Secret to Civil War fashion? Accessorize

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published October 14, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated October 12, 2012 at 3:25 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Dyan Bohnert, a Civil War re-enactor, shows a pair of slippers during a talk about Civil War apparel she presented at the Bob Herzfeld Memorial Library in Benton on Monday.

— If Project Runway had existed during the Civil War, the women of the South may have been top contenders for the show.

The war led to a shortage of manufactured goods in the South, including new clothing. Many women may have owned only one dress to wear for every occasion, most likely a black one, forcing the women to come up with unique ways to use accessories.

Dyan Bohnert of Dumas told a story of the struggle to adapt during the war during a program Monday night at the Bob Herzfeld Memorial Library in Benton. A group of more than 50 people learned how women adapted to the shortages brought on by the war, even as they took on the jobs of farmers and business managers after the men in a community went to war.

“The ladies could not get material to make a dress,” Bohnert told the library audience. “You may think the South had all the cotton, but it was always sold and shipped away and made into cloth up north. Very few people made homespun.”

With the availability of manufactured goods cut short, Bohnert said, Southern women were soon down to their last dress. She said it was often black, dyed with tree barks or walnuts.

“Over time, it would be washed so much that it might be closer to gray than black,” she said. “Mine has lighter sleeves and [is lighter] around the skirt because of being washed.”

The black dress of the Civil War was very different from the “little black dress” of today, Bohnert said. She said the skirt of her Civil War-period dress contains more than 17 yards of cloth in the skirt alone.

“That is one reason why the lady never hung her dress out to dry outside,” Bohnert said. “Somebody would steal it. You could make a lot of shirts or children’s clothes with that much material.”

Like today’s fashions, Bohnert said, the way to make the dress work for any social function was to accessorize.

“To go to church, I would have worn my leather gloves and my hat,” she said.

Her wide-brimmed hat was crocheted from the leaves of the cattail plant, which grows near water.

“Those leaves will cut your hands up,” Bohnert said. “I made this hat, but I would never do it again.”

She had another head cover, a bonnet made from felted wool, a process of combing, pressing and wetting the wool repeatedly until it compresses into a stiff material with a soft, almost velvet-like finish.

“It was always very plain so you could dress it up,” Bohnert said.

The one piece of good jewelry she wore was a cameo in ivory placed on leather and fixed to a detachable collar. She said leather was worth its weight in gold after the early months of the war.

“Leather was used by the military, for belts, ammo cases and holsters. It was also used in horse harnesses and other items like that,” she said. “Very quickly, you didn’t have it. Shoes that were $2 a pair before the war could be $50 apiece, if available at all, once the war began.”

That meant the custom-made shoes were saved until they were needed, Bohnert said.

“If you walked to town, you were barefoot, carrying your shoes in a basket,” she said. “Close to town, you would put them on. On the way back, when no one could see you, you took them off and put them back in the basket.”

At other times, women wrapped bandages around their feet.

“That was the beginning of the tight socks we all see today,” Bohnert said.

For social events like Christmas or a church dinner, an old dress might be disassembled, and part of it would become an overskirt, placed over the black dress to add some color. Scarves could also be tucked into the belt or attached with pins made from thorns, then arranged to fall gracefully or be gathered up to move as the lady walked or danced.

Temporary sleeves, often with decorated stitching or cutwork, were sometimes added, as were crocheted or velveteen collars. Other times, Bohnert said, the women would use aprons, some made reversible. All were designed to dress up and cover up the same old black dress.

Bohnert, who is active in re-enacting groups in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, has been building her collection of Civil War women’s accessories for about 12 years, she said.

“I started with the one dress, and I have added things to go with it over the years,” she said. “Doing this must be more addictive than dope. I just do it more and more.”

Bohnert also collects recipes from the period, and she makes appearances as a woman doctor of the Civil War period.

“Dyan is an expert in so many different things,” said Steve Perdue, history and genealogy director for the Saline County Library, who arranged Bohnert’s talk in Benton. “She knows about the clothing of the period, the home life during the Civil War and how medicine was practiced during that period.”

Many of Bohnert’s appearances are sanctioned by the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.

“I just love history,” she said. “I just soak it right up, and I want to share.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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