CORSETS AND M-16s
Sometime or another, every one of us daydreams about traveling in time. There are people who write out their time-travel fantasies in the form of novels or movie scripts, with characters who visit the past and change history. (You know the plot: someone gives Robert E. Lee a few hundred cases of M-16s, and suddenly the Confederate dollar is worth something.) Other people act out their time-travel fantasies by reenacting history. They work hard to create an experience that one reenactor, writing in the March 1987 issue of Civil War Times, called “being there.”
I saw a large number of would-be time travelers this summer at a reenactment outside Gettysburg (where I also had the pleasure of meeting some of you, our readers). My seven-year-old daughter and I wandered through sutlers’ tents, watched living history demonstrations, and viewed the reenactment of Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s July 1 night attack. But on the drive home, my daughter and I agreed that one of the most interesting things we had seen that day was the demonstration on Civil War-era women’s clothing.
We had watched a young woman put on the many layers of clothing worn by the average well-dressed Civil War-era woman. The model started out in her underwear–not nearly so risqué as it sounds, considering that “underwear” included knit cotton stockings, ample woven cotton drawers that reached the knee, and a woven cotton undershirt covered by that great dictator of shape and posture, the tightly laced corset. Next, the model donned a cotton skirt with three sewn-in hoops, followed by another skirt that minimized “hoop lines.” Over this went an outer skirt–the one actually seen by the public. Then the young woman put on a long-sleeved bodice made of the same material as the skirt, and a belt.
It was a terribly hot day, yet everywhere my daughter and I went, we saw hoop-skirted women in all their glory. How could they stand it? Sure, the male reenactors wore union suits under wool or homespun uniforms, in addition to thick socks and wool hats; but they were allowed to remove their jackets or unbutton a few buttons on their shirts. And they weren’t wearing corsets.
My daughter had slowly changed her mind about Civil War-era women’s clothing. On the way to the reenactment, she had remarked, “I sort of think the way ladies dressed back then looked better.” By the time we headed for home, she was convinced that looks just weren’t worth the discomfort. I was convinced that if Robert E. Lee could have recruited those gutsy, long-suffering women who daily faced corsets and multiple layers of clothing, he might not have needed the M-16s.
Jim Kushlan, Editor, Civil War Times
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