By Rachel Sheffield
My love of history started at eight years old when Margaret Harling invited me to help give tours of Melrose Plantation, specifically the African House. Now, 13 years later, I have the opportunity to return to Melrose and share my research and historical representations of 1860s clothing. My college awarded me a grant, the Marshall Fellow grant, that allowed me to return to my hometown, investigate its history and create gowns that would have been worn in the 1860s.
Since I’d never sewn any clothing before this summer, I started with modern dresses and worked my way up to the more complicated and fitted pieces that were worn in the 1860s. With the help of online tutorials and in-person classes in Shreveport, I learned to measure, cut and sew tailored clothing by creating five modern dresses. At the end of the summer, after researching in NSU’s Cammie G. Henry Research Center, I was ready to design and create two 1860s gowns. The two gowns were based on the latest fashions displayed in Peterson’s Magazine from 1864.
During this era, more than 150 years ago, wealthy women wore up to eight layers of clothing almost every day and changed dresses three times a day. They had outfits for different occasions: house dresses, going-out dresses and evening dresses. All of the options required a corset to cinch in the waist and a boned hoop skirt to keep the skirts in the iconic bell shape. A woman’s status could be put on display by the amount of baubles on the dress and in her hair. Through the research process, sewing, and then wearing these garments, I gained a greater appreciation of the ways that gender roles affected women of the period.
Women of this time are most commonly remembered as being delicate and frail; in my mind, it’s no wonder that they were seen this way thanks to the clothes they wore. Their corsets stopped them from breathing correctly, they were covered in heavy fabric even in the hottest months of the year and if they dropped something, the tight laces prevented them from bending over to pick it up themselves! Women carried ammonium (better known as smelling salts) with them, should they need to be revived from passing out due to all those layers and our beloved Louisiana heat! By the time most women reached 20 years old, they’d already had at least one heatstroke. A woman couldn’t even dress herself thanks to all the layers and the complicated laces on her back. I had a lot of fun sewing these gowns and learning about my family and Natchitoches’ history in the process.
While I enjoy wearing the dresses for a few hours, I’m very glad that fashions have changed and that I can comfortably wear jeans and a T-shirt in my day-to-day life. I hope to continue sewing both for fun and for academia in the future. Both 1860s gowns will accompany me (and my own smelling salts) to Melrose Plantation during the 65th Annual Tour of Homes Oct. 12-13. I hope to see you there!
Rachel Sheffield is a senior at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., majoring in American Studies. She loves the storytelling side of history and aspires to work at a history museum or with the National Park Service. Sheffield is a Natchitoches native and 2016 graduate of the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts.