Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Notes on Men's Clothing of the 1860's

I've received several e-mails asking me about men's clothing. Earlier this year I wrote a double posting that included an opinion piece on why I reenact followed by information about men's period clothing. It's the clothing article that has been over-looked and, due to the numerous e-mails asking about the correct clothing a man should wear I thought I would just copy and paste it here in a separate post.
Here it is:

 Clothing...Men's clothing - - - - 
So much has been written about women's clothing for Civil War civilian reenacting, but there is very little written about men's period clothing by comparison. I thought I would rectify that situation by concentrating this week's post on not only the subject of men's 1860's civilian clothing but on accessories that will help bring the past to life. I checked numerous period clothing sites to get the prices, but the main vendor I concentrated on was The Corner Clothiers of Gettysburg, for this is where I have gotten numerous items, and I have been extremely pleased with their work. Yes, they are a high-end shop, and sometimes it takes a while to get your order, but I feel they are about the best out there (a list with links of where I feel are some of the best places to get period clothing and accessories is at the end of this post).
I have also had clothing made especially for me from some of the finest seamstresses around, including my wife.
Anyhow, so you're a guy who'd like to do Civil War reenacting but you don't want to be in the military. I understand because nearly 10 years ago that was me, much to the chagrin of the men in the unit I belonged to. Men are in the military - women are civilians: never the twain shall meet.
Heh heh...yeah...whatever...

Gentlemen of the 1860's wait for the train to come in. Three very distinct and accurate styles from the Civil War era.
But because there were so few men in the civilian groups back then I pretty much had to do most of the research myself. The internet was a great help for it connected me with people in the know - clothing historians. They guided me down the right path and were very happy at my exuberance in my civilian portrayal. They warned me, however, that it could get rather expensive to do it correctly.
I didn't care. My mindset was (and still is) if I am not 100% correct, how can I be there...you know, in the past?
Well, it's been nearly a decade that I have been an 1860's civilian. Heck - I guess I should be heading into the 1870's then right? Nope! The best part about time-traveling is I can repeat any era I want over and over...
I've noticed of late there are a few more men showing up on the homefront than there were when I began. And since I am one of the few civilian males who is also a civilian coordinator for a military group, many have come to me with questions about clothing and presentation.

Let's try something here for a moment: go on and head over to your local costume shop, for I'd like to make a very important point here.
I'll wait.....
Are you there yet? Good!
Okay, now go past the children's stuff and find the adult costumes. In fact, go to the high-end adult "Victorian" or "Historical" costumes.
What you find probably tops off right around $50 or $60 for the complete outfit - not including shoes, right? Well, that's roughly what costumes of  this type cost around my area. 
What are these costumes made of? Polyester or some sort of cotton/chemical blend, I'm sure. They are either velcro or they tie up in the back and are great for a Hallowe'en party or a masquerade party. To wear something like this at a reenactment or living history event, however, would be sacrilege.
And yet there are those who insist on calling what we wear at a historical event costumes. Well, I make sure to let these uninformed people know that we do not wear costumes, and I will correct them every time!
Okay, let's leave this costume shop and get back into *reality*.
(For more on costumes vs period clothing click HERE)

Let's begin with the nitty gritty: the COST (hear that echo echo echo?):

Sack or Frock Coat: $250 to $350
Shirt: $70 to $120
Pants: $80 to $180
Waistcoat (vest): $80 to $150
Undershirt: $40
Drawers: $50
Braces (suspenders): $30 to $70
Cravat: $25 to $50
Socks: $10 to $30
Shoes: $80 to $150
Hat: Anywhere from $50 well into the $100's depending on your taste and style 
Gloves: Anywhere from $10 to $30

If you add up just the low end pricing you're looking at close to $800.
(By the way, this list is for pre-made items. To save money - a large amount of money - sewing your own clothing is the smart thing to do).

You will notice sometimes extreme differences in prices on nearly everything you may buy. Why? Well, it all depends on who you purchase your things from. For instance, getting your clothing from the Corner Clothiers will cost you a bit more than most other dealers. But you are guaranteed that what you get is accurate to a fault, for they base their garments on originals. As I have said in previous postings, do your research. Remember: most vendors/sutlers are there for one reason - to make money. Some are very honest and will tell you the truth about the quality and authenticity/accuracy of their product while many others just want to make that almighty dollar and will tell you anything just to get it off the rack. Smokey Robinson's mama told him right when she said, "You better shop around!"
Here is a guide to proper dress for the mid-19th century male civilian, age 8 and up. Most of the information herein was taken from two sources – the Citizen’s Companion magazine and from an outline by clothing historian, Bill Christen, as well as from my own research.


Drawers: my wife made these from a photo of an original
My wife also copied this undershirt from a photograph of an original

Often consisted of shirt and drawers. Wearing of two shirts common as the undershirt keeps the other shirt clean and free from body odor. Made of stout muslin, flannel, and flannel and knit fabrics sewn together. Knit types resemble long underwear of today without the elastic, but includes button closures. The US Army did issue knit underwear in the middle of the war (documented only in photographs). Flannel drawers resemble modern pajama bottoms in shape, but with buttons at the waistband, a tie adjustment in the back and occasionally ties or drawstrings at the bottom of the legs. Three button, Y-front drawers also existed. White and off-white. 

NO Union Suits! They are from the 1870s!



Made most commonly of cotton and wool, sometimes silk for formal wear. Often had 1 inch or less of ribbing at the top. Hand and machine knitted. Came in white, black, and many drab colors (often drab, rarely bright). Seamed on the back or side, sometimes with reinforced heel. Up to knee length.


Most shirts cut full in late 18th or early 19th century style; placket (or pleated) front, drop shoulders, with or without collars (button-on cloth or paper collars available). Collars were fold over about one inch wide. Ordinary shirts made from heavier cotton, wool, or wool flannel, (not modern muslin) in white, drab solids (wool only), woven plaids, stripes, checks and prints (not modern calico). Dress shirts made from fine linen and, increasingly, from cotton. "Good" shirts often had pleats and even decorative needlework. Buttoned-on-to-shirt stand-up collar.


Worn at the natural waist (belly-button height, on a line with the elbows) not on the hips as today. Waist bands fairly narrow (1 to 1 1/2 inches) following the waist shape, rising higher in the back than modern trousers. Eyelets and ties, buckles or straps at the back seam for adjustment. Fly buttons inside plackets. Legs straight, or slightly narrow at the bottom; somewhat baggy from the hips down. Pleated fronts found on some examples. Should fit well enough at the waist to go without suspenders, while baggy in the seat. Creases seen in about ten percent of period images. 1860's length should allow the back of the pant legs to be at the top of the shoe or boot heel with the front creased over the arch of the foot. Lined or unlined. By late war years some civilian pants had stripes running down the outside seam. Side seam or flap pockets in front. A watch pocket in the waistband or just below it in formal wear. Materials varied according to the intended use. This applies to coats and jackets as well. Black super-fine wool broadcloth for trousers worn with frock coats, full dress or tail coats. Other materials were light to medium weight wool in plaids, checks, and solids of natural colors in various weaves. "Shoddy," reprocessed wool produced during the war, produced mainly in dark colors, sometimes flecked with light colored threads. Natural and light colored cottons and linens in plaids, checks and (natural color) solids used for hot weather clothing. Corduroy used for casual and sporting clothes. Jean or Negro cloth (mixture of coarse cotton or linen warp and wool weft or "fill") a common material for work clothing.

Suspenders (Braces)

All men wore suspenders. Worn with trousers that are well fitted for show, and a necessity for loose fitting ones. A popular type was basically two straps of leather, cloth or knitted material with button holes at one end and either button holes or straps and buckles for adjustment. Leather suspenders, sometimes with designs stitched into them and cloth types with embroidered designs often done in Berlin wool work (a type of needlework popular in the 1860's similar to modern needlepoint). Elastic used occasionally, but only on about the last three inches of the back of the suspenders.

Vests or Waistcoat

Were commonly worn. Made from silk and common worsted wool, often matching coats and trousers. Silk worn with almost any better coat. Most vests lined with white polished cotton. Backs from brown, black or white polished cotton. Commonly made in subtle colors and patterns. By the 1860s vests started losing the color and flamboyance of the early part of the century. Most had a shawl collar and lapels and three pockets. Adjusted near the waist in the back with straps and buckle or, less often, a series of eyelets for lacing. Cut straight across on the bottom. Low cut vests worn with evening wear. If the cloth was patterned, it was subtly done, such as white embroidery on a white background. High cut vests worn with everyday attire. Single breasted vests could be worn with either single or double breasted coats, but a double breasted vest could only be worn with a double breasted coat.


Cravats and ties not as long or colorful as before the 1860s. They retained a standard width of about 2 1/2 to 3 inches. Narrower tie widths appeared about this time. Wide cravats worn with high collars, narrower ones with turned down collars (more prevalent in the 1860s). The double Windsor knot known today appeared in the 1860's. Ties were tied in every way but the modern bow tie. Pre tied cravats were available, fastening with a tie, buckle, button or spring steel coil. The preferred tie material were luxurious like silk, satin or anything of a silky feel. Colors included black, white, or contrasting or complimentary to the outfit. White ties were worn with white formal evening vests. Black ties, while not worn with white formal vests, were worn with informal white summer vests. Men, like women of the Victorian era, minimized the amount of skin shown and would generally keep their shirt buttoned unless at strenuous labor.


The "Georgia" men's civilian shoe by Robert Land. These are exact reproductions of 1860's originals from the collection of clothing historian Bill Christen.
Boots and shoes are the basis upon which all attire is built. The predominant feature of men's footwear was square chisel toes and smallish heels. Most common material for working footwear was waxed calfskin that presented a rough outer surface and a smooth inner. Goat skin, in red or green, was used to trim better boots of waxed calf and kid (a fine, soft, supple leather). Men's shoes were commonly unlined. Rough outer leather was smoothed by waxing and polishing. Most boots had one piece fronts, but the two piece Wellington were still being made. An alternative shoe or boot was the "Spring-sided Congress gaiter", or elastic sided shoe (introduced in the 1840s). Other types of boots existed, but were not exceedingly common such as canvas sporting shoes. The lowly Oxford shoe, pretty much as it is today, appeared in the 1850's. Brogans, with their larger heels, were used by working people and were standard issue in the military. Patent leather available and often used for men's dancing pumps for formal balls. (Available today from Italy). As a fashion fad of the 1860's, low boots were more popular than brogans for civilians. Factory produced shoes came in rights and lefts. Shoes made by hand were often straight or "no-handed". Unless the wearer changed from one foot to the other regularly, they naturally became rights or lefts. Some tradesmen such as millers wore wooden soled shoes similar to brogans. Toes appeared square from above and chisel shaped from the side. Shoes that laced had cloth laces with metal caps and metal eyelets.
Here is an excellent site for period shoes, especially civilians.


Watches were a popular accessory that gave the appearance of financial well-being. Watch guards or chains were made of gold, gold substitute, silver, nickel silver, polished or cut steel and braided hair. Chains attached to the vest with an "S" hook or 'T' bar. Wide range of types and designs of chain were in production: single, double or triple strands with moveable slides that were decorated in various ways. Sometimes the slides had a ring to attach a fob or for the ever present watch key. (Stem wind watches did not become common until the 1870's). Other jewelry included rings, stickpins, shirt studs and cufflinks or buttons. Sometimes a memorial or photographic brooch or mourning band when appropriate or patriotic ribbon was worn.


Varied from sack coats to tail, or claw hammer styles. Most common materials: wool of various weights, cotton and linen. Silk coats were known to exist. Superfine wool broadcloth used for finer clothing was produced with a finish that literally glowed (it will shine in nineteenth century photographs). Better wool broadcloth was so finely woven and finished that the edges could be left raw. Best clothing was black. Wool of tweed, check or plaid patterns were used for sack suits, everyday paletots and sports and hunting attire. Linings were made from ordinary cheap cotton, wool plaid, silk and silk silesia. Frock coats generally had one or two breast pockets on the inside, two pockets in the tails and occasionally pockets on the outside. Sack coats mainly had the outside pockets with or without flaps. Full dress or tail coats usually worn only in the evening for formal occasions. Linings and tailored look are defining clues in dating mid-century frock coats. Sleeves were cut quite full, especially in the elbow, and commonly worn much longer than today.


Like a waistcoat (vest), hats and caps were a feature of daily life, offering protection from the elements and occupational hazards, a badge of social distinction and a covering for unwashed hair since frequent hair washing was not the norm. All sorts of hats and caps were popular, including all shapes of wool felt hats, beaver or silk plush hats and several styles of straw hats, watch and mechanic's caps with a flat top and visor of the same fabric, tarred paper, or leather, derby or bowler to a limited extent and stovepipe hats were crowding out top hats in all but formal wear. By 1860 beaver hats were made of a combination of beaver, rabbit and wool fur. Collapsible top hats were not available until the 1870's. Fully constructed hats had a lining and/or a hat band, ribbon on the outside and most often a bound or sewn edge. Many of us are wearing unfinished hats. Proper etiquette of hat wearing and hat removal was very important.


Men’s hair should be parted at the side – usually a single part but, at times, a double part – one on each side. A part down the middle was considered effeminate. Hair oil, such as macassar oil, was used frequently, but is not necessary for your impression.


Overcoats are a necessity in cold or wet weather. Wills and inventories of the time indicate that a good civilian greatcoat of the standard caped style was something of value to be handed down from one generation to the next. Modern overcoats can sometimes be easily modified to look correct for the period, especially Brooks Brothers and Lord & Taylor (both in business before the war). Shawls were universal to all classes and both men and women up to the end of the 1860s. Capes were really just formal shawls for men. Rainwear includes coats of oilcloth and waterproofed wool. For extremely cold weather, Buffalo and other fur coats for those who could afford them.


Gloves and mittens were a necessity and dress gloves were a part of the etiquette of the day. Gloves for occupational use might be leather or wool, while fine white kid (goatskin) was used for formal wear (white cotton is used for a substitute today). White gloves of knit cotton were known as "Berlin". No respectable gentleman went out of doors without a hat and gloves (two pairs often necessary for this, darker for ordinary or sporting use, and white for offering a hand to a lady for the appearance of cleanliness.) "Yellow" or ecru color gloves were considered quite dashing. Umbrellas of stout and commodious design were in common use. Generally have straight or bent wooden handles. (Umbrellas were also used by women for rain protection, as parasols were for sun protection only.) Walking sticks and canes were either an affectation or a necessity, depending on age, social status or the need for a protective weapon. Canes were generally constructed of hickory or ash (very flexible and resilient woods), or dense, heavy woods such as ebony and lignum vitae. Canes were even made from plant stalks such as sugar cane. Cane heads or pommels could be of silver, gold, antler, horn, bone or ivory. Handkerchiefs were a necessity. They were normally large (18" x18" or so) and generally of cotton. Some bordered, paisley, or multicolored (three or more colors, not bi-color bandannas of today.) 

Beyond the clothing: for living history is more than just clothing, believe it or not. There are the accessories that one should have to flesh out their mid-19th century persona.

Though women carried Carpetbags, they were also carried by a great many men before and during the Civil War era; some say a majority of men rarely left home without one, especially when going to town. These can range anywhere from $80 for a satchel-type bag up to $230 for the real McCoy reproduction (see pic on left and below). Many modern men in reenacting have a difficult time carrying what they see as a woman's purse. I thought that way as well. But I got used to carrying my bag during reenactments and now it is just as natural as carrying my wallet in the modern day. You will not be seen as an effeminate male while carrying one at an event, but rather a period correct man carrying on as if it were the early 1860's.
There are various other accessories that you may or may not want/need depending on the status of your 19th century life: a timepiece with fob, a walking stick, and maybe an overcoat.
And then, depending on what your impression is, you will need to get items that can make your persona come to life. For instance, my impression is of an early 1860's postmaster. For that I have a 16 pigeon-hole letter holder that I had a carpenter friend build for me, which was based off of an original located in an early 19th century post office located in Greenfield Village. I also have a desk to set the holder on. The desk, which was given to me by a friend, is not a period piece, but it works and looks just fine. And the letter holder cost me a total of around $20.
Not bad, eh?
Here is my post office set up
There are accessories beyond this, however; candles with holders and/or oil lamp (roughly $20), writing utensils - including pen and ink sets, blotter, and sealing wax - can cost $40 for a set, and a portable desk (the 19th century version of a laptop) looks good, too, and can cost anywhere between $60 and a couple hundred dollars. Then there is the period reproduction paper. I bought a disc that allows me to print whatever period-style paper and envelopes I need. This disc cost $50.

Okay, now we get into a place to stay...our homes...er, tents. Depending on the type of tent you prefer, the prices can range from as little as a couple hundred dollars for an "A" frame to pushing from $400 or $800 for a wall tent, and another couple hundred for a decent fly.
Shop around for deals, of course, but also look for the most reputable dealer. Panther Primitives is a high quality seller of tents, as is Fall Creek.
As you can see, this hobby can get rather expensive. But please remember that most of us do not purchase everything all at once; it takes years to acquire all you need for a decent presentation. And even then one rarely stops looking for "something new" to add.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

You saw a list of articles of clothing with pricing earlier in this post. The low end pricing comes from a variety of sources, most of which may not always carry totally accurate pieces but will have some accurate and some farby. But for total authenticity, I recommend places like Corner Clothiers, though they aren't taking special orders anymore and are only selling what they have in stock. Robert Land is the best for shoes, and Tim Bender and Dirty Billy are great for hats, and even The Dressmaker's Shop is excellent for fabric (if you plan to sew your own clothing), as well as for socks, cravats, gloves, and especially items for the lady.
Accessories are a bit more difficult to search out, but when you find the right place you won't be sorry. Now, if you want a period-correct carpetbag (like the one in the photo toward the top of this post), check out The Carpetbagger for the most authentic I have seen yet. Yes, it will cost you but it all depends on how far you want to take this *hobby*. Aldridge Clothiers is good for men's accessories, but for clothing is generally for the ladies and children. Blockade Runner also has some very good reproduction accessories such as pen & ink sets and the like.
Just make sure you do your research before purchasing items outside of your knowledge; don't do one of these "I think it's period correct" or "it looks like it could work." Make sure it is correct. That's all I ask.

By the way, if you are interested in colonial men's clothing, please click HERE for a posting I wrote on that subject.



An Historical Lady said...

Excellent post Ken, as always. You know people should know how dedicated all we reenactors are---spending our free time not on "real vacations" but hot and sweaty or freezing our tails off in a regulation tent' at events all over the place, and NOT getting paid a dime---not even gas money. As you know, most of us are working stiffs, and not at all well to do. The clothing and gear alone required of us is frightfully expensive for most of us, and requires sacrifice and commitment. We do what we do for the love of it, and to educate the public and give them a glimpse into a world and lives long past and gone.
I regrettably do not sew to the level of being able to make the complicated 17th and 18thc. garments we wear, and it's a struggle to find someone capable to make them, and then to pay for them.
Huzzah to ALL reenactors! (Very different from the "costumers" out there...)

Historical Ken said...

I've seen how much colonial clothing costs - yikes!
But it's so worth it!
And you and Adam have beautiful garments!

Lisa Potocar said...

Hey, Ken!

I agree with Mary of "An Historical Lady" BlogSpot that this is a great post!!! I just happened to stumble upon it when I was trying to find out how men of the 1860s carried their money. I see by your post that they used carpetbags and that the wallet was foreign to this time, but can you tell me if they used a money clip, which they perhaps tucked into a vest or outer coat pocket? I'd greatly appreciate any help you can give me in this regard.


Historical Ken said...

Thank you for the kind words Lisa.
Carrying a wallet was actually a common thing in the 1860s, but they didn't necessarily tuck it in their pants pockets as men do today. They, instead, more than likely would have put it in their carpet bag.
Money, whether in a wallet or in just a money clip, would also have been kept out of sight, just like today.
Glad I'm able to help!

Richard Evans said...

Over the past two years I've been buying mid-19th century mourning pins that contain daguerreotypes or tintypes for a collection. I'm wondering if men wore such items when their wives or children passed, and if so, how or where did they wear the pins?

I also have a collection of 19th century stick pins. How were these worn on a cravat? Did the pin go through the tie then come back to the front of the tie or were they left underneath the tie? They didn't have a cap to protect the wearer from getting stabbed by the end.

Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Maryjane Pettengill said...

Do you think that a young farmer would wear a sack coat in his daily life? I've worn one before (when reenacting as a male musician in a regiment band, but I generally prefer hoop skirts), and they seem warm and durable. I'm referring to the cold New England climate. He would likely wear it until the winter months and then require an overcoat for warmth?
Thanks for addressing my question.

Historical Ken said...

Yes, Maryjane, depending on the temperature, a farmers would have worn his sack coat in daily life, but not necessarily while out in the fields. If you have ever plowed a field - or watched someone do the chore - you will know just what an exerting job it is. And even on the coldest days the man with the plow will work up a sweat, so you can imagine how hot he must've been on a 90+ degree day. But the person guiding the horse or oxen, who is not working quite as strenuous, may be wearing his complete ensemble.
So as the farmer plows in the heat of late spring or summer, removing his sack coat - and sometimes even his waistcoat - was very common. And more than likely the garment was hanging nearby in case a visitor stopped to talk to him. One must always be ready to look proper.
I hope this helps.

Maryjane Pettengill said...

Thank you, Ken. This validation helps very much.

Maryjane Pettengill said...

Me again... now that we're on the subject of civilians from New England. I have been reading about the bowler hat (derby). Do you have any nuggets of information about them? It seems that they were quite popular. I read that they were the rage in the west -- railroad workers, bank robbers, and seemingly men of all socio-economic status.

Historical Ken said...

I know derby/bowlers were pretty popular, but I never really cared for them, so my study of this style is nil. Going on old Time-Life photos I believe you hit the nail on the head in their popularity in the Western states, as well as in all social classes.
I'm sorry I can't be of more help here.

Maryjane Pettengill said...

Thanks for your response!

Arijus said...

Such a great past wholesale mens clothing !

Hearthstone Inn & Suites said...

Great post! I am a CW Federal infantryman, but in real life own/run a small hotel/inn. What would the manager of a fine, 1860's hotel wear? A sack coat suit possibly? Any colors or patterns suggested? I plan to wear this attire for special events and occasional P.R. Thanks!

Fan Milly said...

Before we decide whether men should wear fashionable nightwear, we need to make sure that men's nightwear can look good? After all, how cool can pyjamas look? For many years the standard outfit has been the matching trouser and jacket, which looks like men are going to sleep in a rather untidy suit.

Piter Nicolas said...

Wow!! I love your post.. Really thank you for posting valuable and creative post...You have defined all detail about affordable men's undershirts in very well.. Nice blog.. Keep posting..

fzillion casual said...

Thank you, Ken. This validation helps very much.
work clothing

Val Proto said...

Please, I would like an explanation and, if possible, an illustration of a "bob-tail" coat. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

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ToRouxo said...

This clothing era is truly one of the best. The clothes have character and a prestige not like clothes nowadays where they are just random designs with random colors. Really nice blog, thank you for sharing this. Best shopping sites for men