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Arts and Entertainment

Dressing for the Civil War
New Kent State Fashion Museum exhibit looks at domestic wear of the 1860s

Kabir Bhatia
According to curator Hume, the craftsmanship of the dresses amazes Kent State fashion students who have toured the exhibit
Courtesy of Kent State Museum
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During the Civil War, women and children came second... in the fashion world.  The government tried to standardize sizes for men’s clothing to simplify military uniforms.  But dresses and kids clothes were more free-form, and often more intricate.  WKSU's Kabir Bhatia has on a new exhibit at the Kent State fashion museum that looks at the domestic wear of the 1860s.

Dressing for the Civil War

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To mark the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War, Kent State and the Western Reserve Historical Society culled their collections to show what Ohioans might have worn around town 150 years ago.  Most of the exhibit features clothing.  But curator Sara Hume really enjoys showing accessories.

“It is a bracelet in which the band is made out of braided human hair.  The clasp of it is a locket.  It’s both capturing the memory with the photograph as well as having someone’s hair.  It was a way of keeping a memento of someone.  You would send someone a lock of hair; you’d take a lock of hair.  It’s my favorite part of the tour to take people here and show them the jewelry and then to tell them that it’s hair.  There’s always a visceral reaction to that information.”

Less creepy are the garments making up most of the exhibit.  The military influence is hard to miss. Children’s coats with high collars and top-to-bottom buttons look like mini versions of the coats worn by Union soldiers.But ladies' fashion is the centerpiece.  Rows of dresses display eye-popping patterns and eye-catching waistlines.  

"You have really bright colors because they just invented synthetic dyes.  They just invented the blue dyes and the purple dyes.  They go from these big, giant patterns to smaller, subtler ones by the end of the decade."

The end of the decade saw widespread access to sewing machines.  Tailors began to manipulate fabric into pleats and bustles for ornamentation, along with stripes, diamonds and other patterns in the cloth itself.

The ornate hoop skirts and shawls highlight how tiny the dresses themselves are.  Looking at the collection of wedding attire, Hume suggests some of the brides could not have been more than five feet tall.

"The waist on the smallest dress is about 19 inches, the corset we have is a 19 inch waist, so they're extremely small.  These are wedding boots, so they were worn by a bride who probably wasn't more than 19 or 20."

Most 19- or 20-year-olds around the museum are studying business or fashion.  Hume says the students are usually impressed by the same thing.

"One of the things that’s so amazing about the dresses from this period is the craftsmanship of them. The detail of the dresses is just so amazing.  The piping at the seams and the stitching and the way the strips line up. They're just so immaculately made. There's so much care in how they're put together. They were really just made better than clothing today. Clearly it wasn't thrown away because it's been 150 years and it's still here."

The exhibit runs through next August, and Hume says she plans to add a multimedia portal soon.

Related Links & Resources
Exhibit home page

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