How to Get Started as a Lady Civil War Reenactor

Updated on July 3, 2018
This was taken in Nova, OH, in July 1993. The first reenactment I ever attended in dress. The ballgown was bought at a theater sale for, I think, $15. With me are the gallant lads of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
This was taken in Nova, OH, in July 1993. The first reenactment I ever attended in dress. The ballgown was bought at a theater sale for, I think, $15. With me are the gallant lads of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

How I Got Involved in Civil War Reenactment

I've always been something of a Civil War geek. I'd seen Civil War reenactors in movies like Glory and North and South, but I always thought reenacting was something you had to go to school for (or at least have some sort of prior experience in) before you could participate.

In 1993 I found out how wrong I was. During a trip to Gettysburg, PA, my sister and I came across some reenactors 'camped' outside the Civl War Wax Museum.

After chatting with them, I discovered that all you needed to be a reenactor is a passion for the Civil War and a local group to join. I picked up a copy of the Camp Chase Gazette on the same trip. A calendar of nationwide reenacting events was listed in the back, and one of the events was very close to where I lived at the time.

The rest, as they say, is history. Da-bum-bum.

The dances are one of the great parts of reenacting. They're called like square dances, so you don't have to worry about knowing the steps ahead of time.
The dances are one of the great parts of reenacting. They're called like square dances, so you don't have to worry about knowing the steps ahead of time.

You Can Do Civil War Reenactment Affordably

Now in 1993 (much like today) I had no money. A low budged need not discourage you. If you're intrigued by life as a civilian lady Civil War reenactor, let me assure that you can do it on the cheap and that it's a great way to meet guys! :-)

Me in a red two-piece afternoon dress.
Me in a red two-piece afternoon dress.
My sister Sue in an apple-green afternoon dress. Yes, we're twins.
My sister Sue in an apple-green afternoon dress. Yes, we're twins.

A Girl's Guide to Getting Started Reenacting

So, what do you need to get started? Here's a list, nonscientific, just based on my own personal experience:

  1. The first thing you need to do is find out if there's a reenacting unit in your area. In 1993 the internet didn't exist, so I had to hunt around a little, but lucky you! These days finding a unit is just a mouse click away. Try Googling 'Civil War reenacting [your city] and see what pops up.
  2. Once you've found a unit, find out whether or not they accept civilians. Some units don't; the ones that do are usually called "family units". The quality of civilian participation varies also; in some units the women primarily just cook and clean, others have active civilian roles as members of the "Sanitary Commission" (sort of like the Red Cross), women's rights advocates, and other impressions. The unit I joined only had a few civilians, but we built the civilian contingent from the ground up. Our group even included a few guys who wanted to reenact but didn't want to be soldiers.
  3. Once you've found a unit and a suitable role, you'll need a wardrobe. Fortunately, this can be done very cheaply. You don't have to worry initially about being hyper-authentic; all you really need is one nice white long-sleeved blouse, a wide floor-length skirt in an era-appropriate pattern (you can't go wrong with plaid) and a ballgown.

My sister with some of the great guys of the 7th OVI.
My sister with some of the great guys of the 7th OVI.

Some Costuming Advice

Now, when I started reenacting I couldn't sew worth a darn. I quickly learned that making a Civil War era skirt was very easy. It consists of seven A-shaped pieces of fabric sewn together and hemmed. You can find the 1860's gored skirt pattern on eBay. Trust me, you will use this pattern a lot. It's also handy for making Halloween costumes!

My sister made the dress on the left; the dress on the right is the same one shown above, now worn by my friend Joan, who heard me talking about reenacting and wanted to try it out. I have cool friends!
My sister made the dress on the left; the dress on the right is the same one shown above, now worn by my friend Joan, who heard me talking about reenacting and wanted to try it out. I have cool friends!

Thrift Shops Are the Beginner's Friend

As far as a ballgown goes, let me just say this: the thrift shop is your friend! When you've been reenacting for a while you can concentrate on being 100% 'authentic' with your clothes, but to start out just go to your local thrift shops and look in the prom gown section. There you'll likely find at least one dress that will work for a ballgown. It should be made of satin or silk, have short puffy sleeves (no sleeveless dresses), and have a skirt that's wide enough to fit over your hoop.

Ah, yes, the hoop! The mainstay of any reenactor's wardrobe. What goes under your clothes is as important as any dress or blouse, and many serious ladies spend $$$ on authentic undergarments. But never fear, when you're starting out you can do what I did: I found a pair of white clamdiggers, trimmed them in lace, and used them for pantalets (long undershorts, you probably glimpsed them in Gone With the Wind); and bought a plastic-boned hoopskirt from a bridal shop for about $50.

The hoop width for the Civil War era was about 6-8' in circumferance, so make sure your hoop can go that wide. The individual hoops, or 'bones', in the skirt are usually adjustable.

Me (center) and my two friends Carla and Sara (3rd MI) going to the ball in Jackson, MI in 2003. The dress I'm wearing is an old Gunne Sax prom dress!
Me (center) and my two friends Carla and Sara (3rd MI) going to the ball in Jackson, MI in 2003. The dress I'm wearing is an old Gunne Sax prom dress!

Recommended Reading

This info should get you started in the wonderful world of Civil War reenacting. I also found 60 Civil War-Era Fashion Patterns to be an invaluable resource, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the fashion of the time.

Indoor dances, like this one held in Youngstown OH, encourages ladies to wear fancier ballgowns since there's no fear of getting mud on them!
Indoor dances, like this one held in Youngstown OH, encourages ladies to wear fancier ballgowns since there's no fear of getting mud on them!
Another shot from the Youngstown ball.
Another shot from the Youngstown ball.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Cynthia 

      4 years ago

      Thank you so much! I can't wait to try it out! :)

    • Sarah Lynn 1863 profile imageAUTHOR

      Sarah Lynn 1863 

      4 years ago

      Hi Cynthia,

      Yes! Those dresses were both made with day dress patterns available commercially. I got them from Abraham's Lady, a sutler's shop in Gettysburg. Here's the website:

      http://abrahamslady.com/past_patterns.html

      I used the patterns for the full skirt, and the gathered bodice.

      Good luck, and enjoy the reenactment! Abraham's Lady sells a lot of reenacting stuff, so look around.

    • profile image

      Cynthia 

      4 years ago

      Hi! Is there some way to get the patterns you have for the red or green plaid afternoon dresses? I have got it into my head that I'd like to make a civil war/Victorian/antebellum era dress for fun. and maybe go to the reenactment for the Batlle of Kennesaw Mountain in June. :)

    • profile image

      cowboyclyde 

      6 years ago

      I was looking for the person with the reenactors gowns to let me know if they are still available.

    • profile image

      RIA 

      8 years ago

      Would you be able to tell me how your sister made them, i want to make some like them.

    • profile image

      Lady Swankster 

      8 years ago

      Hi HomespunDress!

      This was a great article you put together. I am going to share this with some of the people who stop by my encampment. I also started re-enacting Civil War around 1999. For many years I just dressed up, went to the dances and started to get to know people. I spent most of my time with the confederate cavalry men. I told them I would like to do something other than just dress up. They asked me if I would like to be there cook. So I am the cook for the 1st North Carolina Cavalry.

    • profile image

      jean-guy Dugas 

      8 years ago

      love the dresses with the hoop under skirt.

      like to reenact as a union soldier deserter and have to be a lady to evate martial law. I think we have some cases in the Us civil war.

    • profile image

      Kennesa 

      8 years ago

      Hi HomespunDress!

      Thank you for this information! I am going to take a look at these sites!

      I am a 14 year old girl, but a friend of mine who reenacts a lot says I could portray a 16 year old. I sort of agree because I have had a lot of people ask how old I am and when I tell them say, "Oh my gosh! I thought you were like 17!

      Thanks again1

    • profile image

      kay 

      8 years ago

      hi i live all this sort of thing. i am very interested in joining a group. do you know of any in the uk?

    • profile image

      HomespunDress 

      8 years ago

      Kennesa:

      No age limit, most of the time. If you're a male and wish to do a soldiers impression, you generally have to be 16 or up (because of insurance). Civilians generally don't.

      For Soldiers, try www.authentic-campaigner.com

      For civilians: www.thesewingacademy.org

      Great sites, and they have a lot of stuff to read on there.

      Hope this helps!

    • profile image

      Kennesa 

      8 years ago

      I would love to reenact, but I don't know if I'm old enough. Is there an age limit?

      I've worn a hoop dress and I didn't want to take it off! I think I would really enjoy reenacting.

    • profile image

      DarwinsLaureate 

      9 years ago

      Stopping by again to re-rate and to leave a comment this time. ;)

      Excellent writing, and beautiful costumes.

      History is best understood through acting it out, I've come to find.

      Sincerely,

      Sharley D

    • profile image

      annabell 

      9 years ago

      I am looking for an inexpensive place to buy gear for my husband. any ideas?

    • profile image

      ccplrose 

      9 years ago

      Being in a Civil War reenactment as a guest -- I'm the redhead in the pink dress -- was a great experience. Dressing up in a ballgown and dancing the night away with guys in uniform made me feel like a heroine in a romance novel. If you want to visit history (as they say: it's a great place to visit, but you wouldn't necessarily want to live there!), it's worth looking into for yourself and for your family as a way to reconnect with America's past.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hobbylark.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hobbylark.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)