A "Best Bet" Wardrobe for Mid-19th Century Men and Older Boys

The “best” wardrobe will include several key garments suitable for all impressions.  It should include a few extra garments which can be used to augment the impression as needed. You should have a mix of garments from which to choose to complete an outfit, and the garments should be suitable for almost any impression a gent is called upon to do.

Shirts- The number of shirts a gent needs depends on how active he is during the average event, how prone to sweating he is, and how “neat and tidy” he needs to appear. The average gent will need one shirt per day for the longest event he expects to do, plus one extra.  Most gents should have at least one white shirt, (even the working class impressions). Research and surveys of photographs show that white was the most common choice at all social levels.

Socks- The number of pairs will depend on how often he feels the need to change them during the day. I’d recommend one change per day for the longest event you expect to attend plus extra. Most gents will prefer the rag wool socks.  They are fine for many impressions and occasions. Gents will want to own at least two pairs of dressier socks.  The dressier socks are typically made from fine cotton, very fine wool, or silk. A friend who is an expert in socks suggests that wool will make feet happiest for walking long distances and handling hard use.

Drawers- I’d recommend the “one per day plus one” suggestion for drawers as well.  I’d recommend a pair or two of canton flannel or fine wool for colder climates or for gents more susceptible to the cold weather. With so few extant examples to examine, a military-based pattern may be the only documented pattern he finds comfortable.

Trousers- The average gent should have at least two pairs of trousers.  The first pair should be solid, conservative color wool. The second pair could be linen, cotton canvas, corduroy, wool in a fun plaid or stripe, period jean, or even another solid wool. Consider the solid color wool to be middle of the scale, impression-wise. They can go either way, working or nicer.
 The second pair of trousers should reflect his main impressions. If he mostly does working impressions, then consider cotton canvas, corduroy, or jean.  If he has more occasions for “nicer” impressions, then a fashionable plaid, dandy linen, or formal black will be more useful.

Waistcoat/Vest- Two - one of a conservative patterned wool and one different. For the conservative pattern wool, one can choose a nice check, plaid, or stripe. Choose a color that compliments both pairs of trousers, but doesn’t necessarily need to match either.  I’ll share more on color in a bit. For the waistcoat/vest that’s “different”, some choices include cotton canvas, linen, silk, wool, corduroy, jean, and brocades.  Linen, silk, and wool were popular in checks, windowpane checks, plaids, stripes, and geometric fields of patterns.  All choices were seen in plain solids too. 
     I would recommend a moderately narrow shawl collar for most vests.  Notch or Step collars are becoming popular in this era.  In this era the shawl collar (in various widths) has been a fashion standard for several decades.  Remember that the collar goes completely around the neckline, not stopping at the shoulders.

Coat- Many situations require a coat of some kind, so the gent’s wardrobe would be incomplete without at least one.  The coat is an investment item.  It is also one of the “tells” of a decent wardrobe.
Several of the gents I re-enact with suggest a wool sack coat is a good “starter coat” for most gents. The wool sack is less expensive and is more likely to be offered ready-made from vendors of quality garments.  It also has the benefit of easy assembly by a novice home-crafter.  It serves to get the Newbie into an acceptable quality coat and into events faster.  A sack coat is an excellent choice for a young gentleman on the rise in the world. It was quickly becoming a standard for trade and working class gents and had been popular among the wealthy as sportswear for some time. Sack coats could be found in wool, linen, jean, corduroy, and cotton canvas.
     Once a gent has a coat to get him to events, he can work towards deciding which coat style will suit the most impressions he portrays. A frock coat of nice quality wool covers most situations. It has the benefits of having been a fashion standard for decades, the unqualified approval of politicians, business men, clergy and other conservative gentlemen of society. It is readily available on the second-hand markets of the era, and can even be found in the ready-to-wear clothing emporiums. It is a classic and very safe choice. A frock coat of linen or heavy cotton may prove an excellent choice for gents in the warmer areas most of the year.
 Other coat styles had some popularity, including the Cut-Away Frock, the Paletot, and in a few very choice situations the Tail Coat. These are under-represented in re-enacting, but they were popular with the Original Cast.  A very working class gent could even have a coat that defies our categories, with features common to several but falling distinctly into none.

Neckwear- A gent will need two or more cravats, owing to the fact they should appear freshly ironed and starched. A gent should have at least one cravat that can be tied in a traditional bow knot (Pre-tied “cheaters” were available in period, but were not as common as they are in The Hobby today. They are an excellent choice for getting the Newbie attired for an event before he learns to tie the “regular” ones).
     For gents doing working class impressions often, they may find a kerchief a more useful neckwear choice. Kerchiefs will be most useful in cotton, linen, or silk and are seen in both solid and patterned, in many colors.  They can be worn wet in hot weather as a means of body temperature regulation.
     Working class gents should not hesitate away from cravats all together, though. Surveys of photographs and paintings show many gents at work sporting cravats of all sorts. Cravats came in many colors and patterns. The gent will want to choose a thin fabric with a fair amount of crispness, such as a silk, cotton, or linen.

Shoes- are another investment item. Lots of attention should be given to getting shoes that fit well, made by a reputable cordwainer (that’s the technically proper term for a maker of shoes). I would recommend waiting to purchase shoes until the gent has an opportunity to try them on in person. If that is not possible, try to work with an internet company that has a fair return policy.
    Many of my re-enacting friends agree that an ideal situation is to have two pairs of shoes/boots… one pair for nice occasions and one for nastier weather. Boots are more commonly seen on gents who ride horses a great deal. Lower shoes and “bootees” are more common to the average man. Routine care and occasional visits to the local cobbler for fitting and fixes will help protect your investment and your feet.

Hats- gents are funny about their hats. They often start to feel “in character” for their impression once they don a hat they feel appropriate to the impression, no matter what else they may be wearing.  A gent should have at least one hat, of suitable quality from a reputable vendor.
Many gents will shy away from certain hat styles (such as a top hat) because they feel they are too formal. Informal surveys of original photos and paintings show gents of all socio-economic classes wearing hats of all types.  Thus we can conclude the top hat was simply another choice of hat a gent could make. Top hats came in wool felt with plush, wool felt with beaver pelt, plain wool felt, and plaited straw. They also came in several heights, from the tall straight stovepipe made famous by Lincoln, to the short “gambler” styles made famous in the movies.
    Another appropriate choice for many impressions is the “Mechanic’s Cap.”  They were especially popular among the working class and for boys of all ages. Even the wealthy might choose a cap for a sportive outing.
A variety of felt and straw hats make up the rest of the choices available.  And there are many. Looking at photos and paintings of gents will begin to train the eye to what hats are appropriate to what sorts of impressions and activities.

Accessories- A gent will want a number of accessories to augment his attire. Most gents agree that a number of hankies are very useful for a variety of purposes, from blowing one’s nose to protecting fragile items in a sack to cleaning up mess to cooling off in the heat.

Suspenders/Braces are another item most gents find useful for keeping the trousers up to their appropriate height. Belts are not worn to keep the pants from falling down.  They are worn to keep tools and ammunition handy.

Many gents find a pocket watch, with a chain and fob very useful.

 Glasses/Spectacles are a key component for many gents, and care should be given to finding period correct frames and having an optician fit them with his prescription.

 Jewelry -A gold band wedding ring is appropriate for many gents. Many married reenactors prefer to wear a gold wedding band even though men did not universally wear wedding bands in the period. Several friends of mine suggest getting a fairly inexpensive one to wear to events,  so your actual ring doesn’t risk loss or damage.

And finally, a gent will need a means of carrying the larger items he will need for the event. Often he can get by with the pockets in his garments for smaller items. Sometimes, though, he will need to carry a medium drawstring sack, market wallet, carpet bag, or valise. He should also carry a number of napkins and poke sacks to keep his bag organized and tidy and the contents somewhat protected.   
  He should also have some sort of a water container, both for his own safety in keeping hydrated and to comply with the event organizer’s safety instructions. A stoneware bottle, wine bottle, or large flask will serve nicely.  Avoid obvious military-style canteens.  They are typically not appropriate for a civilian impression.  If you have questions, contact the event’s organizer for details.

A quick word about period color and pattern:
A survey of fashion plates and tailor’s advertisements show that dittos (suits of clothes where all three or two of the three main components of trousers, waistcoat/vest, and coat are of the same fabric) were a distinct trend.
     You will find that linen is the most popular fabric choice for dittos.  But wool is also an acceptable option.  Dittos may seem a “safe” choice until a gent has more confidence in choosing complimentary colors.

     Some gents in period put several differently patterned garments together in the same ensemble. To us it may seem “busy” and “clashing”.  Remember that the Original Cast didn’t necessarily find it so.

     Owing to the nature of photography that only shows black, white, and gray-scale, researchers must depend on paintings and advertisements to show what colors were available and sales ledgers and personal remarks in memoirs and journals to show what colors were popular.

     Consider complimentary colors for all the pieces. Look at the produce aisle or natural world to find a palette of complimentary colors. For example: A coat of rusty brown, a waistcoat of light blue, a waistcoat of cocoa brown with a green stripe, a pair of dark blue trousers with a caramel check, a pair of green trousers, a white shirt, a white shirt printed with a navy printed geometric, and cravats of black, brown plaid, and navy stripe would put together a number of suitable combinations in complimentary, mostly conservative, colors.

For the Gent transferring from a set of Military Impressions:
Some items can make an easy transition from military impressions to civilian impressions.  They can stretch the wardrobe dollar and give a gent even more choices in the types of impressions he can appropriately do.
Shirts- Many military gents will have chosen a civilian style shirt for their military impression, likely these shirts will work equally well for many civilian impressions.

Socks- Military gents went through socks much faster than the military could issue them, so they augmented their issue with socks from home or private purchase. Likely this is the case with the gent, and his socks could work for some civilian impressions too.

Drawers- are another item that many military gents preferred sent from home or private purchase.  As I said above, often the patterns documented to military use are the only ones available.

Waistcoats/Vests- the military considered waistcoats/vests to be private purchase items, and many gents chose a civilian style comfortable to them. If the gent has a civilian style waistcoat/vest, then it can work for both sets of impressions

Trousers- if the gent is lucky enough to portray an officer, he may choose a style of trousers suitable for civilian impressions as well. Solid dark blue, grey and heathered kersey were popular choices among the civilian population. The working class sometimes favored jean as a sturdy fabric for garments expected to see heavy use.

Coats- a variety of coats suitable for Confederate military are also suitable for civilian wear, and most re-enactors make no issues of it. Browns, grays, and like colors were popular among the civilian populations and some working class southerners found jean a durable cloth to use for coats in civilian life.

Shoes- While there are differences between military bootees and civilian footwear, if military bootees mean the difference between attending the event or not… wear the bootees without qualm until a civilian style can be acquired.

Hats- Some of the more casual styles of hats were also popular with civilians, including the felt styles like the beehive and the slouch. They can transition between military use and some civilian impressions.

Accessories- Most accessories such as suspenders/braces, handkies, watches, and rings transition easily; however, military canteens and haversacks… those DON’T transition. In an event scenario, a civilian with a military item can be arrested on accusation of stealing from the dead. While this might make for an interesting encounter at an event, one can choose far more interesting encounters to make an issue of. It is far better to use canteens and haversacks for military impressions and choose a crockery bottle and hunting satchel for your civilian impression.

With the variety of choices available to gents, it is easy to see how they would be overwhelmed. By filling his period wardrobe with pieces that work for many impressions, he can be confident that he is prepared with attire for any occasion he is called upon to attend, from fancy supper to painting a springhouse. With care and repair, a gent can have a period wardrobe that will be the envy of his peers for years to come.