the hobby and have a well-made better dress, it may be stripped of trim, shortened, perhaps the sleeves altered, and become quite serviceable in its new role.
Most work or "wash" dresses have little or no decorative trimmings, due to the fact that the dresses were generally washable. Many close with hooks and eyes placed inside the bodice. A good fit is nearly impossible to achieve with buttons, on other than an "O" or gathered bodice. Even these looser-appearing styles often have a more fitted lining underneath. Bias-cut strips of the same fabric can be applied to sleeves or bodice for a practical and washable bit of ornamentation. As on all mid-19th century adult garments, the piping that is so important for strong armscye seams must be very thin and made of the same fabric as the dress. Crochet thread is a good size to make your piping over. No collars, cuffs, or undersleeves are necessary. They do dress up your impression a bit for church services, shopping, or visiting, however. They were always worn with day dresses (which were seldom washable due to their fabric or trim) to protect the dress from perspiration.
Cotton, wool, or a blend of the two are good fabric choices for your work dress. Small-scale woven plaids or stripes are appropriate for a southern impression, as they could be woven at home or in a local factory. Printed material was scarce in the south during the war due to the blockade, and prints that accurately reproduce 19th century patterns are hard to come by today. While it would seem that a solid color would be the simplest to weave, diaries of the period reveal that women were proud of the innovative patterns they could produce on their looms, and enjoyed the challenge of making fabric that did not look homespun.
An apron is essential to a working impression, and is easy to make. Cotton, linen, or wool are again the fabrics to choose. Wool will smolder rather than burst into flame, which makes it safer when working over an open fire. If your apron has a bib, it should be pinned to your bodice with straight pins rather than tie around your neck. Many originals fastened with a button or hook and eye rather than a bow of fabric at the waist.
Reproduction shoes will probably be your most expensive purchase, so a modern substitute will suffice as you begin to build your impression. Look for a short, laced boot with a slightly squared toe, made of black or dark brown leather, with a smooth leather sole. They must be sturdy and comfortable, and it will be helpful in the winter if you can wear two pairs of stockings. When you do decide to purchase your shoes, you can have them custom-made to your specifications and to your very own feet for not much more money than ready-made shoes from a sutler! Women in the 19th century always wore some type of bonnet or hat when outdoors. A slatted or corded sunbonnet, straw "shaker" bonnet, low-crowned straw hat, or even a man's felt hat will protect your skin from the elements (a felt hat is great in the rain). A knitted hood is wonderful in the winter.
Fashion and ettiquite dictated that a lady always wear some type of wrap, even in the summer, but it seems unlikely that a farm woman would throw on a delicate batiste pelerine to feed the chickens in July. You will need a shawl in cold weather - a good-sized square of wool material folded on the diagonal, fringed when you have idle moments, is sufficient. There are also many wonderful knitted and crocheted garments to keep you warm, which you can explore later in your living history career.
Mid-19th century hairstyles were distinctive and fairly easy to duplicate. A woman's hair was always long (unless an illness had prompted its being cut or shaved), always parted in the middle, and always pulled back into a bun, roll, or coiled braid at the nape of the neck. Everything was very sleek and smooth, even natural curls were pulled as smooth as possible. Bangs were never worn - if you have them, you can part them with the rest of your hair and spray, gel, and bobby pin them down. Don't be concerned if you have to use a lot of goop to keep things in place; hair oils and potions were quite common. A cheap, finely woven "lunch lady" hairnet is a close approximation of period nets, and will help contain your 'do. If your hair is short, you can add false hair pieces, keep your bonnet tied tight at all times, or be recovering from a terrible fever. Its strange how a fascination with the 19th century seems to cause one's hair to grow!
In the 19th century no woman of virtue would even think of wearing makeup, and neither should you when you step back in time. If you must, keep it very natural - no eye shadow, no eye liner, no lipstick, and never any fingernail polish! Switching from crimson to a French manicure is not considered "period". Any modern medicines are of course allowed, but please pack them in a period-style container. If you require eyeglasses, you may wish to be fitted for disposable contacts, or begin scouting antique stores for period frames to have your prescription put into. You can find serviceable frames for $10-$50, just make sure they are screwed together at the temple rather than riveted. Many local optometrists will make the lenses for you, or call Greg Crockett at Spectacle Accoutrements in Baltimore at 410-281-6069.
Our typical impression requires no jewelry. A plain gold wedding band is always appropriate, of course, and period jewelry is a hobby in its own right.
Tobacco use was rampant in the 19th century, but cigarettes are not period. Rural women did dip snuff and smoke pipes, however. A pipe made of brier root or clay is quite an attention-grabber! The ability of otherwise pretty and proper southern girls to nonchalantly spit tobacco juice shocked many a Northern soldier.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about our hobby, in the beginning, is that some sutlers' goods are wonderful and well-researched, but more often than not they are incorrect in cut, color, or material. Please check with a veteran member of our group before making any purchases - we will try to save your valuable time and money by helping you buy the best first. Fortunately, our impression is not expensive, and not everything must be bought or made "right now"!
For the members of the Chattahoochee Refugee Society, our mode of living at events is tailored to the situations that the women we portray might have found themselves in, 24 hours a day. We often portray refugees, as this was the most typical role civilians had in close proximity to the armies, especially in the western theater late in the war. We also often portray poor or working-class people, for they were frequently the only ones left upon the armies' arrival. Most people with the means to do so had already left. These more well-to-do folks were also refugees, but as they were long gone on a train or in a carriage, they are a little harder to accurately portray!
We usually camp "campaign style" (to borrow a term from the soldiers) which means we carry everything we use on our persons, or perhaps in a wheelbarrow or handcart. We have stayed dry in downpours, warm in winter, and seldom have to wait in a line of vehicles to get our stuff out to go home. Nothing beats the feeling of picking up everything you brought and striding into or out of an event - no cars in camp, no stuffing everything but the kitchen sink into your vehicle on Friday and Sunday, no stress! (Well, less stress...)
You will need the following - and again, not all at once: a waterproof ground cloth made of either painted canvas or oilcloth. There is not a source for purchasing oil cloth in the United States that we know of, but it is fairly simple to coat a sturdy piece of cloth with boiled linseed oil, purchased at a paint store. You may also paint a piece of light canvas on one side with black oil-based house paint. This simple article will replace the ubiquitous military tent so often seen in civilian camps. We sometimes pool our resources and build shebangs, and sometimes just spread out on the ground. One exception was the refugee camp at the battle of Spring Hill - the Federal authorities built a tent city in Nashville to accomodate the thousands of refugees that flooded the city, and this was duplicated at the re-enactment.
Wool blankets, coverlets, or quilts are best for warmth, and they resist dampness from dew or rain better than cotton. Often you can find period examples that are both affordable and sturdy enough to use. If your bones require a little padding, a mattress tick can be stuffed with pinestraw or leaves. A change of clothes can double as a pillow. A piece of cotton or linen is wonderful to sleep under in the summertime, as you can stay cool and keep away from the mosquitoes.
A cup, plate, and spoon are all you will need to eat with at first. The group has plenty of pots and pans, and we frequently all bring ingredients for a pot of soup or stew. Tin or clay are the best materials for your cup - tin is light and virtually unbreakable, but transmits all of the heat of a cup of coffee directly to your lips! Your plate can be tin, wood, or ironstone, your spoon wooden, wood-handled, or coin silver. Enamelware, even antique specimens, is post-war in America and not appropriate. Household inventories seldom included enough forks, knives, and spoons for everyone in the family, so a complete set is not necessary. Carry some water in a period-looking bottle, bucket, jug, water gourd, or non-military-style canteen.
It is very possible to eat well at an event without a cooler! A little prior planning means a weekend free of a bulky, heavy, anachronistic box to try and keep hidden. By eating just what our historical forbears did, we avoid hunger and salmonella, and give the public a good idea of what the 19th century diet was like. Fresh seasonal vegetables, dried beans, rice, grits, cheese, salt-cured meats, jerky, nuts, and fresh or dried fruits all travel well. We do usually have coffee beans although our predecessors would have long since run out, because otherwise a 20th century caffeine habit leads to a big 19th century headache, and this makes it hard to function and interpret to the public.
Other things you may want to bring include soap, small towel, toothbrush, comb, small sewing kit, pocket knife, candles, matches, pencil and paper. Does this sound like the list of what to pack for summer camp? It is, and the feeling of freedom and self-sufficiency is the same as well!
What do you pack in? Period travelers used trunks and carpet bags. Trunks are nice and roomy, but a little unwieldy. Original carpet bags are scarce, and the good reproductions are expensive. Besides, the people we portray might not have had much luggage. Baskets, cloth bags, pilowcases, and bundles are common in period photographs and engravings, and are light, convenient, and inexpensive. A short length of rope or some stout twine is handy to have, and experience will teach you what to bring and how to pack it so that it is easy to carry.