General Rules of 1860’s Fashion: Part 1

As you begin to explore and dive into the exciting field of living history, referring back to original sources is vital.  Not only does it help you find and create the necessary pieces to recreate your own look, it helps with the mindset of the time.   Like many fashion magazines of today, use a good dose of caution assuming that every women in all social structures followed such rules.  While many did, others may have not had the luxury to either adhere or afford all the items and pieces listed.  In addition, take into  account that if you are focusing on American Civil War reenactment, the war itself (based on location) would have also impacted a woman’s ability to dress as she may have wished.  Although this book was published before the actual start of the war, it was no doubt read and used by many women for years after.  

With all that said, there is still a wealth of information here for the living historian.   Pay close attention to the proper way to store and hang your garments.  In addition, the Harmony and Fashion section is full of sage advice for not only the time, but in creating your own appropriate historical look.  You will see my notes below each image to help add context and examples to the core content.



This is the first of all rules to be observed with regard to dress. Perfect cleanliness and careful adjustment of each article in the dress are indispensable in a finished toilet. Let the hair be always smooth and becomingly arranged, each article exquisitely clean, neat collar and sleeves, and tidy shoes and stockings, and the simplest dress will appear well, while a torn or soiled collar, rough hair, or untidy feet will entirely ruin the effect of the most costly and elaborate dress. The many articles required in a lady’s wardrobe make a neat arrangement of her drawers and closets necessary, and also require care in selecting and keeping goods in proper order. A fine collar or lace, if tumbled or soiled, will lose its beauty when contrasted with the same article in the coarsest material perfectly pure and smooth.

Chemisettes, 19th century dickies, would have been treated with the same care and attention to cleanliness as removable collars.

Each article of dress, when taken off, should be placed carefully and smoothly in its proper place. Nice dresses should be hung up by a loop on the inside of the waistband, with the skirts turned inside out, and the body turned inside of the skirt. Cloaks should hang in smooth folds from a loop on the inside of the neck. Shawls should be always folded in the creases in which they were purchased. All fine articles, lace, embroidery, and handkerchiefs, should be placed by themselves in a drawer, always laid out smoothly, and kept from dust. Furs should be kept in a box, alone, and in summer carefully packed, with a quantity of lump camphor to protect from moths. The bonnet should always rest upon a stand in the band-box, as the shape and trimming will both be injured by letting it lie either on the face, sides, or crown.

Hat boxes, such as this 19th century English example, were sturdy structures meant to protect valuable and often expensive hats on long trips.



This fashion plate, from La Mode Illustree, shows the more elaborate gowns which would require either a special inner loop for hanging, or would lay flat when not worn.


Let each dress worn by a lady be suitable to the occasion upon which she wears it. A toilet may be as offensive to good taste and propriety by being too elaborate, as by being slovenly. Never wear a dress which is out of place or out of season under the impression that “it will do for once,” or “nobody will notice it.” It is in as bad taste to receive your morning calls in an elaborate evening dress, as it would be to attend a ball in your morning wrapper.

This women’s outerwear is an example of an appropriate garment to wear while visiting or “running errands.”


While many women would not view the above fashion plate as “achievable” it nonetheless helped guide them to know the difference in “walking/visiting” gowns to more casual at home wear.


To appear well dressed without harmony, both in color and materials, is impossible. When arranging any dress, whether for home, street, or evening, be careful that each color harmonizes well with the rest, and let no one article, by its glaring costliness, make all the rest appear mean. A costly lace worn over a thin, flimsy silk, will only make the dress appear poorer, not, as some suppose, hide its defects. A rich trimming looks as badly upon a cheap dress, as a mean one does  upon an expensive fabric. Observe this rule always in purchasing goods. One costly article will entirely ruin the harmony in a dress, which, without it, though plain and inexpensive, would be becoming and beautiful. Do not save on the dress or cloak to buy a more elaborate bonnet, but let the cost be well equalized and the effect will be good. A plain merino or dark silk, with a cloth cloak, will look much better than the most expensive velvet cloak over a cheap delaine dress.

While a simple gown in construction, the elaborate lace on the under sleeves elevate the overall look.  A good choice for those looking to get more then one wear/look from a gown.


These stunning examples of color coordination and properly decorated gowns would have been used by the wealthier classes to plan out their wardrobe for the upcoming “season.”


Do not be too submissive to the dictates of fashion; at the same time avoid oddity or eccentricity in your dress. There are some persons who will follow, in defiance of taste and judgment, the fashion to its most extreme point; this is a sure mark of vulgarity. Every new style of dress will admit of adaptation to individual cases, thus producing a pleasing, as well as fashionable effect. Not only good taste, but health is often sacrificed to the silly error of dressing in the extreme of fashion. Be careful to have your dress comfortable and becoming, and let the prevailing mode come into secondary consideration; avoiding, always, the other extreme of oddity or eccentricity in costume.


The red and black dress…..hmmmmmmm?  What do you think?  


Hartley, Florence. The Ladies Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politiness. 1860. G.W. Cottrell Publisher. Boston.

3 thoughts on “General Rules of 1860’s Fashion: Part 1

  1. Pingback: General Rules of Fashion: Part 2 | Inside Aimee's Victorian Armoire

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