How to Dress Like a Southern Belle
There is almost nothing on this Earth more charming and wholesome than the thought of 1860s Southern women. Though it isn't possible to go back in time and be a real-life Southern belle, there are still many groups in the Southern and Northern United States that reenact the roles of Southern gentility. All you have to do is find a group, put together a costume, and begin taking part in the life of the Southern belle.
Keep in mind the guidelines of 1860s dress that were very strict. A few rules that were always followed:
- A lady never showed anything below her collarbone before five o'clock PM.
- A girl under the age of twenty-one never wore red.
- A hat or bonnet was always worn outdoors.
- A lady never removed her gloves, even on the dance floor. Eating with gloves, however, was considered extremely rude.
- Hair was to be kept at the nape of the neck, with the bangs pinned back. The only exception, again, was on the dance floor.
- Post-style earrings, or any earring besides fishhook-style earrings, were not invented.
- Sleeves always extended to a lady's wrist, unless of course, she was on the dance floor.
- Unmarried women never wore feathers in their hair.
Put on a chemise. Though your undergarments don't necessarily have to be authentic, a chemise is necessary to keep your corset from digging painfully into your skin. An authentic chemise would be similar to today's short-sleeved cotton blouse. If you're in a pinch for time, don't like the feel of chemises, or simply don't want to fork over an extra thirty dollars to be "authentic", you can use a short-sleeved white T-shirt or white tank top instead. Remember, since you're wearing a corset, you won't need to wear a bra under your chemise unless you feel it is absolutely necessary.
Don a corset. To put on a corset, unlace it completely. Then thread the string through the bottom pair of holes and make sure an even amount of string is on each side. Pull the corset over your head. There are many different types of corsets, and many ways to tighten yours up. If you have a plain canvas corset with no shape, you can lace it in the front. This is to your advantage. If you have a custom-made corset, or a corset with boning, you will have to lace it in the back. It will probably be helpful to have a friend lace it for you. Hold on to a doorframe or bedpost and allow your friend to lace up the back, much like you would a sneaker.
Tie the corset. To tie it, first tie a plain knot at the top after the corset is laced. Press your finger on the knot as hard as you can, and have a friend tie the string in a bow as tightly as they can. If your corset slips down, you will be constantly annoyed. This is why you may also want to safety pin the top and bottom of your corset to your chemise.
- Remember, a corset is optional. If you're flatter-chested or thinner, you may be able to go without a corset. Simply wear a bra and chemise. Keep in mind though, that while this is the more comfortable option, a corset will give you a smoother look and help keep your posture in check.
Put on your stockings. Any stockings will work, so long as they go past the knee. Modern dress stockings from any department store will suffice. Pull the stocking as high as it will go. Then, slide a garter up your leg until it is about one inch underneath the top of the stocking. Fold the top over the garter, and then roll the stocking and the garter down to just below your knee. This will keep your stockings up throughout the day.
- Many ladies chose to put ankle socks over their stockings to avoid blistering. This is up to you.
Put on your pantalettes. Pantalettes are a lady's version of pantaloons. They are basically capri-length, very light cotton undergarments. Back in the 1860s, all pantalettes had a drawstring tie, but many that you will find today will simply have an elastic waistband. The more authentic version of pantalettes have no crotch, but again, many you find today do have a crotch. Most women also choose to wear panties with their pantalettes, although real Southern belles did not. Simply pull your pantalettes up to wherever you like to pull your jeans to, and tuck your chemise into them. In a pinch, or in order to save money, you can simply buy an inexpensive pair of capri-length pajama pants to use as pantalettes.
Lace up your shoes. The shoes worn at the time would have been an unattractive lace-up boot, likely in black or brown. They lace like sneakers, but take a large amount of time to put on. If you are going only to dance, you may wish to wear anything from white house slippers to pink ballet shoes to flats.
Tie on your hoop skirt. A hoop skirt may have anywhere from three to eight bones (plastic hoops running through the fabric), though the typical one Southern belles would have worn would have had six. There are many variations on the hoop. Some hoops are covered in ruffles or tulle, while others only have thin cotton stretched tightly between the bones. Tie your hoop as tightly as possible in the front or back, and pin it to your chemise to keep it from sliding.
Don your blouse. Simply put it on and button it in either the front or back, depending on the style. Remember that Southern belles generally wore cotton blouses, similar to the ones often worn today, though the patterns and colors may have varied. Don't forget to always cover everything from the collarbone and wrists up.
Put on your skirt. Simply pull it over, tuck your blouse in, and button. Remember that a lady's hoop would never show. Your skirt should fall about from the ground, without dragging.
Put on gloves. There are many variations on gloves, and almost no set rules. Gloves went to the wrist, and usually had one button or no buttons. They could be silk or cotton of almost any color or pattern, so long as it complimented a lady's dress. Some gloves had fingers, while others did not. Still other gloves were made of "fishnet". Some fishnet gloves have fingers, some do not. All of these gloves should be readily available to you. Department stores should carry plain silk gloves in the winter if this is the easiest buy for you.
Style your hair. Hair was almost always worn with the front section rolled or braided back, and the rest twisted and pinned in a roll at the nape of the neck. Hair was never worn more than two inches or so above the neck.
Put on a hat. In the summer, ladies wore Palomino (straw) hats with ribbons or flowers that matched their dresses. In the winter, ladies wore bonnets made of thicker material. Straw bonnets may also be worn in the summer. A lady is never outside without a hat on, or inside with a hat on, unless she happens to be in church.
Have good posture, a warm smile, and an open heart to being a Southern belle!
- Wear light makeup. A bit of foundation, a thin layer of mascara, and a touch of lipstick or Chapstick is the most you should ever be wearing at a time.
- Be wary of your posture. Nothings looks less ladylike than slouching!
- Always keep a handkerchief with you. Not only is it more accurate, but it will serve you many purposes!
- Beware of "popping" safety pins. When a safety pin pops, it comes open and may stab you multiple times.