Dresses in Civil War Appalachia

(Well, okay, in Hollywood's rendering of Civil War Appalachia.)

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I'd wager that most folks have at least one film that they watch every holiday season. It's A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Home Alone. For me this ritual has slowly evolved to include a different kind of film altogether. Every December I get a hankering to watch the beautifully shot movie Cold Mountain. The cinematography is just spectacular, and between the landscape, the pretty people, and the gorgeous clothing, it is as much a feast for the eyes as that Christmas ham is for the belly.

I recently read the novel and absolutely loved it. I love the food they ate (I could easily live on beans and corn bread and eggs and bacon), their herbal knowledge (the goatwoman is one of my favorite scenes- in the film and the book), the simple way they handled the passing of loved ones (home funerals and "death midwifery" fascinate me), the extensive descriptions of fiddle making and fiddle music playing, and so much more. (It is, though, a rather dark and disturbing story. The Civil War era would have been one of the worst times to be alive I think, amazing clothes or not...)

And speaking of amazing clothes. You can see in the images above that there are two styles of women's clothing presented in the movie. There are Ada (Nicole Kidman)'s upper class gowns- Edwardian collars, extensive lace detailing, whale bone corsets, frilly parasols, delicate gloves, satin trimmed hats, etc. Then there are Ruby (Renee Zellweger, who won the Oscar for this role)'s plain country folk frocks. Ruby and Ada's characters couldn't be more different, with Ada being raised by a wealthy father who educated her in the arts, reading and writing, history, and music but kept her away from any practical, day to day living type of work and Ruby basically raising herself since childhood and having loads of useful skills, such as gardening, hunting and foraging, and animal husbandry. Ruby's clothing reflects her daily, dirt and blood and sweat, life. They are plainer, simpler, made of coarser material, and in some cases made by her from an animal she sheared herself.

But whether high-falutin or poor white trash, dresses and skirts remained the norm for women in the mid 1800s. In the book Ada and Ruby don men's britches for a hike in the snow, and both women find it a novel experience indeed.

Given the choice, I'd take Ruby's frocks over Ada's gowns any day. In fact, many of the dresses, blouses, and tops that I like to keep in stock in the Etsy shop are in a similar style. Today we call them "prairie dresses", though American women in all geographical locations have worn these practical yet pretty garments while going about their daily work. Definitely can't say the same of Ada's ornately embellished pieces, gorgeous as they are.