Civil War Ball Gown on a Budget


While there are many 1860s seamstresses that we recommend, we realize that $400-$900 is more than many ladies can afford for a period-correct ballgown. Here are some tips for creating your ball gown ensemble on a budget.

When working with a budget, it helps to check with reenacting friends or online reenactor forums to see if you can acquire used items. Patterns, fabric, shoes, even ready-made garments in your size may all be available for free or for a significant discount.

It is also helpful to check with these forums to make sure you are choosing appropriate fabric for your dress. In addition, these groups are invaluable for advice on how to sew 1860s clothing. Some modern sewing techniques were not used in the 19th century.

For a more indepth discussion of ball gown fabrics and embellishments, see our page here.

In order to make your dress fit properly, you must create your undergarments first. Your biggest investment will be a corset and a cage. With the exception of the corset and cage, undergarments are fairly simple and inexpensive for a beginning seamstress to sew. And if you make minor mistakes, well, no one sees your undergarments!

Corset

A custom-fitted corset is often better than one off-the-shelf. Only purchase an off-the-shelf corset if you can try it on in person and the vendor has a good return/alteration policy. A corset is a necessity to give your body the correct shape for the 1860s, and support your clothing comfortably. Because a quality custom corset is labor-intensive, it will cost around $150-$200 unless you make it yourself.

Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Moderate-Difficult


Cage or Hoop Skirt

A cage crinoline (right) or a hoop skirt is necessary to give your skirt proper fullness and to keep your dress from tangling around your legs. Four to five bones is a good start for a hoop skirt - anything less than that will not give a smooth outline to your skirt.

Sew It Yourself 


Chemise

A chemise is the first layer you put on and it protects your body from being rubbed by your garments - and protects your garments from your perspiration. You will want 100% cotton as it breathes the best. Pimatex cotton broadcloth is the closest modern fabric to the fabrics used on original underpinnings. You can also look for soft 100% white cotton sheets at your thrift store. 

Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Easy-Moderate

Drawers

1860s drawers were crotchless, which makes using the facilities much easier! (Yes, this is both modest and comfortable.) They were typically on a fitted waistband that buttoned. You will want 100% cotton as it breathes the best. Pimatex cotton broadcloth is the closest modern fabric to the fabrics used on original underpinnings. You can also look for soft 100% white cotton sheets at your thrift store. Since your drawers will occasionally show while you dance, it is appropriate to embellish with tucks or fine eyelet (modern take-off on broderie anglaise of the 1860s).

Sew It Yourself 
Difficulty Level: Easy-Moderate
The Sewing Academy free pattern
Past Patterns 706  (Includes Petticoat pattern)

Buy It

Petticoats

A petticoat or two on top of your cage smooths the outline of your skirt against your cage. An under-petticoat helps with modesty when your skirt inevitably swishes around. Petticoats were typically plain cotton and if you wish you can embellish with tucks and fine eyelet (modern take-off on broderie anglaise of the 1860s).

Sew It Yourself 
Difficulty Level: Easy

Buy It


Stockings

Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Moderate

Buy It
Generic cotton knee-socks or tights are an easy choice to start with. White was the typical choice for balls. Some stockings were patterned but make sure you choose a design that looks authentic. See our Stockings page for more info. 

Dance Shoes

Ballet-style flats work well for dancing and are close to period correct. Choose shoes that are nice leather or satin, square toed, with no heel. Ball shoes can be embellished with rosettes and bows of any color you choose.












Make Them
It is possible, though a bit tricky, to make your own shoes. Victorian ladies used Every Lady Her Own Shoemaker as their instruction manual. 

A Graceful Lady has a blog entry on making them. 


Buy Them
American Duchess


Dress

1860s styles aimed for the "hourglass look." The top of the dress (the "bodice" or "body") was well fitted with an off-the-shoulder neckline. The waist was defined and sat smoothly on the corset underneath. The waistline was just below the modern bra line. The skirt was very full, worn over a cage or hoop skirt, and the hem a couple of inches off the ground. For most dresses, the skirt and bodice matched.

You will only need one basic ball gown bodice pattern (see below). Using this pattern, make a muslin pattern that specifically fits you. Different dress looks were achieved with different styles of sleeves, berthe, and embellishments. For a more indepth discussion of ball gown fabrics and embellishments, see our page here.

If you’ve never sewn an 1860s dress, even if you’re an accomplished seamstress, it is recommended you join one of the reenacting forums listed on our website for discussion on period sewing methods. These methods will make a big difference in how the dress fits, sits, and looks.

Sew It Yourself
Difficulty Level: Moderate-Difficult
Silk taffeta, silk sheer, or cotton sheer fabrics: 2-3 yards for the bodice, 5 yards minimum for the skirt
Add more fabric if you intend to do an over-skirt, or extensive self-fabric trim.
See our Sewing Sources page for websites to order fabric. Many of them offer discounts in their newsletters.



Berthe

A berthe is a decorative "collar" on a ballgown. It generally follows, or sits lower than, the neckline of the ball gown bodice. It is typically constructed as a separate piece from the bodice, though it's usually tacked onto the bodice once completed and often matches the bodice. Berthes could be simple tucked fabric, or highly elaborate with lace, flowers, and beading.

Tucked Berthe Instructions
Truly Victorian Ballgown Bodice - pattern includes berthe

Gloves

Only white or ecru wrist-length gloves should be used for balls. No open-weave lace, crochet or beads. Look for vintage leather, silk or cotton gloves in antique stores. They should fit snugly and be wrist-length. For more glove info, see our page here.

Belle O' The Ball - Vintage gloves
Florentine Gloves - Period correct leather gloves (not cheap)
Etsy/Ebay/Antique stores - wrist length cotton or leather gloves


Headdress

A quick look at fashion plates of the 1860s shows that whenever a formal gown was worn, a lady would nearly always wear some ornament in her hair.

There were numerous illustrations of this ornamentation in the ladies magazines of the day, ranging from jewels to laces to flowers and more. Tiaras were also worn by wealthy women.

You can make your own or you can contact Southern Serendipity for an off-the-shelf headdress or for a custom headdress.

RECOMMENDED ACCESSORIES

FAN
A lady will highly appreciate a fan after doing an energetic dance! (So will her partner!) Whether you can find an authentic one or not, we highly recommend that you bring a fan to a ball. For information on period correct fans, see our page here. Reproduction Jenny Lind fans are available here.

PURSE
A small reticule is appropriate to carry to balls and can hold your hanky and other small necessities. Fashion magazines had a number of patterns for small reticules. These were mostly for show and only held very small items such as coins, hankies or keys. Patterns, supplies and ready-made reticules available at Barnyard Biddy.

SHAWL
At both summer and winter balls, a lady may prefer to bring a light wrap. It should match the ballgown in elegance. Rather than rough wool shawls, a lady should look for lace, gauze, silk, cashmere or very fine wool.

FICHU
A fichu is an optional type of wrap that particularly covers a lady's shoulders and ties or pins in the front. It can be worn for fashion, for warmth, to cover bare shoulders for dinner, or simply for modesty. For more information on fichus, see this blog entry here. You can make a fichu or order one from Southern Serendipity.

HANDKERCHIEF
Every lady, rich or poor, had a hanky. 1860s handkerchiefs were large, at least 12" square and often larger. Simple fine muslin or linen with a rolled hem is sufficient. See our handkerchiefs page for more info.

JEWELRY
A ball is the perfect time to wear fancy jewelry! Necklaces, brooches, earrings, bracelets, rings, and tiaras are all appropriate.