Online Exhibit
Southwest Virginia Museum

In the early days, as well as today, clothing told a lot about a person's lifestyle. Clothing was originally made from wool, flax and leather. Today, these are used as well as cotton, rayon, polyester, silk and all types of other materials.

Wool comes from the fleece of a sheep. Each spring, farmers sheared their sheep's thick winter coats. Then, they cleaned the coats and the wool could be carded, spun and dyed.

Flax, which is a plant, was used to make linen. Linen was lighter than wool so it was used for summer clothing. The fine strands were combed and spun into linen. Wool was too hot in the summer and linen was too delicate, so the two were combined to make linsey-woolsey. This is a rough fabric of linen warp and wool or cotton wool.

Leather was also used in making clothing, boots, bags, gloves and shoes. Animal hides were tanned into leather. To tan leather, the hide was placed in water and added to it was hemlock bark. The bark released acid which kept the hide from rotting. After soaking for several months, it was then dried until it became stiff. The animal fats and oils were used to make it soft enough for clothing. Our 2004 museum exhibit displayed many of these materials which were used to make nightwear, undergarments, everyday wear, special occasion wear and accessories.


In the Victorian era, night wear was also important. Nightgowns were long-sleeved and ankle length which echoed the everyday wear. A robe was also used in the morning to cover sleepwear, just as we do today. Night wear was made of finer materials, and were very lacy and fancy.


Victorian undergarments made the outer shape possible, and women wore many layers. These layers included pantalettes, which was a drawer-like garment that was slightly longer than the knee. A chemise, which was a loose garment worn to reach below the knees and had a drawstring neckline. The corset, which gave shape to the hips and waist also lifted the bust area. The women wanted to be thinner, so they tied the corset so tight it squeezed their organs together. This caused fainting and broken ribs. Also, many women experienced problems in childbirth and with digestion. A petticoat, the skirt worn under the dress and a second petticoat (the finest owned) were worn under the dress. Finally, the dress and accessories such as gloves and bonnet were added.


Everyday wear was very different in the Victorian era than it is today. Women and girls covered everything except their faces. They also wore bonnets or hats. Many Virginia women wore gowns made of lustering, a crisp light silk that they had to order for wear during the summer months. The higher up one was in society determined the way they dressed. The more prominent people wore silks, velvets and furs. The poorer people wore wool and linen.


Wedding comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "wedd" that meant a man would marry a woman and pay the bride's father. Many of today's weddings have been traced back to ancient Egyptian and European customs. The traditional white wedding dress came from the Victorian Era and Queen Victoria. Most couples in this time married for other reasons than love. Women needed a man to provide a house, clothes and money. Women's vows included the promise to obey her husband, but his did not include the promise to obey her. Parents sometimes filled hope chests, hoping that their daughters would someday marry. They filled these with things needed for the house, such as blankets and tablecloths.


In the Victorian Era, pregnancy and birth were private occasions. Christenings on the other hand were social events. Most churches insisted the child wear a white gown. This was a symbol of purity and innocence. Most of the gowns were made of fine linen; they were fashionable and tasteful. The term "Christening" dates to the early Christian and Catholic churches. To Christen a child is to recognize the "Christ-light" within the child. This was a way to know the essence of wholeness, joy and perfection that is your child.


Mourning did not apply as much to men as it did to women. Women had to go into deep mourning for a year and a day for their husbands. The widow would dress entirely in black and only leave the house to go to church or to visit close relatives. During the second year of mourning the widow wore less black, more gray, white and purple. The closer the relationship, the more black they wore, and they wore it for a longer period of time. It was considered honorable to follow this dress code during mourning.


Women were not women without the many accessories that made the outfit complete. Until around 1800, women would carry their few coins and personal items in pockets sewn in the linings of their dresses. Later, pockets, coin purses and purses were used. Some purses even had built-in mirrors. During the late 1800's, watches on long chains were popular with the ladies. Brooches and hair pins were worn and during evening events, fancy collar necklaces would also be seen. No lady would have considered herself dressed without her gloves. Shoes were also a big accessory. Working women wore shoes made from strong leather, and wealthy women wore shoes made from silk and linen.






The Southwest Virginia Museum is a member of the American
Association of Museums, the American Association of State and Local History, and the Virginia Association of Museums.