Of Dolls And Doll Clothes

     When I was a little girl my Grandma Ethel made me my very first rag doll out of fabric scraps. I loved her. She reminded me of the rag doll Laura’s ma made for her in the pioneer classic Little House on the Prairie, except that she was much bigger.  

The rag doll Grandma Ethel made for me

     My mother was never much of a sewer. Once in the second grade I badly wanted a pilgrim dress for my Barbie doll for a school project. I begged my mother to please try to make one for me. She gave me that “You know it’s hopeless” look and put me off. I persisted, because if kids are good at one thing, it’s making their parents feel guilty. I must have had the guilt part down because my mother finally relented. But she really didn’t have a clue how to sew. While my grandmother had been home sewing, my mother had been busy taking business courses and getting secretarial jobs. So when she handed me back my finished Pilgrim Barbie, I should not have been surprised at the unconventional approach she had taken. Realizing that she would be hopeless at the sewing machine, she had raided my sister’s Barbie clothes stash and pulled out Barbie’s black cocktail dress. You may remember it from the 60’s. It had a tight fitted bodice, a very full skirt, and a broad white gauzy off-the-shoulder collar.

I can only imagine how my mother managed to look at that cocktail dress and see Hester Prynne instead of Ann-Margaret. Somehow, though, she did. She then took a pair of pinking shears and cut a rectangle out of a piece of black fabric, and sewed it by hand with long, uneven running stitches around the bottom of the skirt to make the dress the right length. She probably spent about five minutes on it. Then she handed it to me, said, “There you go,” and breathed a sigh of relief. And here is the part that showed her brilliance. I remember looking at that dress and knowing that it didn’t even begin to resemble a Pilgrim dress. And I didn’t care. My mother had sewn a dress for my school project and I loved it. I carried it into class the next day feeling totally proud and mostly oblivious to the snickers of the other children and the raised eyebrows of the teacher.  

When I got old enough to have sleep-overs at my grandma’s house, she would take me to a five and dime store near her home and let me pick out a remnant of fabric in the fabric section. Then she would make a dress for my rag doll from the remnant. I wanted to help her in the worst way. My little fingers were just itching to have a go at her machine. Occasionally if she was ready to sew a straight seam she would let me stand in front of her and feed the fabric under the presser foot while she worked the pedal. That is one of my favorite childhood memories. To my grandmother, sewing was a utilitarian necessity that her frugal lifestyle required, but the time she spent sewing with and for me imbued me with a love of sewing that has stayed with me to this day.  It taught me that if I could imagine it, I could create it. That impression took a great leap forward one day when Grandma took me back to the five and dime store to pick out a new remnant. On this memorable occasion, I discovered that the fabric department was selling panels off of a bolt of fabric and every panel had an assortment of pre-printed Barbie clothes. It was like a wardrobe for a three-dimensional paper doll. All you had to do was cut out around the printed pieces, sew them together, and you had an entire wardrobe of cool clothes for your Barbie. I was transfixed. I don’t remember begging or pleading, but I do remember coming home with a panel cut from that bolt and the feeling of wonderful anticipation that accompanied that purchase. Finally I got to make my own doll clothes and all I needed was a needle and thread! I disappeared into my room for days. My mother had to hunt me down for dinner and swimming lessons, which was unheard of. Eventually I emerged with my Barbie’s new wardrobe. I was one mighty proud little girl. The raw edges, sloppy stitches, and mismatched seams didn’t faze me. In fact, they looked just like my mom’s. But I had met the fabric, and I had conquered it. I couldn’t wait to show my grandmother. As I recall, she looked my efforts over, smiled, and said, “Very interesting.” I chose to give the words a positive spin.

     Often, books I was reading stimulated my imagination and made me want to create new clothes and accessories for my dolls. I remember especially reading A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and being transfixed as I read about the doll and doll wardrobe Sara’s father sent her for her birthday:

When she took out the Last Doll it was so magnificent that the children uttered delighted groans of joy, and actually drew back to gaze at it in breathless rapture.

"She's dressed for the theater," said Lavinia. "Her cloak is lined with ermine."

"Oh," cried Ermengarde, darting forward, "she has an opera-glass in her hand—a blue-and-gold one!"

"Here is her trunk," said Sara. "Let us open it and look at her things."

She sat down upon the floor and turned the key. The children crowded clamoring around her, as she lifted tray after tray and revealed their contents. Never had the schoolroom been in such an uproar. There were lace collars and silk stockings and handkerchiefs; there was a jewel case containing a necklace and a tiara which looked quite as if they were made of real diamonds; there was a long sealskin and muff, there were ball dresses and walking dresses and visiting dresses; there were hats and tea gowns and fans. Even Lavinia and Jessie forgot that they were too elderly to care for dolls, and uttered exclamations of delight and caught up things to look at them.

      When I had two beautiful little girls of my own, I found myself sewing doll clothes again. My sister showed me how to cut out lace and applique it onto a finished doll gown and then add beading to it. We made our girls some mighty fine looking doll evening gowns. It was so much fun and our girls loved them. There was always a pile of remnants lying around from other sewing projects, so it was a very inexpensive hobby in every way except time. And my girls got as excited about fabrics from watching me as I had watching my Grandma Ethel all those years before.

     My girls grew older and I became a homeschooling mom, I enjoyed figuring out what their particular interests were and then putting them together in a comprehensive curriculum. When we did a unit on Ancient Egypt, for example, one of my daughter’s projects was to make a beaded collar like Egyptian women had worn. When we did a unit on British history, I asked my other daughter to pick out any dress she saw in the portraits and illustrations we studied and I told her that we would copy it for her American Girl doll. I was a little surprised when she came back with a picture of Queen Elizabeth in full regalia including a beaded bodice and complicated neck ruff. However, I had promised. And so after the academic subjects were finished for the day we spent many pleasant afternoons studying that picture and making paper patterns on graph paper, cutting out pattern pieces, sewing them together, and then beading and embellishing the final product. She was able to do most of the work herself, although I confess to helping quite a bit when we got to the neck ruff. She ended up with a very respectable Queen Elizabeth outfit, and felt very proud of her efforts.

     We visited England a few years ago and one of my favorite parts was touring the hall in Windsor Castle which housed the two dolls given to Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in the 1930’s. These were designer dolls from France and they came with complete wardrobes, just like in A Little Princess.

     Now I have grandchildren. When they visit, I love reading chapter books out loud to them. A few years ago, I gave my granddaughter an 18” doll for Christmas with a doll wardrobe, not quite as elaborate as the doll in A Little Princess, but fun. And now when we start a new chapter book together, I give her a doll dress appropriate for the book so she can dress her doll up like the character we are reading about. It is a pleasant thing to share.

     So I have always associated doll clothes with happy, funny memories. Dolls and doll clothes speak to me of sweet, gentle pleasures and opportunities to dream. I hope to continue to expand the Doll Clothes page here at Civil War Ball Gowns. My goal is to offer outfits which reflect different historical eras, different cultures, and different characters from well-loved books. So if you are looking for something specific for your doll, feel free to contact me and I will be happy to help if I can. I may be older and starting to gray, but the doll lover in me still loves to dream.  

                                                                               -- Marcie

Victorian-Civil War Era Ball: Rescheduled to Friday, March 13 in Shippenburg, PA.

The Local Gathering's Civil War Ball in Shippenburg, PA, has been rescheduled (due to the inclement weather on Feb. 21).  The new date is March 13 at the same time and location.  This will be a wonderful evening of dancing and enjoyment, with dance instruction provided by the Victorian Dance Ensemble!

Additional information is available at:  http://www.thelocalgathering.org/#!/cieo


Upcoming Civil War Ball in Shippensburg, PA - Feb. 21

We are happy to help announce the upcoming Victorian-Civil War Era Ball to be held in Shippensburg, PA on Feb. 21.  This event is a non-profit fundraiser.  No dancing experience needed - just join in the evening for a wonderful time - dance instruction will be provided!

Additional information is available at:  https://www.facebook.com/events/1607016676184962/

How to Sit in a 6-Bone Hoop

Sitting in a hoop skirt is not as difficult as many imagine.  Often the image of a beautiful full skirt flying up as one sits down comes to mind.  However, the boning in most modern hoops - including those that we carry - is flexible.  When wearing one of these hoops, simply sit down as you normally would.  Your hoop and skirt will fall softly around you.

Our model is wearing hoop H650.

                                                                                                 Hoop H650

                                                                                                 Hoop H650


I stood in my workroom recently surveying my fabulous, amazing, and overflowing inventory of fabrics and thought to myself that I really did need to find a better system of organization.

Never mind that I knew where everything was and could lay my hand on each and every piece at a moment’s notice. I guess it was just one of those mornings when I felt Martha Stewart looking over my shoulder, placing her hand on her hip, and lifting her eyebrow in proverbial judgment. So I looked around to see if I could find anything I could bear to part with.

My eye fell on an obvious choice: 4 yards of purple polyester double knit. Now purple is one of those colors that can run the gamut from tasteful (think eggplant) to garish (think purple). This fabric was not only purple, it was just short of neon. Like I said, it was an obvious choice. But as I picked it up and began to finger it, I was caught up short thinking about what an amazing piece of technical engineering I held in my hands.

That piece of indestructible, fade-proof polyester double knit would have seemed miraculous to my nineteenth century ancestors.  My husband is from New England. He has ancestors from Haverhill, Methuen, and Lowell, Massachusetts. Those were mill towns that were started during the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century. In fact, the town of Lowell was named after Frances Cabot Lowell, considered by many to be the father of the American Industrial Revolution.

                                                                                                            Frances Cabot Lowell

                                                                                                            Frances Cabot Lowell

Lowell visited Manchester, England in 1810 and was fascinated by the machinery in the mills there. Blessed with a keen mechanical mind, it is considered highly probable that he used a photographic memory to record the workings of the machines he watched and then later sketched them out and reproduced them in Massachusetts when he came home. Skilled dyers and calico printers were brought over from England.

Textile printing was originally done with wooden blocks. The mechanization in the mills allowed it to advance to copper plates and then to engraved rollers, all powered by water. By 1834, those mills were churning out millions of yards of cotton cloth annually, supplied from the cotton plantations in the South. The bright and colorful calico fabrics became popular throughout America.    

Southerners tried to compete with the North by building their own factories close to where the cotton was produced, but they were never really successful and the seeds of their later defeat in the Civil War were sown as the North continued to industrialize and produce cheap goods.  Fabrics in those days were limited to the natural fibers of cotton, wool, linen, and silk. They might consist of blended fibers, such as linsey-woolsey, a linen/wool fabric which was stiff and durable. Work clothes were frequently made from it. It would most definitely not have been a good choice for a ball gown.    

While we think of clothing today as highly disposable, that was not the case in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Clothes were often mentioned in wills and handed down through the generations. Styles changed, but women were resourceful and made over gowns to measure up to whatever look was currently seen on the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book.   

                                                                                                    Plate from Godey's Lady's Book

                                                                                                    Plate from Godey's Lady's Book

Solid colors were the most popular choice, perhaps because as the skirt circumference expanded through the 1860’s, it was easier to add extra gores of the same color to a skirt to make an older dressfashionable for a minimum expense. In Farmer Boy, the story Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the childhood of her husband Almonzo Wilder as he was growing up in western New York near the Canadian border, Almonzo’s brother and sister were sent off to school one year. When they came home for a break, their mother took their clothes and picked them apart at the seams, turned them inside out, and sewed them back together so they would “wear evenly.” Think about the amount of work that involved the next time you are browsing the five dollar sale rack of t-shirts at Walmart.    

The first synthetic fibers were developed in the early 1880’s by Sir Joseph Swan. These early fibers were created from cellulose derived from plant materials and were referred to as viscose. Rayon and acetate are examples of types of viscose and are made from wood. Nylon was the first truly synthetic fiber and was introduced in the 1930’s. While its most popular use was in women’s stockings, it was quickly identified as an excellent replacement for silk in parachutes during World War II. Nylon and the polyester fabrics that were first developed in the 1940’s are created from petrochemicals and represent decades of research and investment. They hold colors more permanently, are more durable, and are not attractive to insects like moths and beetles. In addition, the creation of a synthetic fiber typically involves a smaller environmental footprint than the production of a natural fiber.     

In the end, I couldn’t part with my neon purple polyester double knit. Yes, I know it will never end up in a beautiful Civil War gown. But somehow, it has a character all its own and it deserves a chance to shine. Never mind that every time I look at it I am reminded of a truly awful leisure suit from 1973. There is a lid for every pot, as my mother used to say. She was, of course, talking about people in general and couples in particular. But at some point I will find the perfect use for this fabric. I will remember the amazing textile history and evolution it represents and be happy I have it.   So I am not going to organize my stockroom. I can’t bear to part with anything. Please don’t tellMartha.


First Lady Harriet Lane (1857-1861)

     Have you ever wondered if you are a hopelessly frivolous person? Does it sometimes seem like you are oblivious to and perhaps even unappreciative of the abundance all around you? Do you ever feel like you need to spend more time giving back in some way and yet still feel pulled into every good shoe sale that comes along? I have a friend who recently took her three teenaged boys to South America to work in an orphanage for three weeks. It was a wonderful experience for all of them, but when she got back she called her beautician to cancel her hair appointment. “I just don’t think I can get my hair done any more now that I realize what a difference that amount of money can make for those orphans,” she explained to the beautician. My friend did eventually decide to start going back to her beautician. Her hair needed cutting and her beautician needed to make a living. But who among us hasn’t felt the kind of angst that privilege in the face of poverty can bring? In fact, if you are able to read this blog you are probably surrounded by more stuff than you know what to do with, even if you are worried about a recent overdraft on your checking account.

     Fashion certainly seems like fair game when it comes to cutting out of our lives extras that don’t really matter. I admit that frivolous is the word that comes most readily to mind when I view the latest offerings coming down the runway at the semi-annual Fashion Weeks from New York, London, Paris, and Milan. And yet, I wait for each new collection with eager anticipation. I coughed up cold hard cash for the ridiculously expensive book about Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. So how can I even pretend to identify with the “before” Andie from The Devil Wears Prada, you remember the one, the “smart fat girl” who felt that she was above the fashion nonsense floating all around her until she snorted at the wrong moment when Miranda Priestly was accessorizing the latest magazine clothing layout and received, courtesy of Miranda, her first true fashion education.

     Perhaps we are just fickle creatures at heart. But then I read about women who have achieved balance in their lives, and it gives me a renewed sense of hope. Such women, like Harriet Lane, remind me that fashion and grooming can be decidedly non-frivolous when they contribute to a life of solid accomplishment. Harriet Lane was the niece of James Buchanan, the sixteenth president of the United States.

James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States.  President Buchanan served during the period leading up to the Civil War, from 1857–1861.  (By George Peter Alexander Healy, 1859. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; http://americanhistory.si.edu/presidency/timeline/pres_era/3_676.html)

James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States.  President Buchanan served during the period leading up to the Civil War, from 1857–1861.  (By George Peter Alexander Healy, 1859. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; http://americanhistory.si.edu/presidency/timeline/pres_era/3_676.html)

  Born in Franklin, Pennsylvania in 1830, Harriet was orphaned at the age of eleven and became the ward of her favorite uncle. He saw to it that she was educated in excellent schools and, when he became Secretary of State, he began to introduce her into the fashionable circles in which he traveled. When her Uncle James became ambassador to the Court of St. James’s in London, he took her with him. She became a favorite of Queen Victoria, who referred to her as “dear Miss Lane.”    

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854, about the time they befriended Harriet  (http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=16)

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854, about the time they befriended Harriet  (http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=16)

By the time Uncle James was elected president in 1856, Harriet was 26 years old. And with her uncle being a bachelor, it was only natural that Harriet became his First Lady. It was a challenging time to be a First Lady for many reasons. Buchanan’s administration followed Franklin Pierce’s. Pierce’s wife Jane hated living in Washington. She mourned the loss of her only child and suffered from tuberculosis, and life in the White House was anything but exciting while she was First Lady. The general atmosphere in the country suffered as a result.

First Lady Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce

First Lady Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce

     Harriet recognized that society was important, and the Inaugural Ball held in March 1857 was intended as a clean break with the sadness of the Pierce administration. The ball offered a veritable gastronomic feast. The following varieties of food were offered: four hundred gallons of oysters, five hundred quarts of chicken salad, five hundred quarts of jellies, sixty saddles of mutton and four of venison, eight rounds of beef, seventy-five hams, one hundred and twenty five tongues, and three thousand dollars’ worth of wine. Harriet, in breaking with the ways of the Pierce administration, lowered the neckline on the gown that she wore to the Inaugural Ball by 2.5 inches. Women began to follow her example in their hair and manner of dress.

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First Lady Harriet Lane, niece of President Buchanan

First Lady Harriet Lane, niece of President Buchanan

     Quickly becoming a sensation, she was described as tall and willowy with violet eyes. She served as First Lady during the volatile build-up to the Civil War, when the frequent guests at the White House social functions were either barely speaking to or loudly hollering at each other. Harriet’s weekly formal dinner parties required all of her tact and she spent great effort at getting the seating arrangements just right. A French chef named Gautier served oysters, lobster, terrapin, wild turkey and partridge. So were her dinner parties frivolous? Or were they an important opportunity to help entrenched combatants relax together in a comfortable setting and look for some common ground? And Harriet was said to be as practical as she was pretty. While feeding her guests well, she still kept a close eye on the food bills.      

     During her uncle’s administration, Harriet had a conservatory built onto the White House. It quickly became known as Miss Lane’s Conservatory. Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper carried an article about it, which stated:

Here you may see orange and lemon trees loaded with fruit, rows of cactus plants of every size and shape, Camellia Japonicas covered with bloom, Spirea, Ardisia, Poinsettia; running vines . . .it affords a pleasant promenade and lounging place for visitors on public days, and the universal opinion seems to be that the new Conservatory is a most fitting and agreeable addition to the White House.

Harriet's Conservatory, built on the West end of the White House

Harriet's Conservatory, built on the West end of the White House

Again, was the conservatory frivolous? Or was it a wonderful way for the public to feel connected to their president and country? During the years leading up to 1860, which was a time of increasing division in Washington, the opportunity to enjoy Harriet’s conservatory offered a chance to feel unified, at least in the enjoyment of a beautiful and pleasant space.

     Harriet was also known for her advocacy work, especially with orphans and the mentally ill.  

     As I have read about Harriet, it is clear she took great care in her appearance and clothing. This quality seemed to work together with her other abilities. Rather than being frivolous and detracting from her important accomplishments, it enhanced them. It reminds me that fashion has its place. Our appearance is the first thing that communicates anything about us. As my mother always said, you only get one chance to make a first impression. And first impressions matter. Harriet Lane presented herself to Washington society and created a good first impression which she then used to bring people together in as many different ways as she could: politically through her dinners, socially through her conservatory, and financially through her advocacy work.

   Okay, and maybe fashion had one other important part to play in Harriet’s life. Let’s be honest here. When Harriet lowered the neckline on her Inaugural dress, well, that must have been just plain fun. And life doesn’t count for much if it isn’t occasionally fun, at least not in my book.

Harriet's Wedding Dress, 1866

Harriet's Wedding Dress, 1866

     So do I think it’s important to skip the occasional shoe sale and instead contribute to worthy cause like orphanages in South America? Absolutely. But now every time I visit my beautician, I think about Harriet and her neckline and I feel a lot better about myself.        

John Henry Brown,  Harriet Lane Johnston,  1878, watercolor on ivory, 4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of May S. Kennedy  (http://americanart.si.edu/visit/about/history/johnston/)

John Henry Brown, Harriet Lane Johnston, 1878, watercolor on ivory, 4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of May S. Kennedy  (http://americanart.si.edu/visit/about/history/johnston/)


     When my father died, I did not wear black to his funeral. I took as much pleasure as I could on that devastating occasion in wearing an outfit that I remembered him complimenting me on once. I did the same at my mother’s funeral. Amid the unspeakable sadness, it brought me a bit of comfort to wear something that I remembered they had liked. We get through the trials of life by finding coping mechanisms that make our pain a little more bearable.  And while many may dismiss thoughts of fashion and clothing as shallow at such a time, they can offer a healthy emotional outlet for managing our grief. 

Benjamin Franklin famously said in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Stonewall Jackson's grave, 1866

     Death during the 19th century was a common if unwelcome visitor. As with all of the other major life events like weddings and baptisms, special clothing was required. The clothing served as a form of respect for the dead. It played a role in helping individuals deal with grief. Additionally, it promoted social cohesion and quickly conveyed information to strangers about recent events in the wearer’s life. During the Civil War, American women followed the rituals of mourning to different degrees depending on their economic status, age, and inclination.  Mourning clothing during the initial stages of grief would typically include black collars, cuffs, and undersleeves and black veiling. Later, laces and trims of a lighter color could be added.  In the final stages of mourning, shiny fabrics, lighter fabrics, and jewelry would begin to appear.

Periods of mourning were very specific. A widow was required to mourn for two and a half years for her husband, while widowers mourned for only three months.  A mother mourned for one year for a child, children mourned up to two years for parents, and nieces adopted “half-mourning” for three months for an aunt.  

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is currently hosting a new exhibit called Death Becomes Her – A Century of Mourning Attire (http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/death-becomes-her).   It covers the years from 1815 to 1915 and offers 30 different mourning ensembles. The dominant color used for these mourning clothes is, of course, black, but purple and grey are also seen, as is a striped beige and black dress. Style clearly matters. Both black and beige laces are frequently used on collars, bodices, and trimmings. They are also seen in dainty gloves. Silk taffeta appears to be the most common fabric for the gowns.

   It is fascinating to study the clothing in this exhibit, especially the examples from 1850 -- 1870. Clothing, unlike any other element, has a way of encapsulating the subtle and not-so-subtle elements dominant in society at any given time. During the American Civil War, grief was ever-present. Virtually everyone knew someone who had died. Economic strains were constant and growing. Society was changing rapidly and for most, it felt like the very ground was shifting under their feet. Although the demands and shortages of war made it difficult for many to observe full mourning dress and etiquette, clothing for mourning offered a way to remember the dead and observe important societal customs. Interestingly, as long as the rules were followed, embellishment was allowed. Tradition was important, but there was still room for individual expression. Mourning clothing from this period is a potent reminder that, whatever our circumstances or personal tragedies, we all need a creative outlet. One way or another, we usually find one. There is a profound sense of both comfort and triumph in that.   


Most of us have had the experience of wanting to be a swan and feeling more like an ugly duckling. It is probably most common among eighth graders, but we can be susceptible at any age. Fortunately, as we grow older, we discover the transformative effect of a great new hairstyle and a magnificent dress. Think Cinderella. Or Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries. Or Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina. Even Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, who didn’t much care about being a swan, found out what a difference a good stylist can make. There is just something about that “Aha” moment when we look in the mirror and like what we see looking back.

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which takes place during the American Civil War, Meg Marsh goes to visit her friend Sally Moffat and finds that when she wears her best tarlatan dress to a small family party, it is considered shabby and dowdy next to what the other young ladies are wearing. Tarlatan is a thin, stiffened, open-mesh cotton fabric. Sally’s family decides to help poor Meg look better for the upcoming ball, and so:

“On the Thursday evening, Belle shut herself up with her maid Hortense, and between them they turned Meg into a fine lady. They crimped and curled her hair, they polished her neck and arms with some fragrant powder, touched her lips with coralline salve to make them redder, and Hortense would have added a “soupcon of rouge” if Meg had not rebelled. They laced her into a sky-blue dress, which was so tight she could hardly breathe and so low in the neck that modest Meg blushed at herself in the mirror. A set of silver filigree was added, bracelets, necklace, brooch, and even earrings, for Hortense tied them on with a bit of pink silk which did not show. A cluster of tea-rose buds at the bosom, and a ruche, reconciled Meg to the display of her pretty, white shoulders, and a pair of high-heeled silk boots satisfied the last wish of her heart. A lace handkerchief, a plumy fan, and a bouquet in a shoulder holder finished her off, and Miss Belle surveyed her with the satisfaction of a little girl with a newly dressed doll.”

Meg ended up being a sensation at the ball, and while she later decided that it is always best to be oneself, she had “discovered that there is a charm about fine clothes.”  

We couldn’t agree more with that sentiment.  At the end of the day, a beautiful gown will always be transformative, and wearing one may even help us discover new truths about ourselves.


While I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, my grandmother Ethel was an important part of my young life. By the time I knew her, she was a bastion of middle class respectability known for keeping an immaculate house and still wearing her corset. She was never one to let standards slip. In fact, as a child when I was lucky enough to get to go for a sleepover with Grandma, she would let me build tents in her living room, and after plying me with home-made sugar cookies, we would sit down to watch Lawrence Welk. She would fall asleep in her chair while I stood behind her and brushed her hair. Eventually, the show ended and she woke up, and then came my favorite part of the whole visit – I would get to watch while Grandma would take out her false teeth and set them in a glass on the bathroom sink. Her whole face would change and she would talk funny. I loved it. It was better than the circus. In fact, I wanted to take her to school for show-and-tell so all of my friends could watch her take her teeth out, but for some strange reason my mother nixed the idea.



As I look back on those days with Grandma Ethel, I think more and more of the stories she told about life when she was growing up. Grooming was always important to her, and yet she told how, when she was a teenager, she and her sisters would only wash their hair about once a month. Really?! That sounds completely disgusting to me today, and yet it was a very common, even sensible practice well over a hundred years ago when there was no central heating, rooms were drafty, and winters were long and cold. It serves as a constant reminder to me that times change, and standards change based on the services that are available and the resources we have access to.  Above is a picture of Grandma Ethel in her finest. I think the picture was taken in the early 1900’s, and she would have been around 15. Everything was handmade, but that was no excuse for not doing your very best work. Below are her sisters Ada and Nora. I love the hats especially. There is something exuberant about them that says fashion matters. My grandmother taught me to value my appearance and to do the best with whatever talents and abilities God had given me. Slacking was never an option. And if times were tough, you just needed to work that much harder.





We know that for many, times are tough today.  We look for ways one dress can be re-purposed to work at multiple events without looking like the same dress. If you have special needs or considerations, don’t hesitate to contact us. Maybe we will be able to help with suggestions and ideas. We all want to look our best and enjoy life, and if Grandma Ethel was here, she would quickly say, “Well, get on with it!”


Our great grandmother, Catherine Virginia Stotler, was born in West Virginia in 1865, two years after the state was admitted to the union.  The oldest of six children, her mother died in childbirth when she was only 8.  Her extended family had been divided, like the states themselves, over where their loyalties lay. Those who had supported the Union stayed in the local community, while those who had supported the Confederacy were no longer welcome and moved away.

As the oldest daughter in a large family, and without her mother, Catherine learned to survive and thrive in the hardship following the Civil War.  She was a beautiful seamstress - but never owned a ball gown. We are quite sure that we can occasionally feel Catherine peeking over our shoulders, and we want to make sure she likes what she sees.

We hope you like what you see too.

Welcome to our new site!

Welcome to the new home of Civil War Ball Gowns and Belle-styled Dresses.  We continue to offer beautiful new and vintage ball gowns in 1860s styles.  In addition, in response to many customer requests, we now carry hoop slips and crinolines, as well as new accessories.  We hope you enjoy the site!