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Civil War-era dresses

Longview Public Library employee Rosemary Scandale has stitched several Civil War-era dresses that are now on display at the library.

A paintbrush, a canvas, a kiln: Rosemary Scandale has no need for these mediums. Her art comes to life on bodies, with the settings on her sewing machine permanently set to historical accuracy.

When she’s not working her three shifts a week at the Longview Library or tending her goats in Rainier, you’ll likely find the 72-year-old sewing Civil War-era clothing from authentic patterns and fabrics.

“Walking through fashion is a way of walking through history,” she said, and even a brief conversation with her will elucidate the 1860s more than any combination of tomes could.

Scandale’s dresses and accessories have appeared in the movie “Gods and Generals” and in Civil War reenactments throughout the Northwest and elsewhere. Some are also on display at the library through the month, in the Koth Gallery inside the east entrance.

It was her initial involvement in reenactments more than 15 years ago, and the need to sew her own costumes, that led one of her friends to say, “Why don’t you make these to sell?”

So she did.

“And it turned into a lucrative business,” she said.

Dresses can fetch $150 to $300, and for years Scandale sold the outfits to reenactment sutlers (merchants who set up shop with army bases). She now largely sells them online to individuals, designing them to their measurements.

True to all those involved in Civil War reenacting, no measure of minutiae is spared in Scandale’s work.

“As we move through the 1860s, the gauging (quarter-inch pleats) moves to the back,” she said.

As Scandale explained her way through the day dresses, evening gowns and assorted coats and bodices on the library walls last week, a 185-inch hoop dress followed her feet, as she had worn one of her creations to work.

“They had some interesting ideas about fashion, one being trying to make the waistline look small with a big skirt, the other trying to make the wrists look small,” as with draping sleeves, she said. “And how their clothing moved was very important.”

The former nurse’s aide said her very first Civil War-era dress she made still stands out the most to her.

“When I put those costumes on I felt incredibly beautiful and incredibly feminine,” she said.

The costumes can take up to a week working five hours a day, factoring in not just sewing but crocheting or knitting caps and other pieces. Scandale’s mother taught her to sew as a young girl growing up in Pennsylvania, but not quite like this.

“This is very different,” she said. “All the sleeves and waistlines have cording, the shoulder seams, side seams are angled differently.”

Sartorially, the era stands out to her as a time of “loosening,” with the roomy dresses offering a rare overlap of comfort with style.

“The Civil War is kind of a compromise between Victorian miserably uncomfortable and the tight skirts in the 1870s,” she said.

For five years, Scandale read only Civil War history to immerse herself in the details of the times — the way women would try to save money by protecting their dresses during the hard times of the war, or when certain outfits would be worn.

When she was through with general histories and textbooks, Scandale sought out soldiers’ diaries and letters and has even met some of the descendants of those soldiers. History has always been a big draw for her, but the war over the Union has always captivated her.

“People were willing to go out and die for an ideal. That doesn’t happen any more,” she said.

She said the South has preserved the history of the war better than the North, and a few museums there made dresses available to make patterns, which Scandale uses. For added accuracy, most of the fabric she uses is a reproduction of the fully cotton stuff worn 150 years ago.

“When I work with it it’s my artist’s medium, this is my art,” she said. “The fabric is like a living thing, it has movement, a mood, a feel.”

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Brooks Johnson covers Longview city government, Cowlitz PUD and Lower Columbia College for The Daily News. Reach him at 360-577-7828 or bjohnson@tdn.com.

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