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Civil War and Antebellum Fabrics

Fashion expert Jo Ross to give program on 19th century clothing

She has extensive knowledge in this area

LA GRANGE, Ky. (November 2018) – Making and taking care of fabrics and textiles in general in the early to mid-1800s was a daily chore. At a time in history when everything was made by hand, every piece of clothing was worn until it was literally threadbare.
“So few pieces of clothing exist from that time period,” said fashion expert Jo Ross of the clothing worn during the antebellum (1814-1861) to Civil War (1861-1865) time periods. “People simply wore out their clothing.”

Photo provided by
Oldham County History Center

Jo Ross will discuss Civil War-era clothing at an upcoming presentation in La Grange, Ky.

Most clothing was stitched from sources that were available: cotton (grown from a plant), linen (flax), wool (sheep), and silk (made from worms) if you could get, she said. “Many closures on clothing were bone or shell.”
Looms were used to make the cloth, operated by women or girls who first spun the product into yarn or thread, which was then woven through the loom by hand. There were trends then, just as there are trends in clothing today, Ross said.
Available fabric patterns were mostly stripes and plaids, though solid colors remained popular as well. “A lot of the printed items were hand done,” she said.
To make the poplar hoop dress, “at least eight yards of fabric were needed.” On top of that, additional materials were needed to create the underpinnings.
“A lot of the items I’ve seen appear to be a dress, but are really a bodice and separate skirt,” said Ross of the clothing of the time period. Woven material could be mail ordered or bought at the general store if one had the economic stature to do so. If not, it was handmade by the wearer or a slave or servant.
Ross will lend her fashion expertise when she gives a program titled, “Civil War and Antebellum Costumes and Fabrics,” for the Oldham County History Center from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1. This program will take place inside the Rob Morris Education Building, located at 207 W. Jefferson St. in La Grange. Cost is $20 per person and a light lunch is included.
On display will be items from the Hermitage Farm collection contained at the History Center such as men’s and women’s clothing, original pattern order books, sewing boxes, corsets and stockings.
Ross said certain accessories were important to ladies during this time period. Hats or parasols were needed to keep the sun off of their delicate skin, as well as handkerchiefs, and purses with drawstrings that looked like a small pouch or bag. Women didn’t generally carry more than a few coins in their purse, she said.
Corsets, hats, stockings and shoes were usually mail ordered. Sometimes stockings and corsets were embellished with the wearer’s initials. Ribbons, bows, feathers, buttons and even threads were all repurposed on various items.   
At Hermitage Farm, Aunt Hannah, a slave, was the principle weaver and worked in the weaving room, located over the kitchen. In this room were “two big looms on which all the cloth, both linen and woolen, that the servant’s clothes were made of, was woven-yards and yards and yards of both,” wrote Sarah Adeline Waters Ripley (1858-1952) in her memoirs.
Her parents, Richard Waters and Lucy Mary Jane Henshaw, married in 1856. Lucy Mary Jane’s parents were Philip Telfair Henshaw and Sarah Ann Scott. They were responsible for building the brick home at Hermitage Farm from 1832-1835. Philip’s father, Capt. John Henshaw of Essex Co., Va., purchased 1,330 acres in Kentucky from Gen. Hugh Mercer after the Revolutionary War. Part of his property was inherited by his son, Philip, and became Hermitage Farm.
The family left behind a priceless collection of family heirlooms, including textiles, now stored at the Oldham County History Center. Ross will shed some light on the vintage pieces during her presentation.
Ross has spent the last 48 years in the fashion industry working as a stylist, personal shopper and fashion expert. She has reported on fashion for the Louisville Courier Journal, The Voice Tribune, Business First, Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS.
She has accredited credentials for New York Fashion Week every six months and attends 40 to 50 shows during the week. Ross has produced an extensive list of runway shows for profit and for charities in Louisville and for the Kentucky Derby. She has also worked internationally producing fashion shows in Arequipa and Lima, Peru; Morelia, Mexico; and Prague, Czech Republic.
During her extensive career in fashion, Ross curated costume exhibits for the Museum of History & Science, the Kentucky Derby Museum, Churchill Downs’ “The Mansion.” She also formed a 22,000-item Costume Collection for the Museum of History and Science, now the Kentucky Science Center. ?
The latter collection began when she formed a costume collection for Byck’s department store in Louisville. “We received over 2,000 pieces within two months,” she said. People donated pieces that dated from 1805 to the 1980s, wanting them to be properly stored. The collection became the property of the city of Louisville.
When the initial exhibit opened at the Museum of History and Science, it contained 100 pieces, she said. Byck’s had paid a curator trained at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pete Ballard, to put together the display and train others such as herself.
Ross has also constructed clothing displays for Bowman Field Heritage Weekends in Louisville. Exhibits have contained war era clothing worn by American Red Cross nurses, uniforms from men and women who served in the military and civilians.

• For more information or to make reservations for Civil War and Antebellum Costumes and Fabrics, contact the Oldham County History Center at (502) 222-0826.

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