Given the variety of characters possible in portraying the residents of the Bowery, I will make no effort to provide guidelines that are in any way specific. I give these suggestions to serve as a starting point for your impression—a generalization of what the average woman
may have worn between 1850 and 1865. Each person is encouraged to develop a specialized costume
appropriate to their persona.
The variety of people living in the areas surrounding the Bowery in the 1850s was virtually unmatched by any other slum. There were the various ethnic groups: native-born Americans, Irish, African-American, and small percentages of dozens of other nationalities. Social classes ranged from the genteel poor to the depraved, drunken, lowest class. The Bowery was an area where it was common , if still not entirely respectable, for a woman to hold a job, something not too common in the rest of the eastern United States. Usually forced into work by sheer poverty, their occupations were rarely genteel; ranging from street sweep, to dance hall girl; from prostitute to store clerk. Another important part of life on the Bowery was the presence of missionaries and reformers, often upper-middle class women who had the spare time and money to devote to such endeavors. They probably did not live in the slum itself, nevertheless their presence was an important part of the Bowery scene.
I feel safe in assuming a time lag of at least two years in the fashions of residents of the Bowery. While circumstances differedfrom person to person, it is probable that a good portion of the garments worn were bought second-hand, which immediately accounts for a two year lag. Add to that the size of families, economic and social positions, and country of origin, and you have a significant delay in the adoption of current fashion.
When worn at all, leather ankle boots are adequate. Shoes are encouraged to be worn at reenactments, for health and safety reasons.
-Wool stockings, generally in variations of white, or browns or blacks, reaching above the knee. May be held up by a string or a band of elastic above or below the knee, or knotted below the knee.
Absolutely necessary. Made of white cotton, with short sleeves, and reaching to mid-calf.
Not likely, or necessary. Possible exceptions are for war-time reenactments when a cage crinoline is worn.
Two to six petticoats can be worn. White cotton is most common, followed by wool flannel.
While the cage crinoline was patented in 1856, it is unlikely that it had made its way to the Bowery by the time of our portrayal. Exceptions may be for a war-time reenactment for more fashion-conscious personae. Instead, a horsehair petticoat, or ‘crinoline’, can be worn. Please note that the LOWERMOST skirt in the layers would be a narrow cloth petticoat, and the one made from horsehair would only be worn over this. Additional cloth petticoats can then be layered over this combination. A corded petticoat may be substituted, to prevent the skirts from becoming entangled in the legs.
Corset or Stays:
Highly recommended. A true corset may be worn, made of cotton twill and stiffened with steel boning, or a pair of stays stiffened with cording as an alternative. The style of corset did not change dramatically between the 1850s and 60s, although the waist did
become somewhat shorter.
The most common for wear during the day would be a one-piece dress, consisting of a fitted bodice and an attached skirt. Possible fabrics include wool, cotton, silk, and combinations of the three. A separate basque bodice and skirt were sometimes worn during the 50s. An alternative is the two piece ‘sack and petticoat’, or loose-fit bodice, and separate skirt. This outfit tended to be less formal than the dress, being a
descendant of the 18th c. Shortgown and Petticoat. It shows up in a number of engravings and paintings of working class women in the 1850s.
A voluminous wool shawl seems to have been an almost constant accessory, judging from the available images of women. Mantles, coats, and capes may also have been worn.
Bonnets show up in a surprising percentage of images; even the famous engravings of two prostitutes shows them look fairly respectable in the demure headgear. Straw was the cheapest sort, but drawn silk was also fairly common. Broad, floppy straw hats enjoyed a
vogue in the 1850s, and were probably worn to some extent by the more audacious girls.
Hair in the 50s was parted into three sections, with the back section pinned into a coiled bun, and the sides arranged into smooth, wide puffs above the ears. Some women, especially those with naturally curly hair, wore their side hair in corkscrew curls. Hair was shiny and well-oiled, either naturally or with added pomades.
The bourgeois and respectable may have avoided obvious make-up, but those outrageous girls of the Lower East Side didn’t necessarily follow popular norms. You are encouraged to research and employ make-up (although period recipes are to be used with extreme
caution, as many of them are poisonous) if it is appropriate for your portrayal, e.g. that of a dance hall girl.
Aprons, gloves, purses, baskets, etc.
As progressive reenactors, we realize that the pursuit of authenticity is an ongoing and never-ending process. Therefore, you are not required to have a perfect wardrobe when you begin...or even after five years. However, we put strong emphasis on continuous improvement. Personal mentoring, sewing assistance, and research help are all available at your request. For questions, comments, or pleas for help please contact Alaina Zulli at [email protected]