Past Forward

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The Clothing Behind Civil War Remembrance

May 20, 2014 Think THF

One of the core features of the Civil War Remembrance program are the nearly 450 living history re-enactors that come in and literally camp in Greenfield Village. What many guests don’t know, and is often a question that is asked of these participants is, “Where do you get your clothing and equipment?”

A rather robust industry of proprietors, merchants and cottage business people have emerged over the past several decades to make and provide reproduction clothing, equipment, accouterments and just about every other imaginable article from the Civil War (and other) time periods. These merchants have created their own living history impressions known as sutlers. Sutlers were mobile stores and merchants that followed the armies and set up shop, usually under large canvas tents and temporary structures, to provide articles and goods that the army did not issue or supply to the troops. Today, re-created sutlers follow re-enactors to events across the country, including Civil War Remembrance, to sell reproduced living history items.

Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield VIllage

Many of the re-enactors purchase most, if not everything, from these sutlers and proprietors, but a small group of living history people make their own items. This group of living historians, both men and women, examine originals articles in museum collections, draft patterns and notes, conduct primary research and then go about re-creating said article to the exact detail. Often times this requires searching far and wide for the correct and appropriate fabric, notions and materials to create an absolutely faithful recreation that they will then wear and use. Often is the case that many of these items, including the specific fabrics, have to be made from scratch as they cannot be found at your local fabric shop. For some, this “obsession” with the period details, may seem like too much work, but for those who have embraced such aspects of the material culture from the time period their work has added immeasurably to understanding the time period and the details of everyday life for both soldier and civilian through one of the most universal and common aspects of our ancestors of the past and with us today – clothing! Everyone has done in the past, does today, and will probably for the foreseeable future, wear clothing!

Those of us who have researched, examined originals, and then set out to recreate accurate period clothing and attire from a particular time period have found that it goes well beyond generic fabric choice, color, etc. It is a must to have not only the correct weight, content, and properly (authentically) dyed fabric, but it is also cut, construction technique, thread use and more. An example of this may be a re-created Federal Fatigue Blouse commonly called a four-button sack coat. The army issued nearly 3 million of these and it was the most basic article of clothing for every Federal soldier (and even many Confederates that captured supplies from wagon trains, battlefield pick-ups, etc.). Although there were some variations in the fabric and construction techniques due to the various contractors making them, the regulations called for the fabric to be made of flannel (a lighter weight/utilitarian type wool with a distinct diagonal wale/twill) that was indigo dyed, cut in a specific manner/style, and constructed with #30 logwood-dyed linen thread. Although many were machine sewn, especially by contractors, many fatigue blouses were completely hand sewn, including the button holes. Government clothing depots issued kits to civilians to sew for contract pay – to make it equitable to all since not all had machines, they insisted they were completely hand sewn. So depending on the style of fatigue blouse you are re-creating it needs to be entirely hand sewn or a combination of machine/hand sewn.

Does all of this make a difference in building an authentic and accurate impression? Yes, it does. The jacket hangs differently off the body, the stitching is noticeably different, and looks nearly indistinguishable to the originals sans age. These differences, in conjunction with all the other aspects of putting an accurate impression together, really do create the, “that person looks like they just stepped out of a Civil War photograph,” comment.

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Women and civilian impressions are equally wrought with attention to details down to the exact style of stitch to create a specific look on the bodice of a dress or a knife-pleat on waist seam. Creating the ever important then, and equally important now, proper silhouette starts with the appropriate and accurately constructed foundational undergarments for both men and women. Constructed appropriately and with the correct fabric, an exact look can be created from the time period. Whether it is the fine detail of tiny stitch revealed 5" from a skirt bottom, where the false hem was sewn in by hand, on the inside or the reinforced top stitching along the outer edge of the side back seam on a woman’s bodice, these are all the important details that many of the living history pursue to create a most accurate window to the past.

civl-war-era-photographIt's all in the details and the outcome of such can be profound. A photograph taken using a 1860s wet-plate process of a colleague taken years ago illustrates this point exactly. Robert Lee Hodge, noted living historian and Civil War battlefield preservationist, had created an impression of an early-war civilian soldier. Wearing accurately constructed period clothing, sporting period facial hair, carrying a battle knife, and even crossing his eyes slightly, you would not know if this man is alive today or if it was taken of a Missouri or Kansas “cut throat” or “boarder ruffian” from 1861. Rob’s accurately constructed drop-shoulder cotton plaid work shirt (or battle shirt), fancy silk cravat, jeans-cloth trousers – all with a great deal of wear patina – make this image indiscernible if was taken within the past ten or 150 years. Rob was one of the subject matters in Tony Horwitz’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Confederates in the Attic and this image was used on the paperback version of the book.

Volumes could be written on the material culture aspects and the use of such understanding for recreating clothing and articles of the past and it all begins with the study of originals. During Civil War Remembrance we are very fortunate to have material culture experts and historians bring in their magnificent collections for display in the Village Pavilion (the “Civil War Resource Center”) as well as provide special presentations sharing their deep and extensive knowledge. We have experts from Michigan, Alabama, Maryland and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania here over the weekend. The fashion show, “What We Wore – Clothing and Uniforms of the 1860s,” has been expanded this year and will be co-presented by local historian Beth Turza and Brian Koenig, material culture export from Pennsylvania. Both Beth and Brian construct exquisitely detailed period clothing.

Through researching, understanding and re-creating accurate clothing and articles from the past, we can get a clearer picture of the people and time period we seek to know. We are indebted to those who keep the skill, expertise and craft of the past alive and relevant. A quote that emerged from presentation workshop we conducted here years ago seems very appropriate for those who make period clothing for living history uses:

“We teach our hands with yesterday so the eyes of today will see the hearts of long ago.”

Brian James Egen is Executive Producer at The Henry Ford.

Civil War Remembrance, Greenfield Village

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