Styling the Civil War

In this 150th year since the start of the American Civil War, it is time to reconsider one of the most vexing questions to emerge from that conflict: Did Mary Todd Lincoln really need 300 pairs of gloves?

This is the sort of question that has been bothering Nicole Boylan for much of the past year. Boylan, a senior, is part of a team of student costumers who recreated 19th-century fashions for the Mill Theatre’s May production of the historical drama Abraham Lincoln. In all, the team produced 40 sets of costumes—soldier’s uniforms, ladies’ dresses, even corsets and pantaloons–aiming for historical accuracy and attention to detail. Researching their work took the costumers to archives and museums from Madison, Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. But the project began last summer with a trip to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. It was there that Boylan began to understand Mrs. Lincoln’s extraordinary fashion sense.

“She thought it was her patriotic duty to wear the very best clothes and to spend money on the very best silks,” Boylan said last week in Buik Recital Hall, where she and her fellow students were presenting their work as part of Elmhurst’s ninth annual Research and Performance Showcase. But when it came to Mrs. Lincoln’s attempts at high style, everyone was a critic. “People said her dresses made her look like a piece of furniture. They said she appeared to be wearing a flower pot on her head.”

It was the First Lady’s spending that really bothered Washington insiders of the time.

“They thought buying 300 pairs of gloves during a time of war might have been a little excessive,” Boylan said.

For Mrs. Lincoln, though, compulsive shopping was part of the First Lady’s job description. She liked to justify her spending on extravagant outfits as a kind of one-woman stimulus plan for the nation’s clothiers.

So when it came time for Boylan to design and produce some fashions for the stage version of Mrs. Lincoln, she aimed to appeal to the First Lady’s taste for finery, even if it meant occasionally going over the top .
“We wanted accuracy, not necessarily a pretty picture,” she said.

Likewise, when senior Maria Vasquez created a uniform for the notoriously unkempt General Ulysses S. Grant, she kept things appropriately slouchy. And the dress senior Brooke Sweeney produced for one sharp-tongued character with a fondness for war included black lace trim in the shape of daggers.

“We want the audience to be able to understand the characters a little before the actors even open their mouths,” Boylan said.

The students’ guidebook for their trip into the history of American fashions was a periodical called Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular magazine of the mid-19th century that billed itself as “the queen of monthlies.” The famously polite journal managed to publish throughout the Civil War without once mentioning the conflict in its pages. But the dress patterns published in each issue were an indispensible resource for home seamstresses interested in the latest fashions.

They were just as valuable for the Elmhurst students, who turned to the patterns to keep their creations historically accurate. Sweeney said the students liked to call themselves “Team Godey.”

They also tapped into the helpful expertise of historians and archivists. Sweeney even investigated and solved a long-standing mystery about one of Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses, helping to prove that a dress that the Lincoln Museum had labeled as an Inauguration dress had, in fact, not been created for or worn on that occasion. Sweeney admitted that she had never given Mary Todd Lincoln much thought before she began working on the project. But once at work, she said, “I had to know everything there was to know about her.”

To create the costumes, Team Godey worked with Assistant Professor Janice Pohl, keeping busy at a bank of sewing machines in the raw, warehouse-like costume shop created out of the old lumber facility that gives the Mill Theatre its name. The space, with its ancient loft staircases and row after row of garment racks hung with vintage smocks, dresses and suits, is, in its own way, evocative of America’s pre-modern past. The costumers raced the clock to complete their work in time for the play’s premiere. Alterations and adjustments continued until the final hours, as did lessons for the cast in the art of sitting gracefully in a hoop skirt.

“I had pretty minimal sewing skills when I started doing this. I could maybe sew a straight line if you got me started,” Sweeney said. “Now here I am sewing Civil War dresses.”


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