Fashion of the 19th century is a study in contradictions and transformation. Fashion historians have come to call the change of men’s fashions from the 18 th to the 19 th century “the great masculine renunciation.” The lines of the clothing became simple and stark, and the ease of wearing these suits made it an example of “modern” fashion, compared with the backwardness of women’s clothing, still mired in the constrictions of ruffles, corsets, bustles, and lace.
Women’s reform of the mid-19th century raised many controversial issues, and one of the most contentious was fashion. To be a lady of fashion was socially enviable, but nonetheless wholly reviled by the morals of prevailing culture. Fashion, therefore, represented a serious temptation toward impropriety. Still, women remained fascinated with fashion trends, and tried to find an appropriate compromise between the evil of becoming consumed by prevailing fashions and the grace of dressing in a style reflecting position and wealth.Fashion articulated class position; extravagance defied it. A lady had to know the difference, manifesting a restrained elegance that would simultaneously project internalized self-control and solid male protection. Within those limits, fashion also provided her an outstanding opportunity for muted competition with other women.
Women’s clothes at the beginning of the Civil War were generally based on English, French, and New York fashions. Fabrics were spun in the Northern cotton mills or imported from the English fabric makers. Godey’s Lady’s Book was as familiar to the Southern lady of fashion as to her Northern relatives, and many women dressed to conform with a cultural ideal.Less concerned about overall slenderness, clothing was designed to help a woman look narrow at the waist and wide at the face, hips, and shoulders. This was often accomplished with foundation garments which added width to a lady’s silhouette. Nearly all lines of the garment served to emphasize the narrowness of the waist, and consequently directed attention to the center front of the waist. Day dresses had long sleeves and high necks, while evening dresses were typically sleeveless with low-cut bodices.
Expensive gowns were often made of fabrics with large prints, as the waste in matching such prints indicated affluence. Fabrics included poplins, wools, linens, taffetas, rich silks