Observations of Civil War Era Shirts
Author: Jason Rich of Homespun Wares
The Civil War era was a time of transition for menís shirt styles. Women at home were making shirts based on patterns that had been passed down through generations. In the 1850ís a major change in the construction of the manís shirt was introduced from France. It became known as the "French Pattern" shirt. The sewing machine which had been around for many years was becoming more prevalent and accepted in the 1860ís. Paper patterns and ready made garments were also becoming more acceptable during this time. Volumes could be written on this subject, but we will focus on some general areas of interest for those wanting to wear a period correct reproduction shirt.
Shirts of the 18th and 19th century were regarded as underwear and were not designed to be exposed to the general public. While working men may be in their shirtsleeves as soon as they ventured out into public they at least put on a vest.
The homespun shirt pattern passed down through generations was known as the "Square Cut Pattern". This shirt made some transitions from the one button open front to the multi button placket front. However the basic pattern remained the same. This shirt was made from a series of rectangles and squares. The only fitting was at the neck, and wristband into which the sleeves were gathered. Early shirts were made of white linen, then prints, stripes, and plaids by the 1860ís. The shirt body was a large rectangle extending to the thigh. The shoulder was reinforced. It had rectangular sleeves with gussets and the seam was off the shoulder. The cuffs were long about 3" and extended to the knuckle area. This was so the cuff could be seen while wearing a jacket then folded back on itself while working. The cuff buttons and button holes were placed close to the sleeve / cuff hem and on the edge of the cuff. The placket was not much longer than mid chest and more than 4 or 5 buttons would be unusual. Generally the collar was a fold down collar which could be worn with a cravat.
The "French Pattern" totally changed the style of shirts. The body was more fitted. It narrowed at the waist and flared out at the bottom. The sleeve fitted into the body. Gone were the gussets under the sleeve and the off the shoulder seam. The cuffs were narrower about 1 ĺ" and the collar was banded as opposed to a fold down collar. The materials used were generally prints and plaids.
The "French Pattern" exhibit the change from hand sewn, to partly hand sewn, to all machine stitched. The same could be said for the homespun shirts. Sewing machines were become more prevalent during the 1860ís but like with all new items the price dictated who was able to buy them. Many home spun shirts were still completely hand sewn.
Regardless of the pattern there were some similarities. The cloth used was woven linen or cotton. Solid colors or plaids were the most common with earth tone colors. Paisley and printed patterns were also used, but were made differently than they are today. The inside seams were either flat felled or at least crossed stitched so that they would not fray. The button holes were hand stitched. Shirt buttons were no larger than Ĺ" in size. The most common shirt buttons were: white glass other wise know as white china or milk glass buttons. China ringers and ink wells, they were a white buttons with a painted rim. Calicos, they had a printed calico design and finally pie crust with an indented rim. Hard rubber (Goodyearís, yes they made buttons before tires), mother of pearl, wood, and occasionally tin buttons were also used. Two hole bone buttons were not used as shirt buttons they were used for under drawers.
These are just a few things to think about when looking for and purchasing a reproduction shirt. A whole lot more could be written, but following this information will lead you to a period correct garment. Exceptions and individual instances can always be found for any subject, but what has been shown here is some general information to use in creating the impression you may wish to develop.
Brown, William. Thoughts on Menís Shirts in America 1750-1900. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1999.
Stuckey, Mike. Reproduction Civil War Era Shirts a Quick Summary. 81-82. The Hardcracker Handbook. Bixby, OK 74008.
Brown, William. The Shirt Off My Back. 93-94. The Hardcracker Handbook. Bixby, OK 74008.
McKee, Paul. The Wartime Use of Civilian Shirts. 95-100. The Hardcracker Handbook. Bixby, OK 74008.