Spies and Habits

South Carolina has seceded as well as Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. War has not been declared, but on March 11, 1861 the Confederate Constitution replaced the provisional Confederated States Constitution.

Lorena, my main character in The Rain Crow starts out the book on a ride into the forest to meet a man in a deserted cabin.

April 1861
A gentleman would never have asked a lady to meet him alone at an abandoned cabin. Yet there the note lay in my inner pocket. Dear Miss Lorena McKenzie, it began in the bold, elegant script of an educated man. A lady would never have agreed, but how could I deny the hero of Charleston?
            Camellias bloomed for Christmas. It was March before snow dropped, but by then the unusually mild season had coaxed woodland flowers out. This April morning, however, a frigid wind whispered winter with no thought to the promise of spring. Charcoal clouds unraveling across a leaden sky pregnant with the promise of rain threatened a deluge at any moment and though I had worn my woolen riding habit it would be faint protection.
I’m not sure if I’ll keep this beginning, but that’s what I have now. Either way, I knew I would have to research riding habit fashions for the period. Not only styles, but materials, and accessories.

Sarah Edmonds

Above is Sarah Emma Edmonds who took the name of Franklin Thompson and fought as a male in the Civil War. She disappeared from the army and was charged with desertion, but reappeared as a female nurse to surprise the man she loved. Her comrades later fought to get her a pension when she revealed her true identity. After an eight-year battle and an act of congress, they were successful and she received her pension and the desertion charges were dropped. She married and had three children. She died in 1898, but was reburied with military honors in 1901 in Houston, Texas. Edmonds was also a successful Union spy disguising herself as a man or appearing as a woman depending on what the situation needed.

The first thing we need to keep in mind is there’s a difference in riding in town or parks and in the country. City riding allowed longer skirts that in some instances draped almost to the ground when mounted. Skirts were nearly half again as long as a normal skirt. Riding in the country as with hunting, required shorter skirts. which were often trimmed with a foot of leather at the hem to protect from tearing.

Fabrics might vary, but were normally dark in color. Women still wore fitted jackets or basques. but fashion changed in the early 1860’s so the sleeves were many times more relaxed. Under sleeves extended at the wrist and might be trimmed in velvet at the cuff.

Sealskin cloaks or jackets appeared in cold weather along with heavy leather gauntlets. A lady always wore gloves, of course. The lace mitts had long since gone out of fashion except for some older ladies clinging to the favorites of their youth. Sometimes ladies wore an extra cuff that attached to their crops.

Layered undergarments were always important to the Victorian lady. Under the basque, a lady wore a chemisette or possibly a flannel chemise and sleeves and corset.  Since drawers were crotchless, they could be a bit revealing in case of mishap. Trousers of the same material and color as the habit were familiar. The trousers might be fitted, but were frequently loose and quite flowing like harem pants with elastic at the ankle. The layers of petticoats normally worn would be impractical riding sidesaddle. Still, some ladies wore a quilted petticoat lined with gauze, silk, or muslin.

Quilted petticoats come in handy later with my lady spies as maps, documents, and letters could be sewn into the padding and messages could actually be sewn with the stitching. Who would think to examine those tiny white stitches to see if they made a pattern?

Tall boots were standard. Heels of boots could be, and were, hollowed out to carry messages.

I noticed in studying period photographs many of these habits a cavalry style basque or jacket was popular. They loved rows of brass buttons, pipes, and embroidered braid.

When Lorena arrives at the cabin, she’s wearing a felt slouch hat decorated with “a flurry of peacock feathers”. When she leaves, the hat is naked as one of the young men thinks the feathers are the prettiest things he’s ever seen. She strips down her hat and gives the feathers to the men, some of whom she still hasn’t seen and couldn’t identify if her life depended on it. Feathers were popular fashion accessories for both men and women. Jeb Stuart was known for his hat with its ostrich plume as were many other soldiers.

Riding Habit

I’m not going to go into hats much here as I want to do a separate blog on Victorian hats later. Women, by the mid 19th century had moved way from the wide. flat-brimmed hats for riding and shifted to smaller hats that included top hat styles, derbies, slouch hats and fine straw hats known as leghorns in the summer. They were often dark, like the habits with dark feathers. Feathers included pheasant, rooster, peacock, and ostrich plumes among others. Firm, downward curled ostrich plumes were particularly popular.


  1. This was fascinating to read. I’m imagining hours of research to get this sort of detail down. The more I read about your process in writing RAIN CROW, the more I think you’d find value in NEVERHOME. Same concept/premise, only Union vs Confederate.

    Either way, I’m glad I didn’t live back then. Crotchless drawers? No. Thank. You.

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