We are often asked during the course of an event how we became reenactors, as well as how we got set up with all our accouterments. As a group we have been together now for over ten years, working closely to coordinate for events and brainstorming ideas of “what to do” while we are at an event. However, each of us had to start somewhere since we don’t normally wear Victorian dress in these modern times, now do we. I’m hopeful that this post will help you if you are thinking of becoming a reenactor of any era, but in particular the second half of the 19th century, which encompasses the American Civil War, both bustle periods and the Gay 90s. This article is also focused on female civilian reenactors because we have so many more requirements, but don’t let that stop you if you hail from the other gender. :-)
If you have visited a few events, say a local Dickens Festival or Victorian Society party, you may have an idea of what kind of clothes call to you. This is a big part of your interpretation so you must like the clothes. For your pocketbook’s sake, it is best if you can sew your own clothes, because while some “suttlers” (stores at events) make off the rack type dresses, invariably they will need to be fitted to you or altered in some way. I have never left an off the rack dress in its original situation and neither have most of my friends. If you can’t sew but you have a good friend who is willing to sew for you – and is capable of fitting – this is your second best bet. Third choice, although it can be expensive is to have a dress made for you. While you can start out with a skirt and blouse combo, most women did not wear that during the 19th century. Young girls did and it might have extended to young women, but mostly women wore dresses – one garment made of a skirt and bodice that are sewn together or hook together and are of the same fabric. It may also depend upon the geographic location you wish to interpret. Poor communities or in particular Southern states toward the end of the Civil War forced women to be clever with their dressmaking (I know you are picturing Scarlet O’Hara here in her curtain dress!). Dresses were remade and cut down for children, taken apart and altered into a different style all together, and generally used until completely unusable. I have always thought an interesting persona would be a servant wearing an obviously remade dress from her employer. But before you can do that, you need what we call underpinnings.
Dresses were made to be worn over certain undergarments which shaped a woman’s body into the silhouette that was popular at the time. I could spend an entire post just on the body shapes, but to spare you the lecture let me just say that you should understand the shape your body will be in once you have on your corset. Yes, your corset. This is an investment, just as a good modern brassier is. It should be the most comfortable garment you own and not an uncomfortable mess that you constantly wiggle and pull at to find “just the right fit” during your day. Having started off with a modern “corset” which was made of thin poly taffeta and plastic boning I can tell you it just won’t work. You also unfortunately cannot borrow a corset from someone because they mould to your body over time and since we are all shaped differently, no two corsets are the same after a few wearings. Again, if you can sew, make your own. Though intimidating, they aren’t all that difficult. If you can’t sew, be measured for one and have it made for you. Online corset purchases are tricky and I don’t personally recommend it. The corset will help support your body during the day and will help carry the weight of your skirts. If you tried to wear an 1860s dress without a corset you would notice how incredibly heavy the skirts are; but a corset will help redistribute the load over your torso making the skirts less tiring to wear.
Next, if you can’t sew and/or don’t want to spend a million dollars getting your clothing started, you can invest in some inexpensive starter garments. Dressing was done in layers, so closest to the body was a chemise, which looks suspiciously like a long white cotton short sleeved nightgown, wink wink. Be careful of fabrics with embroidery and eyelet because this will be under your corset and pressed against your skin all day. You don’t want any weird rubbing or bumps. Next would have been your drawers (as an aside, they were not called bloomers. Bloomer suits were an outer garment like a short dress and long pants). If you look at drawers closely, they look a lot like white cotton pajama bottoms, and if you are in a cold weather climate, white flannel pajama bottoms would be really cozy.
Next, put on your white knee high socks (from Target) and your boots. I have to admit, you will want good quality boots because you will probably be standing or walking for a good portion of the day. Also, many events are held in parks, so there is no guarantee that the ground will be nice and smooth/sturdy. You are as likely to step in a gopher hole as get a sunburn. You can probably find a fair priced boot at Target, Payless or the like, but I recommend a western wear store, such as Boot Barn. Believe me, men’s boots cost a lot less than women’s. Find your comparable size in men’s boots and try some on; you might find they fit nicely with your thick white sock in there. You want a lace up style boot, nothing fancy to get started.
Now you would put on your corset, mentioned earlier. Lace it comfortably but not so tight you can’t sit down without having difficulty breathing. (You may think I’m joking here but I’m not.) Make any adjustments to your bosom, then make adjustments to the laces that are needed. Over all this you may want to wear a corset cover, which is very similar to a camisole. The corset cover is important if your corset has any color on it that can be seen through your blouse. It will also disguise the ridge of the busk and the top of your corset. Remember, Victorian women were conservative and it would have been unseemly for any portion of the undergarments to be visible or discernible.
The final undergarments are petticoats. You will need at least two to start. If you are going the Civil War route, you will need a hoop skirt and one more petticoat to wear over it. You do not want to have your skirt flapping in the wind when the breeze catches up under the hoop and a second petticoat will help weigh it down. You also don’t want the bones of the hoop to be visible through your skirt. The more higher class your character, the more petticoats and you could wear a second petticoat on top of your hoop. Make sure the petticoats are correct for the type of skirt, e.g. a bustle dress will have different petticoats than a Gay 90s dress. Part of your learning will come from talking to other reenactors, so don’t worry if you don’t know it all when you start out.
Next put on your dress, dress your hair as appropriate for your era, don your bonnet and gloves and you are ready to stroll about the event. The entire dressing process can take 30-45 minutes if you are alone. If you have short hair, you can work up to artificial hair and/or hair pieces slowly and inexpensively. That’s a whole other blog post though, so if you are just starting out, please do your best but don’t feel like you can’t attend an event if your hair isn’t exact.
But attending an event isn’t just about the clothing (although it sure feels like it when we are all together oohing and ahing at each others dresses!). You need to know if you are going to be a First Person reenactor or a Third Person reenactor. A First Person reenactor generally interprets a known character of the era, such as President Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightengale, or the like. This is the hardest type of interpretation in my opinion because you can never break character, even in your own encampment or while sitting down to eat lunch. Did President Lincoln drive a car? No, so he wouldn’t drive up in his Honda and then hop out in full view of the spectators. If you want to be a First Person reenactor you shouldn’t either.
My group tends toward Third Person, in which we have character information, a household and business, but we tend to tell the spectator about the period rather than acting as if we were in the period. We try to uphold the conventions of women from the later Victorian era, we eat off Victorian style dishes and we drink from Victorian looking glasses. There are not coke cans and plastic boxes in our venue.We do this because it makes it more fun for us and the spectator. Renaissance Faire guilds are very good at removing all modern items from their camps and banning them completely while spectators are present. I have even seen RF reenactors transfer foods and drinks from modern containers at the local food vendor into a more appropriate container for their character. No paper plates or plastic wrappers there. Personally I think some Victorian events do not stress this enough and soldiers are seen drinking from bright red coke cans or smoking modern cigarettes. If possible to not do that for an entire day, it makes it more fun for everyone. Women should never be seen smoking unless your character is of a certain station that smoked, such as an old Southern granny smoking a corn cob pipe. If you do smoke, try to find an out of the way place or a “back stage” type area. The worst offense I have seen was by a woman who claimed to be completely accurate, smoking a Kool and having left out the package on her table inside her encampment. Oops.
Even if you are going to your first event in dress, you should have some idea of “who you are” as a Third Person reenactor. Have an idea of where you are from and why you are at the event. Is it a Civil War battle reenactment? Are you there as a spectator wanting to see the Yankies trounce the Rebels? Are you a refugee fleeing the Southern troops? Are you a profiteer selling necessary items at inflated prices? Even if no one asks you even one question, you will feel better knowing “who you are.”
You may also want some basic accessories for the day. Some type of carpet bag or a tapestry purse can hide purchases that come in plastic bags, carry your modern necessities such as cell phones and sun glasses, and lend credence to your carpet bagger persona. It can hold your handiwork for when you sit down to sew or knit. It can hold the small photo album of your loved ones. Etc, etc, etc. A parasol might be fun and depending on the “class” of your persona it could be a requirement. I have a small child, so holding a child’s hand, a parasol and a carpet bag is just not something I have figured out yet, so I have set aside my parasols for now. I wear a bonnet whenever we go out walking. Some women wear a chatelaine, which is somewhat like a key chain, worn at your belt, to hold keys, sewing scissors, eye glasses, watch, or any other type of thing. Some women wear a pocket. Pockets were not generally sewn into dresses in the Victorian era, so pockets were worn around the waist or tucked through a belt on the outside of the dress. They could be decorative or simple, but they held the same type of things we put into our pockets now.
If you aren’t part of a group, you might want to consider joining one. Civilians need all the help we can get as our population is small when compared with soldiers. It’s difficult for some to accept that civilians continued to exist during the Civil War for some reason, and for that matter very little consideration is given to civilian groups and their set ups, although that seems to be changing as the years progress. So don’t feel like the only way to become involved is by joining the Army. If you see a civilian group that interests you, take a moment to try to meet them and find out about their group, their needs and their recruitment. Most of these groups are small units of friends and family who just want to have a good time. It is a lot of work to put together a camp or venue, and we just want people to notice us and appreciate what we do for them. Behind the scenes, there is a day to set up and a few hours to tear down for every weekend long event. The stuff has to be carted away in various vehicles and stored in garages until the next event. If you are ready to jump in, find out if the group that interests you is looking for members. You might be surprised! (Mrs. Brewer’s Parlour is currently recruiting for male and female civilian members, children welcome, inquire within…)
This is a lot of information for one blog post, so I hope I haven’t scared anyone off of becoming a reenactor. It is a very fullfilling hobby that has kept me interested for over 10 years. The way the hobby is growing, with more Victorian societies and costumed organizations, I imagine it will continue to grow and hold people’s interest for many years to come. Start out small and work your way up. Looking back at my first Victorian dress I can see all the things that were wrong, but no one at the time knew and I thoroughly enjoyed myself! Most importantly, have fun. You don’t need to have every little aspect of your costume the first time you step into an event, just enough to play the part and have a good time. As you grow in the hobby, you will acquire bits and pieces here and there. Reenactor swap meets are one of the best ways to pick up good quality second hand stuff, and every reenactor knows someone or a shop or seamstress who makes “just the thing” you are looking for for your outfit.