Monday, January 3, 2011


By Fanny & Vera (aka Susan Rhodes & Bridget Carson)

A great controversy in Civil War reenacting is women portraying soldiers. Can they? Should they? For those women who long to reenact as men, Fanny and Vera would like to give you some tips on how to look and act the part.

Whether you want to be a male soldier or portray one of the handfull of women who masqueraded as men to serve in battle, you must pull off the part in a convincing manner. Can you show up at an event, be a man all weekend and go home without anyone knowing you are really a woman? That should be your goal.

Prepare to "get in touch with your masculine side". There is more to portraying a soldier than firing a musket. Examine period photographs of soldiers and known women soldiers, you will see it isn't pretty being a man in 1863. The first part of being a soldier is looking like one. It is more than slipping on a wool coat. The hairstyle, your face and hands, your deportment, speech, stance and activities must all be masculine. You have to pass muster with your officer, your fellow soldiers, and the visiting public if you want to be Mister.

Fanny & Vera offer you this practical advice for developing your manly mien using a few theatrical costume and make-up tricks, there are some easy techniques you can use to add realism to your role.

Hairstyles. Let's start at the top, shall we? Study the hairstyles prominent among 1860's males. There was a great deal of variety, but a few style do's-and-don'ts apply and they apply to the gentlemen reenactors as well. (Visit the Library of Congress website to view hundreds of images of soldiers, both north and south at:

Men of the era universally parted their hair on the side. The side part was maintained with oil-based hair treatments or, on campaign, more often it was unwashed, sweaty, oily hair. "Hat hair", plastered down on top but a curl or wave below the hat line, was a common look for the common soldier.

Long hair? A style adopted by very few officers and soldiers. Custer or Pickett, known for their long, perfumed curls, are often sited as examples. They were the exceptions to the rule and in the minority. A common soldier would not have access to a body servant and French perfumes on campaign, so when masquerading as a soldier, aim for the norm. Only about 1 in 300 soldier images at the Library of Congress had long hair. Most soldiers hacked their hair off above the collar as a thickness of hair on the neck, gathering grease and dirt while making one hot and sweaty was not an asset.

How can you make your hair look period correct? Cut it short, collar length or shorter; some of that commitment to persona we told you about. Shoving your long hair up under your hat does not fool anyone nor is it a look seen in period images. Before you leave for an event, use a bit of hair oil or pomade to slick your hair down, comb in a good side part and it should last all weekend.

About Face. This is the one place that needs your absolute attention to garner a manly appearance. Don't bother with false beards or moustaches unless you are an expert with latex and can do a professional quality job that will stand up to close scrutiny. A fake beard looks like a fake beard and most likely will fall off at the worst possible moment.

The majority of period men were clean-shaven when possible. Groups on campaign might show a few days growth of stubble. Young men and some light haired fellows were never able to produce a respectable growth of facial hair, so you are in good company. Should your ethnic background bless you with downy fuzz atop the lip, exploit the trait with a touch of waterproof mascara applied where mustache and sideburns should be. Be sure the mascara matches your hair color.

The most convincing woman/soldier we have ever seen used the simplest method possible of disguising her dainty features. Dirt. Yes, dirt is your friend when it comes to manly make-up. Each morn she would mix up a handful of dust or ash and rub it gently onto her face, using extra on chin, cheeks and sideburns. She wiped off some of the excess with a dry cloth leaving her pores filled with this earthy mixture and danged if it didn't look like she had 5 o'clock shadow. The best part of this organic make-up treatment is that it is free, hypoallergenic and removed with mere soap and water.

This same grimy technique works to provide manly hands and fingernails. It goes without mention no tips, no polish, and no fresh manicured look. Short fingernails are a must, extra points for ragged or bitten nails.

We should not have to tell you this: don't use any girly makeup. Not a bit of foundation or a touch of eye shadow or even tinted Chap Stick.

The Manly Torso. Men's bodies have broader shoulders and chests, thicker necks, narrow hips and stronger arms than women. With a few costume tricks you can imitate this look and camouflage your feminine form.

The loose fitting sack coat will hide a multitude of curves if you wear it without the belt. When you must wear the belt, fit it at least 2-3" below your natural waistline to make the torso appear straighter. The dropped shoulder seams of period shirts and coats will help your shoulders to look wider, but you can stitch some modest shoulder pads into your undershirt to help this illusion.

Pay attention to the neckline of your shirt and coat. To make your neck look thicker and to hide your lack of an Adam's Apple choose a shirt with an attached collar rather than a band collar. Always wear your shirt closed at the collar with a stock or neckerchief; the extra material will add bulk. Purchase your shirt a size or two larger as a loose fit will help hide your form.

A short coat should be wide at the shoulders and baggy enough to end at mid-hip to elongate the torso. Plan on wearing your coat at all times unless you can convincingly look male in just a vest. A vest with a high collar and hem ending mid-hip is your best bet. Ask your fellow soldiers or unit officers if you can pass muster in your shirtsleeves and respect their honest opinions. If it does not look convincing, keep your coat on!

Be mindful of slinging a canteen or forage bag across you chest, as the strap will 'lift and separate' pointing out in the most obvious way that you are indeed a woman.

Now to the most intimate matter of camouflage: to make yourself appear bereft of breasts. There is not a bra in the world that will flatten you sufficiently. Sport bras may ban the bounce but they will not flatten appropriately. Fear not, the solution is as close as your neighborhood drug store. Purchases a roll of Ace bandage, the nice, strong, wide ones used for knees, and tightly bind your bosom while lying down. The pressure of the bandage will compress your breasts and spread your bounty across your chest quite evenly, giving the appearance of pectorals and eliminating telltale bounce. A homemade breast binder made to your dimensions is the most reliable flattener (see notes at end of article for Wendy Kings homemade breast binder).
Be real about your bosoms. There is no way in the world to make those double-D's look flat. If you are so endowed, consider giving up on your soldierly plans in the interest of authenticity. Be a vivandiere instead so that you can freely be female, yet still join the uniformed horde.

Bottoming out. The well-rounded bottom that fills your jeans so nicely is not a manly trait and must also be disguised. Fortunately, period style comes to the rescue. Trousers of the times were styled to be loose fitting in the leg, baggy in the seat and long enough to touch the tops of your shoes. Worn with braces (suspenders) rather than a belt, you can keep your manly pants loose to hide your slimmer waist & lack of frontal "bulge". Buy trousers that fit loosely at the hips to accomplish this look; your braces will keep them up.

A nice thick pair or two of wooly socks will hide your dainty ankles. In the interests of safe locomotion, however, don't buy your brogans or boots too big just to get the look of big manly feet. Men have small feet, too, though they may not like to admit it. The square toes of period men's footwear should hide the most narrow or dainty of tootsies. An extra pair of socks worn with these shoe styles will help them fit snugly and comfortably. 

Walk the Walk. Watch your fellow soldiers in motion. Their feet face forward, they STRIDE with long steps, and they swing their arms unless carrying something. They stand with legs apart, arms crossed on chest. They lean on objects with their backs or shoulders. They sit whenever possible, leaning forward with hands or elbows on knees or leaning back on a support, often fiddling with some object such as sticks, pipes, chew, whittling, picking nails clean, patting their bellies or scratching where it itches. This will require some practice, but will add much to your persona.

Men don't mince, step or sashay unless they are seeking to shock their local draft board. Keep those hips from swaying. Men don't stand around with their hands on their hips or lean their chins on objects. A shovel or tool should be placed on the shoulder and balanced with one hand, not used like a walking stick. Mealtimes are an occasion to shovel as much food down your gullet as you can get, manners be damned; you're starving! Wipe your mouth on your sleeve and don't forget to belch. Stand erect with head high, shoulders back and back straight. Push, shove and holler with chest forward. Practice your steely-eyed look and be prepared to look others eye to eye.

Talk the Talk. Folks in the 1860s were generally educated and had much wider vocabularies than we use today. In a soldier's camp it was a man's world and a man was expected to hold his own in manly "conversation". Study the slang of the time and know if you are a goober-grabber, a top-rail skunk or a lickspittle. Military life was austere at best and usually rough, dirty, dull, stressful and dangerous. Sink down to its level.

When speaking, breath from your chest and open your mouth to project, hold your head up and let your natural lower register free to vocalize. It's in there. Should someone tell a funny joke, no girlish giggles allowed. Laughter should be a hearty guffaw accompanied by a slap to the knee or your neighbor's shoulder. Learn to play cards or dice. Braggadocio is encouraged. If you don't feel up to this kind of manly behavior, be the soldier who quietly reads his Bible or writes home to mother.

Don't be too sensitive. If the men play a joke on you they are just treating you like one of the guys. Be prepared to give as good as you get. If they tease you about being a beardless boy you can reply that they only grew a beard because they couldn't find a bush big enough to hide behind. You get the idea. Boys will be boys, and so should the girls who portray one.

Special thanks to Wendy King, author of the Women Military Reenactors - excellent advice and pattern for a breast binder.

Bibliography & recommended reading:

>Nurse and Spy in the Union Army by Sarah Edmunds (aka Frank Thompson)
>They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by De Anne Blanton
>All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies by Elizabeth D. Leonard
>She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War by Bonnie Tsui
>An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Private >Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers by Sarah R. Wakeman, Ed. By Lauren Cook Burgess
>The Woman in Battle: The Civil War Narrative of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Cuban Woman and Confederate Soldier (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography) by Loreta J. Velazquez

This article was penned by "Fanny & Vera" at the request of the Camp Chase GazetteBridget Carson and Sue Rhodes are veteran reenactors and co-authors of this article. 

Images of soldiers on this article courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. Image of Wendy King as Craig Anderson courtesy of Wendy King. Images of Fanny & Vera from the collection of Fanny & Vera.

No comments:

Post a Comment