Monday, April 10, 2017


Often when blogs feature fashions of a by-gone era, they focus on the high fashion—those elegant creations worn only by the upper crust of society with the means to afford them. However, back in the Civil War era and beyond, the outer clothing most worn by most classes of women was the humble wrapper.

I once owned a mid-calf zip-up-the-front affair similar in design that I called a bathrobe.

Wrappers varied from fashionable loungewear to humble working garb, depending on the circumstances of the wearer. Wrappers were a one piece dress worn in the privacy of the home.
If they had the means, when they went out women of the Civil War era and beyond wore their styled dresses with the form-fitting seams, boning in the Civil War era and tightly-laced corset in later decades. (Forget everything you thought you learned about Civil War clothing by watching Gone With the Wind. Women during the Civil War did not wear tight corsets, bright colors with flashy designs or lots of fancy expensive jewelry.) However, even without tight corsets, there were times women wanted to be comfortable—hence, the wrapper.

1863 Feb- Aquia Creek Landing-Captain W.S. Hall's wagon camp

Fashionable wrappers were built along the same form as a fashionable dress and trimmed accordingly except that the skirt was often gored or cut "princess style" to be smooth at the waist. These fashion items were loose fitting, but required as much effort and trimming as a fashion dress. Those worn by women of greater means were made of better fabric such as silk, wool or a better grade of cotton. “Best dresses” were often made of silk in darker colors, stripes or plaids. Only the more well-to-do could afford stripes or larger plaids since it took extra fabric in order to line of the designs.

The wrapper was the preferred work garment for both household chores and working outside. It was also the maternity and nursing garment of choice. The looseness of fit allowed a woman to go without a dress with boning, snug fit or a corset, if she wore one. It was also comfortable to wear during pregnancy--a frequent condition in the age before birth control. Lower income elderly women and invalids also adopted this style for its ease of fit.

Most of what we consider pioneer dresses, dresses worn by slaves, poor farm women or working women were wrappers. Unlike Civil War era ball gowns with their bare shoulders or dresses with their full skirts constructed separately from the top containing jewel collars, boning and pleated fronts, wrapper were loose. They often had a plain neckline without an attached or self-fabric collar. They could be open and the front and held together with a belt and/or buttons.

Some wrappers had yokes with gathered fabric attached for the body of the dress that fell loose to the floor, cinched at the waist with either a fabric belt or apron—either of which could be adjusted to an expanding waistline. The shoulders were wide set and sleeves were gathered into a cuff.  In this way the sleeves could be easily rolled up when toiling at chores. Fabric available to poorer women were coarser and included the following:

osnaburg - a coarse, inexpensive linen
fustian - a cotton and linen blend
linsey-woolsey - a coarse cotton, linen, and wool blend
calico - a cheap cotton fabric printed with a design featuring tiny flowers

In the South, as the war progressed and fabric from the Northern mills and England became more scarce, women of means and poor women alike resorted to relearning the skill of spinning and weaving homespun fabric for clothing.

This McCall’s pattern # 9423 with accompanying aprons (both aprons are cute, but not necessarily era-correct) is billed as a “Pioneer Dress.” The dress itself is actually a wrapper. The wide yoke, which in the Civil War era often did not have a collar, particularly not a self-fabric collar, holds together the full sleeves gathered at the wrist and the yoke to floor body of the dress. Back in the day, the body of the dress would have been fuller. 

Those deep pleats you see coming off the yoke? In some wrappers on each side they concealed a split in the seam that could be expanded so mama could throw a blanket over her shoulder and discretely breast-feed her baby. The edges did not necessarily need to be hemmed. The seamstress could have used the selvege, since fabric in Civil War times came in bolts only twenty to thirty inches wide as compared to bolts forty-two to sixty inches wide today. It took a lot of “lengths” of fabric to make a dress, even a wrapper.

McCall's pattern #3669, left is a wrapper. 

We often think of late 1800’s-era clothing as being made of Calico with small prints in a variety of colors. Calico was used for slave clothing and by the more humble women in society. A woman seen wearing a dress made of calico was automatically viewed as being poor.

On the cover of my novel, Kizzie’s Kisses, she is wearing a ball gown loaned to her by the wife of an Army captain at Fort Riley. However, Kizzie is a farm girl, a tomboy who loves her horse, Sugarcone, and enjoys helping her father and brother work with their livestock. For that kind of work, she prefers to wear an old pair of trousers that formerly belonged to her brother. She probably has a nice dress typical of the Civil War era to wear to church and for special occasions. However, when her mother manages to get her in a dress for everyday living and doing chores around the house, Kizzie is probably wearing a wrapper with an apron over it.

Kizzie’s Kisses is Book 2, the first full-size book in the Grandma’s Wedding Quilts series. You may read the full book decription as well as purchase Kizzie’s Kisses by CLICKING HERE.



  1. I appreciate knowing these details about dress styles and fabric types. Very helpful to my research.

  2. Top notch as usual. Thank you for adding to the knowledge. It always helps when trying to picture your characters. Doris