“The Impeccable dress of Nancy Cunningham Luckie, a free black woman, shows no discernible difference from ensembles typically worn by her white counterparts.” ~Staci-Catron-Sullivan, author of Women In Atlanta
Drawing of Civil War era
Initial findings suggested that free women of color wore very simple clothing made of cotton with small patterns. However, after selecting Lavinia Flagg as my Living Historian persona, I have learned that free women in the State of Georgia wore fine fabrics, such as silks and wool with large prints. As an example, Louis De Vorsey, author of The Plantation South, states, “When the Civil War began, Flagg had accumulated an estate worth over $25,000, a respectable sum for those hard-dollar days, and his wife Lavinia lived unusually well for an African American in those times of slavery.”
Thus, I do believe that the dress code for free women of color varied based on social climate. Because Lavinia was known as a personal female confidant to Mary Ann Lamar Cobb, wife of Governor Howell Cobb, Lavinia perhaps was allowed to attend social teas and sewing circles due to the wealth Wilkes had accumulated. This financial status coupled with the fact that Milledgeville was a 19th century urban city created the ultimate backdrop for fashion.
Featured is a 1862 photograph of Nancy Cunningham Luckie, free woman of color and wife of Solomon Luckie who ran a barbershop and salon at the Atlanta Hotel. The Victorian dress that Nancy is wearing is a wool silk blend. Picture is courtesy of Staci Catron-Sullivan, author of Women in Atlanta.
Becoming a Living Historian, as we say in the south, is bigger than a bread basket. The end result looks so easy. Put on a hoop skirt and dress–you’re done. Well, not so fast. When I learned about all of the underpinnings, I couldn’t believe how much 19th Century women endured.
As you know, clothing was hand washed in the 19th Century. Therefore, the underpinnings were worn to prevent the soiling of one’s Victorian dress. After all, washing underclothes on a weekly basis was easier than washing a dress made of equal to or greater than 15 yards of fabric. Remember, the 19th Century lady changed outfits several times a day. Thank goodness for the modern convenience of electronic washers and dryers.
I found this video which will give you a greater appreciation for the lengths in which women living historians and reenactors go through to preserve the realism of 19th Century fashion.
This is a great film about 19th Century fashion. After viewing the entire clip, I better understand period correct attire. The models really made the era come alive. However, when you hear the blurb about what Black Women wore during the 19th Century, you will better understand my passion for documenting my journey as a Living Historian.
The featured photograph is of an unidentified 19th Century African-American woman, who appears to be wearing a silk or taffeta dress which was worn by the upper class during the 1860s. The picture is courtesy of the New York Public Library: Digital Gallery.
The video of the “19th Century Fashion Show” is courtesy of Greenfield Community College.