Godey's July 1866
"DRESS UNDER DIFFICULTIES; OR, PASSAGES FROM THE BLOCKADE EXPERIENCE OF REBEL WOMEN.
BY ELZEY HAY, OF GEORGIA.
I have somewhere seen an account of the inmates of the Millbank prison, in England, and, among other things, it was noted how women's instinctive love of dress clung to them through all the difficulties of their situation. Some of them displayed wonderful ingenuity in the arrangement of their prison dresses, making them appear as graceful and becoming or, rather, as little ungraceful and unbecoming as possible, and gave the keepers much trouble by their continual efforts to alter the prescribed uniform into something like a faint shadow of prevailing fashions. One would electrify the little community by some cunning device for a hoop-skirt; another drove it wild with the discovery of a way to make corsets out of bed-ticking; while a third raised an excitement which might rival that produced by the introduction of the waterfall, when she rouged her cheeks with red threads, cunningly drawn from some cloth on which she was sewing. The matrons, and other officials, whose business it was to prevent these little infringements of prison regulations, were baffled and outwitted in spite of their most rigid discipline. Although shut out from the world, with none to note or care how they were dressed, these poor reprobates took the same pleasure in exciting the envy and admiration of each other, that any city belle feels in outshining a rival. They would slyly twist their wiry locks into fanciful coiffures, purloin tallow candles for pomade, and a bit of looking-glass was more precious in their sight than gold.
The struggles of these humble worshippers of fashion are a faint representation, on a small scale, of what we southern women went through with during the blockade. Let those who have never experienced it set their imaginations to work, and conceive, if they possibly can, what must have been the condition of ladies in society and very gay society, too cut off for four years from their supplies of new dresses, shoes, gloves, linen, buttons, pins, and needles, ribbons, trimmings, and laces, not to mention the more urgent necessities of new bonnets, hoop-skirts, and fashion-plates! How we patched, and pieced, and ripped, and altered; how we cut, and turned, and twisted; how we made one new dress out of two old ones; how we squeezed new waists out of single breadths taken from skirts which could ill spare a single fold; how we worked and strained to find out new fashions, and then worked and strained still harder to adopt them all these things form chapters in the lives of most of us, which will not be easily forgotten. Those who wish to learn economy in perfection, as well as those who interest themselves in curious inventions, will do well to study the experience of a blockaded devotee of fashion.
We managed pretty well during the first year of the war, for although we were too “patriotic,” as we called it, to buy any “new Yankee goods,” most of us had on hand a large supply of clothing. Planters were rich men in those days; and their wives and daughters always had more clothes than they could wear out. As soon as we became tired of any article, we would give it to some of our servants, and often, towards the close of the war, have I seen my “mammy” or my maid in cast-off dresses that I fairly grudged them, wondering how I could ever have been so foolish as to give away anything so little worn. Before the blockade was raised, we all learned to wear every garment to the very last rag that would hang on our backs.
In the first burst of our “patriotic” enthusiasm, we started a fashion which it would have been wise to keep up. We were going to encourage home manufacture we would develop our own resources, so we bought homespun dresses, had them fashionably made, and wore them instead of “outlandish finery.” The soldiers praised our spirit, and vowed that we looked prettier in homespun than other women in silk and velvet. A word from them was enough to seal the triumph of homespun gowns. Every device was resorted to for beautifying a material, in itself coarse and ugly. Our homemade dyes, of barks and roots, gave poor, dingy colors, that would have made a pitiful show among the dazzling hues in Northern bazaars, but the blockade effectually shut off all the fine things that might have put our “patriotism” out of countenance. One old lady made a really brilliant dye by dipping wool in pokberry juice, and then inclosing it for several days where Peter put his wife in a pumpkin shell. The color obtained was a brilliant red, but this process was too tedious for anything that had to be dyed in large quantities. Various shades of brown and drab, with some very ugly blue, were the chief colors used by us in our homespun dresses. Before things came to be very bad, we used to buy Turkey red, and have our homespuns striped with it. Some had the patience to ravel out scraps of red flannel, which was respun and used for striping dress goods. It is almost incredible, the number and variety of patterns that could be manufactured by an old woman with a hand-loom.
Homespun travelling dresses, of modest color and make, were really very pretty and appropriate, but some had the bad taste to try to make them fine with red cards, flounces, velvet buttons, etc., which was a very unsuitable and incongruous way of trimming them. Some enthusiastic country ladies spun and wove, with their own hands, full suits of clothing for themselves; and a famous present for soldiers was a pair of gloves, or socks, made, from beginning to end, by the fair hands of the donor. Such gifts pleased the soldiers, and led us to believe that we were following in the footsteps of our revolutionary ancestresses, who, we had been told, were mighty at the spinning-wheel and knitting-needle. Those of us who were not inclined to industry, testified our “patriotism” with much outward show and parade. We had ball-dresses of white factory cloth, such as our negroes used to wear for under-clothing. By candlelight, it had very much the effect of white merino, and worn with necklace and bracelets of strung corn, and coiffure cotton balls, constituted an eminently Southern dress, which would make its wearer the star of any ball-room.
All this was well enough while the novelty lasted, but that wore off in a season, and when summer came, we found our homespuns insufferably hot. Still, the blockade did not pinch us very hard: there were a few dry-goods left in the shops, and we pounced upon these with greedy fingers. There began to be, however, a marked change in our style of dress. Instead of kid gloves, we wore silk, or lace mits; we had no fresh, new ribbons; our summer dresses were no longer trimmed with rich Valenciennes lace, and our hats and bonnets were those of the last season “done over.” In a word, we began to grow seedy, and we felt it; but our southern soldiers still swore that we looked prettier and dressed better than they had ever seen us, so we were consoled while their dazzling uniforms gave that brilliancy to our ball-rooms which our apparel failed to supply.
In time, however, things began to grow desperate. There were no goods in the shops, save a few old-fashioned robes à lé, double-skirts, and other marvellous prints, in huge patterns, which the skill of the best modistes could not render presentable. Buttons, needles, and pins began to fail. Imagine a dearth of pins in a lady's toilet box! Think of it, my fair reader, the next time you dress for a ball, and know what we southern women endured! Laces, ribbons, flowers, and trimmings were out of the question. We could not even freshen an old dress with a new bow or a cambric ruffle, and everybody knows how much such little trappings assist and brighten the most indifferent toilet. We had to patch up something out of nothing to make bricks without straw.
Happily, Fashion favored us, where Providence did not that is, such fashions as came to us. We knew very little of the modes in the outer world. Now and then a Godey or a “Bon Ton” would find its way through the blockade, and create a greater sensation than the last battle. If it was rumored that Annie or Julia had a book of fashions, there would be an instant rush of all womankind for miles around, to see it. I remember walking three miles once to see a number of the Lady's Book, only six months old; then learned that it had been lent out, and, after chasing it all over town, found it at last, so bethumbed and crumpled that one could scarcely tell a fashion-plate from a model cottage. However, the vague rumors that reached us were all favorable to patching. The blessed Garibaldi came in, which must have been invented expressly for poor blockaded mortals, whose skirts had outlasted their natural bodies. Havoc was made of old merino shawls, sacks, silk aprons, scarfs, etc., and then we all appeared in waists of every conceivable shade and color, with skirts of every other conceivable shade and color.
The same fashion was continued through the summer in white spencers, which we wore with faded old skirts, whose bodies had gone the way of all human productions. There was great scarcity of material for making them, but we found an ingenious method for increasing the supply. Faded, worn-out muslins, which were too far gone to be worthy of a place, even in our dilapidated wardrobes, were boiled in lye or acid so as to remove all the color, and then they were ready to be manufactured into white spencers. It is true, this material was very flimsy and rotten, but we had learned to take tender care of our clothing, and to make the frailest fabrics last. I have seen an organdy muslin dress worn five summers without washing, and crêpe bonnets last three seasons.
The introduction of tight sleeves also favored us greatly, for it was very easy to cut our old ones down; but the greatest blessing of all was the fashion of trimming dress skirts round the bottom. It was so convenient to hide rags, or increase the length of a skirt, by putting a puff or flounce round it. This style of trimming was very highly appreciated, for we could use one old dress to puff and flounce another. Some of our ladies would have presented a grotesque appearance on Broadway or Chestnut Street, in a tri-colored ortri patched costume, with perhaps a crimson merino Garibaldi waist, a blue alpaca skirt, and black silk flounces. But, fortunately, we had no fashionable rivals to make our shabbiness worse by comparison, and although painfully conscious that we were very, very rusty, we really did not know the full extent of our own seediness. All were in the same condition, patched and pieced alike. Sometimes a blockade runner or a rich speculator would give his daughter a pair of gloves, a piece of ribbon, a dress, or, perchance, even a bonnet, of some of the dazzling new colors, which would drive the rest of us to frenzy for a little while, but such cases were too rare to give tone to the prevailing fashions. Piecing, and patching, and squeezing was the general rule, so that we who could not emulate those who caught glimpses beyond the blockade, consoled ourselves with the sight of each other, and with the comforting assurances of our soldiers, who stood it out manfully that they could not desire to see us better dressed. I suppose the men really thought us very fine, for, in order to hide stains, and rents, and patches, we piled on trimmings to such a degree as to make our clothing extremely gay, and practice made us so skilful at patching, that we often did it very gracefully. If we wished to lengthen a skirt, instead of putting the trimming on in a straight row at the bottom, we would cut it in waves or festoons, slip the lower part down an inch or two, and put the trimming on so as to produce an effect, which was pretty enough, when we saw nothing better.
But to my dying day, no matter what the fashion may be, I can never look upon a skirt of one color and waist of another, or see the latter decorated with any solid trimming, without instantly suspecting a patch or a make-shift, and I believe most southern ladies have the same prejudice. We feel so guilty of such practices, that the most beautiful little jacket, or the most elegant lace flounces, even when worn by the daughter of a New York or Philadelphia merchant, who surely ought to be above suspicion of patching, only remind us of the scant patterns and covered flaws, of “Confederate times.”
Occasionally, when very hard pushed, we would have two old dresses, of hopelessly incongruous colors, dyed black, and piece them together into a new one. Sometimes the same dress was dyed two or three times, the hue being darkened as stains deepened, and it was not uncommon to see skirts that had been turned inside out, upside down, and hind part before. I well remember one faithful old jacconet, which, after submitting to various alterations as dress and petticoat, was finally, when too much worn for either, cut up and hemmed for pocket-handkerchiefs. All old linen served the same purpose, while our fine handkerchiefs were made of Swiss or mull muslin the sleeves of worn-out spencers, or best parts of old petticoats trimmed with footing ruffles and transferred work. When the ruffles were fluted or crimped, they made a very pretty edging.
The prettiest trimming gotten up during these times for a dress skirt, was made of transfer work cut from a piece of coarse, black Chantilly lace, and sewed on in medallions, with steel beads. The skirt was cut in scallops at the bottom to get rid of certain little snags and dingy places, with a medallion in each scallop. It was really beautiful, and did not appear to disadvantage among the novelties introduced at the end of the war."
"Black silk was the favorite material for
piecing out our old clothes, because it
suited everything. Dresses of all colors
and textures were eked out with flounces,
puffs, cords, quillings, folds and ruches of
black silk, and when that failed, as it very
soon did, alpaca and merino took its place.
We had many things dyed black for the
purpose of using them as trimmings. I
wonder if there be a woman in the South who
has not owned two or three dresses with
streaks of black round the bottom. An old
black silk skirt with nine flounces was a
treasure in our family for nearly two years,
and when that store was exhausted, we fell
back upon the cover of a worn-out silk
umbrella. The finest travelling dress I had
during the war, was a brown alpaca turned
wrong side out, upside down, and trimmed
with quillings made of that same umbrella
cover. I will venture to say that no
umbrella ever served so many purposes or
ever was so thoroughly used up before. The
whalebones served to stiffen corsets and the
waist of a homespun dress, and the handle
was given to a wounded soldier for a
This site last updated 01/16/2011 Col. Thomas Hardeman, Jr. UDC Chapter 2170 Macon, Ga.
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