New Civilians

An Orientation to Civilian Reenacting


by Mr. David Vargo and Miss Joanne Shelby



Welcome to the Civilian Committee of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, which includes both men and women. It is our hope to provide you with basic information to get started in reenacting while avoiding common mistakes made by many reenactors (including the authors) as well as to help you decide if reenacting is right for you.


[Ladies at Philippi, WV, 2003] 

A Brief History

Reenacting is an attempt to recreate the events and people of an earlier time period. While many time periods are recreated, the American Civil War is by far the most popular. There are more than 20,000 reenactors in North America alone. Since the conclusion of the 125th Anniversary events in 1990, there has been a tremendous increase in civilian reenactors, including women. It is now recognized by reenactors that the Civil War was not fought in a vacuum but that civilian populations were affected in profound ways and that interpreting the lives of Civilians is valid within the context of reenacting.

Not all living history programs are battles. Civilian scenarios or activities at historic homes or sites are becoming more common all the time. Civilian activities as interpretive programs are becoming more common.

It is very important to look at the reason you wish to do civilian reenacting. For many women it is because their husbands or significant others are involved with a military organization. For others it is because they have their own personal interest and agendas. Men may select civilian roles because they can no longer portray the military or because they no longer find it challenging. Some gentlemen choose to cross between civilian and military depending on the event.

There are many appropriate roles for civilians to portray. This will determine what you do and what you wear. You will need to be prepared to answer the question, "What are you and who do you portray?" (This is always asked of the authors and rarely asked of the Military!) Some appropriate roles for civilians include:


  1. A farmer's family living near the site where the army is camped
  2. City folks visiting the armies during winter quarters
  3. Civilian contractors drumming up business from the army
  4. A delegation from the U.S. Sanitary and Christian Commissions
  5. Laundress
  6. Nurse

Once having selected your role, read all you can on the topic. Visit the local library to find books on the subject. Also don't forget to ask fellow reenactors. They are excellent sources for information. Besides, you make new lifelong friends that way (comrades in arms so to speak!). Then begin to work on your impression (discussed in depth later in this manual). Finally begin on the costume research. A word to the wise. To avoid the common mistakes made by the authors and many other veteran reenactors, don't rush out and buy the first outfit or pattern from the many available merchants. These merchants are in this to make money and will sell anything and call it authentic. Take your time. It should take about a year to get everything together. Remember you are working on your impression, how you look, feel, think, and act. It may require a change of mindset to pull it all together.


General Considerations

There are several things to consider when getting your costume together. We have listed them here as follows:







  1. Eyeglasses. If you wear eyeglasses, you will need to purchase period frames and have your prescription put in. Contacts may be an option although being around campfires and gunpowder can make it painful option. Modern eyewear does not go over well with veteran reenactors, and if you are at an historical site you may be asked to remove them.
  2. No wrist watches.
  3. Period shoes. The general style for period shoes is as follows, leather with square or round toes and low if any heels. Womens shoes could lace up the sides or have an elastic gusset on the side. They would rarely lace up the front. Men's shoes would often lace up the front. Avoid pointed toes and high heels; they are not correct.
  4. Period eating utensils including cup, plate, knife, fork and spoon.
  5. Period chair or seat.
  6. Period tent and sleepwear if going to camp out. Note this will be in the civilian camp not in with the military to help maintain strict authenticity at events. Talking with a veteran camping reenactor can help you get this together.

It is suggested that you subscribe to the following magazines:


  1. The Civil War Lady magazine
    622 3rd Ave SW
    Pipestone, MN 56164
    cost $21.00 for 6 issues


  2. The Citizens Companion
    P.O. Box 707
    Marietta, OH 45750
    cost $20.00 per year


Men's Clothing

A gentlemen will need the following to be properly attired:






  1. A front coat or sack coat made of wool. Frock coats were the "suit" of the day. Sack coats were shorter and considered sportswear or work clothes. Either type would be made of wool in dark sober plain colors.
  2. Waistcoat or vest. These may have been a bit fancier in design. They could be plaid, checked or other fancy fabric. Sometimes they might be in a different color than the coat.
  3. A pair of civilian style trousers. These would also be made of wool and might be plaid, checked or plain, with plain fabric being the most common.
  4. A stock, necktie or cravat. Stocks and cravats were considered old fashioned and were being replaced by the necktie. This was an essential part of the man's outfit. Dark colors held the most popularity at the time of the war.
  5. A civilian style cap or hat.

A clean shirt, vest and trousers was the minimum a man might put on. Vests were considered essential. To be seen without a vest was to be considered undressed, the equivalent of being shirtless today. A hat was considered essential to be dressed as well.

Study period photographs to get a good idea of what was common and the norm.


Getting started as a Civilian Reenactor is at the same time both challenging and fun. You will meet many nice people both as participants and as spectators. Remembers, it takes time and research to get started. It takes time to develop your impression and research to put yourself together. You will never know all there is to know so don't get frustrated. Also remember that many people you will meet have been doing this for many years. Just do your best, relax, and enjoy yourself. Use more experienced reenactors as resources. Ask questions. They will be more than happy to answer them for you. Also you will make new friends that way.


Your Impression

Before you buy anything, it is a good idea to know who you are portraying. Decide on your impression. By doing reading, you may find a type of person you would like to do. Then start making a biographical sketch of yourself. make sure you including the following:










  1. YOUR NAME. If you have a period appropriate name, it might be easier to use your own. Or you could portray an ancestor from the period. Your name forms the basis of your identity. If you have a modern name, read through diaries or letters of the period and select one from there.
  2. WHERE YOU ARE FROM. Are you from a rural community, a town or a city? This will strongly influence how you dress, talk and interact with others. Have you lived there all your life or a recent resident? Then do reading about the area to learn "facts about your home."
  3. YOUR OCCUPATION. Read diaries and letters of the period to find an appropriate occupation for yourself and family members. Then you can research the occupation to portray it or discuss it with the public. Occupation does include being the Victorian Housewife. That is a fun and fascinating role to portray.
  4. AGE. This will help you research what life events you remember. An example, if you were born in 1832, you would remember the War with Mexico. it will also strongly influence how you dress and with whom you interact.
  5. MARTIAL STATUS. Are you married, single or a widow? This influences how you dress and interact with others.
  6. EDUCATION LEVEL. This will be influenced by your age and where you live. Can you read and write and if so how much. If you have some education, where did you receive it. How long was your education and what subjects did you study.
  7. FAMILY MEMBER NAMES. This can be very important as these people may be involved in the war effort. Again use period approrpiate names. Be creative. You can make the family as large or small as you (or your family history allows) like!
  8. How do you feel about issues of the period, such as Abolition, the war, the President, womens sufferage, temperance movement, etc. Again, reading period diaries, letters, newspapers can help you form opinions and ideas. These are the basis for carrying on period conversation at events. It's a good idea to have some family member opinions also.
  9. RELIGION. Church had a profound influence on the lives of the Victorians. Your choice of religion will influence your circle of acquaintances and also your feelings on period events such as abolition, etc.

You can see there is a wealth of research waiting to be done. This biographical sketch is a skeleton of who you are. It will help you have purpose for being at an event and gives confidence in interacting with the public. Who you are will strongly influence your clothing choices. Relax and have fun learning about our period. The more you read, the more you will become inspired and the more authentic you will become. Believe me, having an "impression" makes the experience more real and fun!


Dressing the Part

Now that you have an impression, it's time to dress the part. This is probably the most fun part. It is fun to look at the fashion plates from Godey's Ladies Book and other fashion periodicals of the day. For most women they were a fantasy, not a practical option. Yes they were studied for inspiration and ideas and toned down for a more practical look. It is a far better choice to study photographs of the period (known as CDVs or Carte de Visites). They show you what the average lady wore. Let them be a source of ideas for you. It will present a more realistic picture of the period for the public. Most women had a formal and an informal dress for both the summer and winter season. Clothing would have been recycled or even taken from formal to informatl as they wore out.



Undegarments (known as underpinnings) are an essential and were worn in the folllowing order:


  1. Drawers (or Pantalettes)
  2. Chemise (pronounced shimmy)
  3. Corset
  4. Under-the-Hoop Petticoat
  5. Hoop skirt or Crinoline
  6. Over the Hoop Petticoat

Underpinnings were worn to keep the outer clothing away from contact with the skin. Perspiration and skin bacteria will cause a garment to rapidly deteriorate if it is not washed often. Women's dresses were not often washed; they were more often just spot cleaned.

Most of the undergarments were made of sturdy bleached muslin. In winter the petticoats would have been made of flannel or woolen material. Lace was rarely seen on everyday undergarments. Chemises may have had crocheted or tatted needlework on the toop or even vertical tucks or pleating. Petticoats and drawers may have had some cording or tucks but nothing elaborate. Silk or taffeta underpinnings were not commonly used. STOCKINGS were usually made of fine wool and cotton. White was the most common conservative choice. Black and even striped stockings were also popular. The stockings came to above the knee and were held in place by a garter. Garters were often very fancy and decorated with flowers and mottos.

As stated before, underpinnings are essential to create the look, especially the corset. I suggest that you get the corset before you purchase your dress to obtain an accurate fit. Juanita Leisch's book Who Wore What offers clear illustrations of what was correct for the period. (This book is ESSENTIAL for research. You can order it through Borders Bookstore.) Having the proper undergarments will help you achieve the desired look of narrowness at the waist. It was the goal of every lady to make herself look as if a man could fit both hands around her waist. A corset will help achieve a smooth line in the garment bodice. A CORSET was usually cut in 6 or 8 sections and curved to fit the wearer's exact form. Steel or whalebone was usually inserted into the pockets constructed on parallel seams which joined the sections. They laced up the back for adjustment and closed in front with a metal busk and steel clasps. It served as a bra and girdle and was worn over the chemise.

The CHEMISE (pronounced Shimmy) was nothing more than a loose cotton slip that fell from the shoulders to the mid-calf. It had a wide neck usualy held up with a drawstring or buttons, and short sleeves. There could be simple trim of eyelet, crochet lace or vertical tucks to decorate the neck. it was a very simple plain straight garment.

Under the chemise would come the DRAWERS. They came to just below the knees and were simply two wide legs joined by a waist band at the top. They were usually made of muslin.

The HOOPSKIRT or CRINOLINE is perhaps the most famous undergarment of the period. The rule of thumb is that the diameter of the hoop should not be more than 50-70% of the wearer's height. There were several types of hoops available--the caged Crinoline made of strips of steel and the Hooped Petticoat with steel bands sewn into a cotton petticoat. The hoop was used to make the dress "stick out" and give the wearer the illusion of a small waist. A practice session is needed before entering the field to prevent an embarrassing situation from occurring. It is very different to sit, stand and walk properly in a hoop. Pracatice, practice, practice to be oh so graceful and elegant as in days of old!

A minimum of 2 petticoats is needed for modesty's sake. The UNDER-THE-HOOP PETTICOAT was essential to prevent the visibility of the private undergarments or "worse" when bending over, or in the event of wind. IF YOU WEAR A HOOP, THIS IS A MUST!

The OVER THE HOOP PETTICOAT was worn to keep the lines of the hoop from showing through the dress as well as to add fullness. (Keep in mind the goal of an illusion of a small waist.) These petticoats should be kept simple and plain.

Now that you are properly clothed underneath, it is time to attire the outside. Again, keep in mind general appearance and your impression. I will discuss what was general or common only. Purchase and study Juanita Leisch's book Who Wore What as well as other books on the subject for ideas and appropriate styles.

As mentioned before, women wanted to emphasize the narrowness of the waist and emphasize width at the face,hips and shoulders. Each will be discussed separately.

Women in the 1860s wanted a full round face. A center hair part is essential with NO BANGS. Hair was styled flat on top with fullness at the sides and back. Hair was generally confined. Daywear dictates that the ends of the hair be hidden even if in ringlets or braids. The fullest part of the hairstyle was at or below the ears and to the back. Hair may or may not be confined in a snood (hairnet). Even when wearing a cap or bonnet, try to get the correct hairstyle. A snood can be used to conceal short hair but you need a center part. Brush bangs back off the face and hold in place with hairpins or spritz.

The dress ensemble is the most fun part. Most women of the period wore dresses of matching skirts and bodices. A waist seam that encircles the waist is essential whether it is a sskirt and bodice or a one piece dress. The most common style was a bodice and skirt of the same fabric and worn as a dress. If the bodice and skirt were not of a single fabric, the bodice was not usually white unless a jacket or vest is worn over it. In this case the bodice was a solid color and the skirt was printed.

Bodices (blouses or shirtwaists) were put together so that seam lines and trims added width to the shoulders not the waist. The most popular was the "V" bodice with a front closure and the waist at the natural waistline. Shoulder seams were lengthened and the armhole seams appeared diagonal rather than vertical. Armhole seams fit closely under the armpit. Sleeves should be the fullest at the elbow. There should be a dropped shoulder. Most bodices were fastened with hooks and eyes (buttons were usually decorative). Seams were also self-fabric piped with fine piping at the neckline, armhole seams, waist, sometimes wrist and side seams. Bodices should be lined with muslin. The back of the bodice should be constructed in three pieces, very narrow at the center back waist. Again, studing the book Who Wore What will show various other bodice types and other styles of dresses worn.

The neckline of the bodice is very important. The most common neckline was the round "jewel" neckline that fit close to the base of the nape of the neck. Necklines were used to enhance the width of the face. "V" necks were not common for daywear in adults unless a chemisette that filled the gap was worn. Collars of three inches or less were worn to protect the dress from soils and stress. Collars were usually worn flat against the dress. Ballgown necklines were usually off the shoulder or in a deep "V".

Sleeves of the period had fullness at the elbow and were attached to the fabric with a narrow selfl-fabric piping. Sleeves were attached to provide a smooth line from neck to elbow creating an illusion of wide sloping shoulders.

Skirts are full and usually use hoops to add width. Bellshaped skirts were the most common. They were usually done by either gathering or cartridge pleating into the band at the waist. A period pattern, or studying period photographs shows you how to achieve the correct look.

Fabric for the dresses is a personal subject. Studying period photographs, original garments and the book Who Wore What will help you find the correct fabric. In general, large prints would have been for the wealthier class due to the large amount of material required for making a dress. Plain colored fabrics were most common. Also used were small regular patterns, geometric patterns, dots, stripes and checks usually with dark backgrounds. Strictly floral prints were not as widely worn as believed; they were considered old fashioned and required larger amounts of material. They may have been worn in the south and usually were on a lighter background. The small floral calicos of today would not be correct. Needles and Threads in Gettysburg has an excellent selection of appropriate fabrics.


[Ladies at Philippi, WV, 2003]



Another important part of the look is accessories. These include gloves, fans, parasols, bonnets and hats. Gloves were an essential part of the ladies outfit. Gloves were short, usually to the wrist and fastened with a button. Kid leather was the material of choice with white being the most popular color. In the larger cities, other colors were popular. Please note colored gloves would only be worn in the daytime. White gloves were essential for evening wear. If one is in mourning, black gloves are a requirement whether for day or evening wear. Crochet, netted or lace gloves or mitts were favored among the older ladies as they were most popular in the 1840s and 50s. Elbow length gloves are not correct for the period. Goves would be worn outside when walking, ridigin, driving, visiting, etc. They would not be worn while eating.

Fans were an important accessory. They were both functional and ornamental. They might be semi-circular made of paper, fabric, pierced wood or ivory. Feather fans should be confined to the ballroom. There is little know evidence of lace fans. There were alsos circular fans, and round or spade shaped palmetto or straw fans.

Parasols were used to keep the sun off a lady's face. They were small and long handled. The most common covering was silk that might be trimmed with lace, fringe or rouching. Paper, oriental style parasols might be used for informal occasions.



Civil War Era Ladies Head Wear by Joanne P. Shelby


When out of doors, a woman would customarily don a bonnet or hat to protect her complection. Bonnets were preferred over hats as they were considered more ladylike or "genteel" as well as helping add to the much desired round face. Ironically enough, fashionable bonnets of the period did not afford much protection for the face. For work or less refined tasks, sunbonnets or slatfront bonnes would be worn. The fancy bonnets would be worn for church, visiting, social activities--anytime they wanted to appear refined. Bonnets were the most frequently updated article in the wardrobe because they could be refurbished to fit the fashion trend. Bonnets of the period were either small and closely shaped to the head (popular in the 1850s) or in the shape of a "spoon" (called a spoon bonnet popular in 1862-63). The spoon bonnet brim was curved high over the fore and had flowers, lace, fruit and even little birds tucked inside under the brim. This bonnet type was often ridiculed. Juanita Leisch's book Who Wore What has sexcellent photos of bonnets and hats of the period. The most common type is the 1850s style. Feathers were considered passe. Flowers, ribbons and laces were the favored decorations. Closely gathered lace and delicate blooms might grace the inside close to the face forming a beautiful frame. Flowers, ribbons, grassses and lace might decorate the outside as well. A curtain for the neck (called a Bavolet) was also common to keep the neck from getting sunburned. Ribbons might be 4 or 5 inches long on either side to tie a generous elegant bow. Veils might be used on the bonnet for modesty and privacy especially if traveling. Silk was the ideal covering for the bonnet but fine or polished cotton might be used as well. Bonnets might coordinate with an outfit but rarely match it exactly. Straw bonnets were common for spring, summer and early fall. Summer bonnets usually had simpler decorations.

A hat might also be worn but was considered less formal than a bonnet. Straw and fabric hats were popular, espeically in the country. They might be trimmed with plumes, lace, flowers, veils and bright ribbons. Study Juanita Leisch's book and period photographs before making or purchasing any hat or bonnet; it is far too easy to get a postwar hat or bonnet from a sutler.

Do your research before purchasing any jewelry or shoes. Sutlers will sell anything and call it authentic.

Good luck getting started! I have enclosed a list of sources used in compiling this booklet as well as sources to do your research. I hope you will find them helpful.

The Civil War Lady Magazine
622 3rd Ave S.W.
Pipestone, MN 56164
$21.00 for a year's subscription (6 issues)
An excellent source. It has a complete book list as well as sutler advertisements.

Ary Vansteamburg, Everyday Clothing of Rural Women at the Time of the Civil War, Biglersville, Pa., 1993.
An excellent source, very descriptive of clothing and acdessories. Contains period photographs.

Kathleen York, Civil War Ladies Sketchbook, Vol. 1-3
Order from "The House of York"
32 N. Union Street
Elgin, IL 60123

Juanita Leisch, Who Wore What, Womens Wear 1861-65
Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, PA
Can be ordered through Borders Bookstore.

Priscilla Harris Dalrymple, American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs
Dover Publications.
Can be ordered through Borders Bookstore. An excellent source.

The Family Album Ladies Wear Daily 1860-65
Juanita Leisch
Route 3, Box 6025
Berryville, VA 22611
Excellent source. Has excellent photographs and narrative on clothing.

A Womans War: Southern Women, Civil War and the Confederate Legacy.
Available through Borders Bookstore.


Sutler Sources

Gettysburg's Civil War Ladys Things
1-800-438-8971 to order a catalogue
Has clothing, bonnets and hats ready made. Period Impressions patterns are available from here.

Harriet Engler Custom Sewing
6 Parkview Avenue
Winchester, VA 22601-4406
Catalogue available.
(703) 667-2541

Mrs. Martin's Mercantile and Millinery
Mrs. Judith Martin
4566 Oakhurst
Sylvania, OH 43560
Catalogue available.
(419) 474-2093

Bon Marche
Lincoln Square
Gettysburg, PA

I would suggest that you purchase any catalogues and show them to a more experiencd reenactor before ordering. They can help with authenticity.


Return to the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves Home Page. For further information write to 9th Pennsylvania Reserves,c/o 1887 Old Ramsey Rd., Monroeville, PA 15146.
(c) December 2019