Notes on Men's Civilian Clothing During the 1860s

This is a guide to proper dress for the mid-19th century male civilian, age 8 and up. It was taken from two sources – the Citizen’s Companion magazine and from an outline by clothing historian, Bill Christen. 


Often consisted of shirt and drawers. Wearing of two shirts common as the undershirt keeps the other shirt clean and free from body odor. Made of stout muslin, flannel, and flannel and knit fabrics sewn together. Knit types resemble long underwear of today without the elastic, but includes button closures. The US Army did issue knit underwear in the middle of the war (documented only in photographs). Flannel drawers resemble modern pajama bottoms in shape, but with buttons at the waistband, a tie adjustment in the back and occasionally ties or drawstrings at the bottom of the legs. Three button, Y-front drawers also existed. White and off-white. 

NO Union Suits! They are from the 1870s!


Made most commonly of cotton and wool, sometimes silk for formal wear. Often had 1 inch or less of ribbing at the top. Hand and machine knitted. Came in white, black, and many drab colors (often drab, rarely bright). Seamed on the back or side, sometimes with reinforced heel. Up to knee length. 


Most shirts cut full in late 18th or early 19th century style; placket (or pleated) front, drop shoulders, with or without collars (button-on cloth or paper collars available). Collars were fold over about one inch wide. Ordinary shirts made from heavier cotton, wool, or wool flannel, (not modern muslin) in white, drab solids (wool only), woven plaids, stripes, checks and prints (not modern calico). Dress shirts made from fine linen and, increasingly, from cotton. "Good" shirts often had pleats and even decorative needlework. Buttoned-on-to-shirt stand-up collar.  


Worn at the natural waist (belly-button height, on a line with the elbows) not on the hips as today. Waist bands fairly narrow (1 to 1 1/2 inches) following the waist shape, rising higher in the back than modern trousers. Eyelets and ties, buckles or straps at the back seam for adjustment. Fly buttons inside plackets. Legs straight, or slightly narrow at the bottom; somewhat baggy from the hips down. Pleated fronts found on some examples. Should fit well enough at the waist to go without suspenders, while baggy in the seat. Creases seen in about ten percent of period images. 1860's length should allow the back of the pant legs to be at the top of the shoe or boot heel with the front creased over the arch of the foot. Lined or unlined. By late war years some civilian pants had stripes running down the outside seam. Side seam or flap pockets in front. A watch pocket in the waistband or just below it in formal wear. Materials varied according to the intended use. This applies to coats and jackets as well. Black super-fine wool broadcloth for trousers worn with frock coats, full dress or tail coats. Other materials were light to medium weight wool in plaids, checks, and solids of natural colors in various weaves. "Shoddy," reprocessed wool produced during the war, produced mainly in dark colors, sometimes flecked with light colored threads. Natural and light colored cottons and linens in plaids, checks and (natural color) solids used for hot weather clothing. Corduroy used for casual and sporting clothes. Jean or Negro cloth (mixture of coarse cotton or linen warp and wool weft or "fill") a common material for work clothing.


Suspenders (Braces)

All men wore suspenders. Worn with trousers that are well fitted for show, and a necessity for loose fitting ones. A popular type was basically two straps of leather, cloth or knitted material with button holes at one end and either button holes or straps and buckles for adjustment. Leather suspenders, sometimes with designs stitched into them and cloth types with embroidered designs often done in Berlin wool work (a type of needlework popular in the 1860's similar to modern needlepoint). Elastic used occasionally, but only on about the last three inches of the back of the suspenders.  

Vests or Waistcoat

Were commonly worn. Made from silk and common worsted wool, often matching coats and trousers. Silk worn with almost any better coat. Most vests lined with white polished cotton. Backs from brown, black or white polished cotton. Commonly made in subtle colors and patterns. By the 1860s vests started losing the color and flamboyance of the early part of the century. Most had a shawl collar and lapels and three pockets. Adjusted near the waist in the back with straps and buckle or, less often, a series of eyelets for lacing. Cut straight across on the bottom. Low cut vests worn with evening wear. If the cloth was patterned, it was subtly done, such as white embroidery on a white background. High cut vests worn with everyday attire. Single breasted vests could be worn with either single or double breasted coats, but a double breasted vest could only be worn with a double breasted coat.  


Cravats and ties not as long or colorful as before the 1860s. They retained a standard width of about 2 1/2 to 3 inches. Narrower tie widths appeared about this time. Wide cravats worn with high collars, narrower ones with turned down collars (more prevalent in the 1860s). The double Windsor knot known today appeared in the 1860's. Ties were tied in every way but the modern bow tie. Pre tied cravats were available, fastening with a tie, buckle, button or spring steel coil. The preferred tie material were luxurious like silk, satin or anything of a silky feel. Colors included black, white, or contrasting or complimentary to the outfit. White ties were worn with white formal evening vests. Black ties, while not worn with white formal vests, were worn with informal white summer vests. Men, like women of the Victorian era, minimized the amount of skin shown and would generally keep their shirt buttoned unless at strenuous labor.  


Boots and shoes are the basis upon which all attire is built. The predominant feature of men's footwear was square chisel toes and smallish heels. Most common material for working footwear was waxed calfskin that presented a rough outer surface and a smooth inner. Goat skin, in red or green, was used to trim better boots of waxed calf and kid (a fine, soft, supple leather). Men's shoes were commonly unlined. Rough outer leather was smoothed by waxing and polishing. Most boots had one piece fronts, but the two piece Wellington were still being made. An alternative shoe or boot was the "Spring-sided Congress gaiter", or elastic sided shoe (introduced in the 1840s). Other types of boots existed, but were not exceedingly common such as canvas sporting shoes. The lowly Oxford shoe, pretty much as it is today, appeared in the 1850's. Brogans, with their larger heels, were used by working people and were standard issue in the military. Patent leather available and often used for men's dancing pumps for formal balls. (Available today from Italy). As a fashion fad of the 1860's, low boots were more popular than brogans for civilians. Factory produced shoes came in rights and lefts. Shoes made by hand were often straight or "no-handed". Unless the wearer changed from one foot to the other regularly, they naturally became rights or lefts. Some tradesmen such as millers wore wooden soled shoes similar to brogans. Toes appeared square from above and chisel shaped from the side. Shoes that laced had cloth laces with metal caps and metal eyelets.

Here is an excellent site for period shoes, especially civilians.


Watches were a popular accessory that gave the appearance of financial well-being. Watch guards or chains were made of gold, gold substitute, silver, nickel silver, polished or cut steel and braided hair. Chains attached to the vest with an "S" hook or 'T' bar. Wide range of types and designs of chain were in production: single, double or triple strands with moveable slides that were decorated in various ways. Sometimes the slides had a ring to attach a fob or for the ever present watch key. (Stem wind watches did not become common until the 1870's). Other jewelry included rings, stickpins, shirt studs and cufflinks or buttons. Sometimes a memorial or photographic brooch or mourning band when appropriate or patriotic ribbon was worn.  


Varied from sack coats to tail, or claw hammer styles. Most common materials: wool of various weights, cotton and linen. Silk coats were known to exist. Superfine wool broadcloth used for finer clothing was produced with a finish that literally glowed (it will shine in nineteenth century photographs). Better wool broadcloth was so finely woven and finished that the edges could be left raw. Best clothing was black. Wool of tweed, check or plaid patterns were used for sack suits, everyday paletots and sports and hunting attire. Linings were made from ordinary cheap cotton, wool plaid, silk and silk silesia. Frock coats generally had one or two breast pockets on the inside, two pockets in the tails and occasionally pockets on the outside. Sack coats mainly had the outside pockets with or without flaps. Full dress or tail coats usually worn only in the evening for formal occasions. Linings and tailored look are defining clues in dating mid-century frock coats. Sleeves were cut quite full, especially in the elbow, and commonly worn much longer than today.  


Like a waistcoat (vest), hats and caps were a feature of daily life, offering protection from the elements and occupational hazards, a badge of social distinction and a covering for unwashed hair since frequent hair washing was not the norm. All sorts of hats and caps were popular, including all shapes of wool felt hats, beaver or silk plush hats and several styles of straw hats, watch and mechanic's caps with a flat top and visor of the same fabric, tarred paper, or leather, derby or bowler to a limited extent and stovepipe hats were crowding out top hats in all but formal wear. By 1860 beaver hats were made of a combination of beaver, rabbit and wool fur. Collapsible top hats were not available until the 1870's. Fully constructed hats had a lining and/or a hat band, ribbon on the outside and most often a bound or sewn edge. Many of us are wearing unfinished hats. Proper etiquette of hat wearing and hat removal was very important.  


Men’s hair should be parted at the side – usually a single part but, at times, a double part – one on each side. A part down the middle was considered effeminate. Hair oil, such as macassar oil, was used frequently, but is not necessary for your impression.  


Overcoats are a necessity in cold or wet weather. Wills and inventories of the time indicate that a good civilian greatcoat of the standard caped style was something of value to be handed down from one generation to the next. Modern overcoats can sometimes be easily modified to look correct for the period, especially Brooks Brothers and Lord & Taylor (both in business before the war). Shawls were universal to all classes and both men and women up to the end of the 1860s. Capes were really just formal shawls for men. Rainwear includes coats of oilcloth and waterproofed wool. For extremely cold weather, Buffalo and other fur coats for those who could afford them.  


Gloves and mittens were a necessity and dress gloves were a part of the etiquette of the day. Gloves for occupational use might be leather or wool, while fine white kid (goatskin) was used for formal wear (white cotton is used for a substitute today). White gloves of knit cotton were known as "Berlin". No respectable gentleman went out of doors without a hat and gloves (two pairs often necessary for this, darker for ordinary or sporting use, and white for offering a hand to a lady for the appearance of cleanliness.) "Yellow" or ecru color gloves were considered quite dashing. Umbrellas of stout and commodious design were in common use. Generally have straight or bent wooden handles. (Umbrellas were also used by women for rain protection, as parasols were for sun protection only.) Walking sticks and canes were either an affectation or a necessity, depending on age, social status or the need for a protective weapon. Canes were generally constructed of hickory or ash (very flexible and resilient woods), or dense, heavy woods such as ebony and lignum vitae. Canes were even made from plant stalks such as sugar cane. Cane heads or pommels could be of silver, gold, antler, horn, bone or ivory. Handkerchiefs were a necessity. They were normally large (18" x18" or so) and generally of cotton. Some bordered, paisley, or multicolored (three or more colors, not bicolor bandannas of today.)