“Some books are so familiar that reading them is like being home again,” says Jo. Many of us feel the same way about reading Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, Little Women. It’s the heartwarming tale of everyone’s favorite group of sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March, and their life’s adventures.
The story begins in the post-Civil War 19th century when the girls are all still living with their mother, Marmee. We follow protagonist Jo through her journey as a writer, venturing out to New York City and returning home again to Concord, Massachusetts. Over the scope of the whole novel, the era of fashion changes from the style of large hoop skirts to the trend of bustles. Let’s talk about how the Marches would have sewn and what they would have worn at the story’s beginning.
In this time period, around 1860, the first piece of the outfit was a simple chemise, drawers, and stockings along with structured undergarments. The overskirts would have been worn long, with a hoop or cage beneath to create a rounded looking shape.
Overtop, they would have worn a fitted daytime bodice with large drooping sleeves and a high neckline and a skirt to match. Sometimes for a little more relaxed style, a trend started up in young women’s fashion of wearing blouses called shirtwaists paired with a skirt.
Hair would have been pulled back tightly and parted down the middle. There were a few simple styles, some of which included braids or small curls. Wearing their hair completely down was not socially acceptable at the time.
A little before the 1860s, the first sewing machines were being worked on. The very first was designed by Walter Hunt in 1833. Later “it was Elias Howe who improved and patented the first American lock stitch machine in 1854… his machine could sew 250 stitches a minute or the equivalent of 5 hand-sewers” (The Sewing Machine and the Civil War).
Sewing machines were suddenly everywhere in American advertising. When Isaac Singer got in on the industry, he lowered the prices of his machines so that everyone could afford one. Of course, the economy boomed with the new era of mass manufactured clothing, especially in the realm of shirts and collars.
When the Civil War broke out, sewing machines were put to use making tons of uniforms for both sides. To the detriment of the South, most of the manufacturers were located in the north.
The Marches would not have bought cotton, which was the typical material of undergarments, because at that time it was being produced mostly in the south under unethical conditions. Wool was the alternative.
The formal occasion fabrics of the day were predominantly silk and linen. These were often extremely costly fabrics, and linen was extremely hard to keep pressed, so they were not very practical fabrics to keep on hand. In chapter nine, part one of Little Women, when she attends the ball of her friend Annie Moffat, Meg describes what she will be wearing: “A pair of silk stockings, that pretty carved fan, and a lovely blue sash.” For the party, Meg must borrow her mother’s things and wear her regular “blue housedress”, which she knows isn’t the fashion, but they are not able to afford the extremely expensive fabrics that she craves for the sake of fitting in.
Patterned fabric was not common unless it was stripes and plaids. For the most part, solids made up everyone’s wardrobe at the time. However, “calico dress patterns were common in poor areas, often made out of scraps and whatever else was available” (Fabrics Used for Civil War clothing).
With the invention of the sewing machine and the implications war time had on fabrics and styles, the era of Little Women fashion provides a beautiful snapshot of this time in history.
Alcott , Louisa May. Little Women . Roberts Brothers , 1868.
Franklin , Harper. “1860-1869.” Fashion History Timeline, 27 Dec. 2019, fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1860-1869/.
III, Floyd Drake. “Fabrics Used for Civil War Clothing.” Our Everyday Life, 10 Jan. 2019, oureverydaylife.com/fabrics-used-for-civil-war-clothing-12535459.html.
“The Sewing Machine and the Civil War.” American Civil War Voices, 7 Apr. 2017, americancivilwarvoice.org/2014/06/03/the-sewing-machine-and-the-civil-war/.
Women’s Clothing at 1860, americancenturies.mass.edu/activities/dressup/notflash/1860_woman.html.