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Betty Dochstader and Maria Hull are organizing a Civil War fashion show in Massena on Saturday.
Betty Dochstader and Maria Hull are organizing a Civil War fashion show in Massena on Saturday.

Serious about Civil War fashion: don't call them costumes

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Civil War re-enactors from around the region will gather at Robert Moses State Park in Massena this weekend. But it isn't all cannons and uniforms. The many layers of a 19th century woman will be revealed as part of a fashion show on Saturday afternoon.

Todd Moe spoke with Maria Hull during last summer's annual Civil War Reenactment Weekend. She's a technology teacher in the Hudson Valley, who is also a Civil War re-enactor. Women's fashions from that era were all about making the waist appear small. Hull says hoop skirts, petticoats and full sleeves helped. She studied theater arts in college, makes her own Civil War era dresses and is an expert on women's fashions from the 1860s.

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Maria Hull wore a colorful, fancy dress that is based on the dresses that women would have worn during the Civil War. “The pattern is from an actual garment of the time. I had modified it, as they would have been, modified to my own tastes,” said Hull. “The material itself is a re-print of a material that was available; this was an actual print that they could have bought back then.”

The dress was made of cotton, so it is traditional summertime wear. Hull said that the top of the dress was completely lined, which is typical of the period. She said, “And of course I’m wearing multiple layers. I have a chemise, then a corset, then a hoopskirt, a petticoat over the top of that, and then the outer garment that you see.”

Hull says that she could have added even more layers to the outfit, and women at the time could have worn as many as six layers of clothing at a time. She said, “This was considered good. You have to remember, before this period, in the 1840s , early 1850s, before the steel hoop was invented or actually came into production, they wore multiple petticoats underneath to get that bell shape that we can get with the hoop. So a woman might have worn up to 40 pounds of clothing, according to what the season was.”

The hourglass figure and bell skirt shape was ideal at the time, according to Hull. The shoulder seams of the dresses started to move up and allow women to move their arms more easily, and Hull says that the invention of the hoop allowed women much greater mobility since they didn’t have to wear as many petticoats. Hull said, “They could move easier, they had more air movement and it didn’t weigh as much. In the wintertime, with the heavier fabrics, they might wear 14 pounds of clothing instead of 40 like they had before. So yeah, I can move easier, I can do things that they couldn’t a couple of decades before.”

Hull makes her own authentic dresses. She uses the same types of hooks, buttons, and snaps that were used during the Civil War era. Most of the dresses used hooks and eyes up the front to close them because it made the dresses easier to get into and out of. Ball gowns often had hooks or laces in the back, and women would need assistance with them. Hull said, “Most households, middle class and up, had one servant at least. So a lady might have had a maid helping her, and in some of those garments she might have had someone help her get into them.”

Corsets also hooked up the front, even though they laced in the back for adjustment, so women could dress themselves. While hooks and eyes were the most commonly used, buttons did appear as well. Hull said, “Buttons were used for decoration, so some of them had buttons on the front of a garment, but they didn’t actually close anything; they weren’t functional.”

Hull says that the historical research is part of what she enjoys when she makes and wears her dresses. She has a degree in speech and theater education, kindergarten to 12th grade. One of her concentrations was costuming. She said, “I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of it; I’ve always liked fashion. To be able to look back at some of the fashions of other eras has always been fascinating to me. And I like history; you’ve kind of a got a combination of all of them going on here.”

According to Hull, people can buy patterns for period dresses that have been sized to the modern woman. However, there are also older books available that contain the original patterns, and Hull says that these can be adapted as well.

There are a lot of myths about the clothing during this time period, says Hull. One of these is that women would have their two lower ribs removed to have a smaller waist. “That’s a real myth,” said Hull. “And there’s no record of it in any doctor’s records; I’ve checked out with the Fashion Institute of Technology down in New York City, and they said they haven’t found any records.”

Hull says that if such records are discovered, the institute would be happy to examine them. However, she says that there was no such thing as elective surgery during the 1800s. She said, “Surgery was a necessity if it was a necessity, and you had a 50-50 chance sometimes of surviving surgery. So yeah, they wouldn’t have gone in and taken out ribs. The bottom ribs float anyway, so the corset pulled them in and you got the shape that you wanted.”

“It’s amazing to me how many Americans don’t know their own history. There are a lot of things that we still see going on even in the 21st century that have ties to the Civil War. There’s still a lot of prejudice, there’s still a lot of inequality between men and women, between races,” said Hull. “We need to educate people. They need to know what happened then so that we don’t repeat it. From the woman’s point of view, yeah, there was a lot of thngs that happened back then that you can still see some attitude like that now.”

Hull says that women wore certain things back then because that was expected of them, but there were a few that broke tradition. For example, some wore bloomers, and this was frowned upon. “They broke out of the mold and because of them, women can now do some of the things that we do,” said Hull. She was the first fulltime woman teaching in the school of engineering and technology at the college where she works.

“Before women went through the things they did in the Civil War and took over for the men when the men left, and then eventually got the vote, we wouldn’t be doing these kinds of things. And it’s amazing to me how many people don’t know that path, don’t know that history,” said Hull. “They don’t understand the connection, not just for the women, but also for the men in the Civil War.”

Hull says that she participated in an event where spectators recognized the Union soldiers as American, but asked what country the Confederate soldiers represented. Hull said, “That’s scary. So to have it in front of them, to have them see live people doing it, I think sticks with them some more.”

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