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US Army Women's Museum - Fort Lee, Virginia 


Army Women's Museum
Costume Collection
The 1800's!


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                        Costume - 1830's

Pioneer 

Dr. Mary Walker Costume

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In 1821, when Mexico granted lands for colonization to two hundred families, the American settlement of Texas began.  For a number of years, stormy relations existed between the American settlers and the Mexican authorities.  In 1835, Texas officially proclaimed its independence, calling itself the Lone Star Republic.  Six months later, Mexican troops entered Texas to subdue American secessionists.

Women's fashion in the 1830's were a drastic departure from the previous decade.  The Empire Style had disappeared.  Emphasis was now on the natural waistline.  Sleeves ballooned to an enormous size and were attached to a sloping shoulder line.   Skirts were fuller and shorter.

Pioneer women fought and worked side by side with their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sweethearts.  These women suffered great physical and emotional hardships in adapting to the ways of the wilderness, but they marched with courage, performing the humble duties of their household in terrifying loneliness.

Distinctive fashion details of the 1845-1855 period were the plunging V-shape neckline filled in with contrasting material, long and closely fitted sleeves, a lowered pointed waistline, narrowed skirts, and smaller bonnets with a flat crown.

In the Civil War, a woman doctor served with the Union Army.  It was quite unusual to find a woman doctor in the Civil War Era, but even more astounding for a woman to wear trousers.  The usual attire in 1861 were elaborate costumes with voluminous skirts supported by hoops; skirts sometimes measured ten yards around.  Dr. Mary Walker was, however, an unusual woman who revolted against the wasp waist and hoop skirts of the period.  She worked on the battlefields as a surgeon and in the hospitals as nurse, administrator, therapist, etc.

The attire Dr. Walker adopted was copied for the Union Army officers uniform, complete with boots.

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             Belle Boyd Dress

Swim Suit - 1860's

Bustles - 1874

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Belle Boyd, a Confederate spy during the Civil War, was captured and released three times by the Union Troops.  She married Sam Wylde Hardings, a young ensign who fell in love with her while she was in his custody.  The story is told that she hid the secret messages beneath her skirts when crossing between the Union and Confederate lines, because she knew the soldiers would not be so bold to examine her clothing.

In the 1860's, a daring innovation in women's fashions created mixed emotions.  This was a costume designed specifically for "bathing in the sea."  This model is a far cry from the bikini but was an advancement over the water logged dresses being used at the time.  This bathing costume was one of the first indications of the eventual break with tradition regarding concealment of the body and the evolution of garments appropriate for varied activities.

When President Grant's daughter, Nellie, was married in the White House in 1874, her wedding gown and wardrobe probably reflected the latest fashion fad, "the bustle."

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Early 1880's Dress

Gibson Girl - 1889

The Gay Nineties

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The early 1880's brought a dress reform movement.  One of its objectives was to reduce the weight of women's clothes.  One woman weighed the garments she was wearing.  They tipped the scales at forty pounds.

Although the bustle was later revived; in the early 1880's, the pencil silhouette was dominant.  This style relied upon intricate manipulation of fabric for interest.

The "Gibson Girl" hairdo was still popular when "remember the Maine" became the battle cry in 1889, but it made a precarious perch for the nurse's cap of the war that followed.

In the Spanish-American War, approximately 1600 women served as contract nurses with the Army.  The Army specified the dress to be worn by its contract nurses; but if you remove the nurse's cap, apron, cuffs, and collar, you find a costume typical of the dress worn by all women of this period, including the leg o'mutton sleeves and high button shoes.  Individuals wore the nursing cap of their particular school.

The "Gay Nineties" are noted for the beautiful, colorful, fanciful, and sometimes ridiculous costumes worn by women.  Fashion trademarks of the era are the leg o'mutton sleeves, high collars, trains, ruffles, and large hats.  These trademarks were carried over to sports clothing and bathing suits.

Click here for the 1900's!

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