Fans of PBS’ Mercy Street, based on real events of Civil War Alexandria, Virginia, can explore the real history behind the show by visiting Alexandria, located just outside of Washington, D.C. The city is presenting 50 Mercy Street-inspired tours, exhibits and events.
One of the best things about PBS’ Mercy Street is the attention to detail and historical accuracy, and the costumes featured on the series are no different. Fans can’t get enough of the elaborate Civil War costumes worn by Mercy Street characters from the nurses to the soldiers, doctors and more. In this post, we explore the costumes from Mercy Street including insight from the costume designer, and how the costumes shed a spotlight on gender during the Civil War. Keep reading to learn about visitor experiences in Alexandria, including an opportunity to see real costumes from Mercy Street and try on your own Mercy Street-inspired costume!
Designing Costumes for Mercy Street
Charlotte Jenkins character mood board. Explore more of Charlotte’s costumes on PBS.org Image Credit: PBS
“These costumes had to be very special. I am a PBS viewer, and I know what I expect when I turn on my PBS costume dramas. And that is what I wanted to deliver.” – Amy Andrews Harrell, Mercy Street Costume Designer
Amy Andrews Harrell is the costume designer for Mercy Street, and in this PBS interview, she discusses what it was like designing costumes for the series. Harrell spent years researching and designing costumes for the Mercy Street before production was even underway. As a result, the costumes we see on Mercy Street are stunning, and some of them are even vintage to the time period, including a 10-yard bolt from the 1870’s found on eBay. Harrell used pictures from the Civil War to replicate costumes as precisely as possible, finding pieces of clothing and accessories in creative places, sometimes even her own closet.
Image Credit: Erik Heinila for PBS
New in 2017, fans of the series can view some of these real costumes from Mercy Street at The Lyceum: Alexandria’s History Museum through September, 2017. Costumes on display include the plaid green dress seen above, worn by Hannah James (Emma Green), a dress and apron worn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Nurse Mary Phinney), a vest, pants, shirt and apron worn by Josh Radnor (Dr. Jed Foster), and a dress, bonnet and under pinnings worn by AnnaSophia Robb (Alice Green). So what was it like for the actors who wore these elaborate costumes? Watch Visit Alexandria’s interview with the Tara Summers, who plays nurse Anne Hastings on Mercy Street below to find out!
Watch it! See Tara Summers’ take on the costumes of Mercy Street:
Costumes and Gender on Mercy Street
As we can see in the series, dress helped establish various roles throughout the war, particularly with gender, but also with race, class, age, and more. In particular, the costumes in Mercy Street help show viewers how life was different for men and women during the Civil War. We see this when Emma, out in the battlefield to treat wounded soldiers, bravely stands on the stone wall in her dress in order to get the men to stop shooting. It was a powerful moment, and all it took was one dress for the men in the woods to cease fire.
Image Credit: Erik Heinila for PBS
In season 2 of Mercy Street, we also see a young soldier come through the hospital who cares deeply for his wounded comrade. As we eventually learned in episode 4, (spoiler alert!) the young boy is really a girl, who disguised herself as a man in order to be able to fight in the war. In real life, there were women like Sarah Edmonds, who went to great lengths to disguise themselves in order to fight in the war. Edmonds had actually been posing as a man before the war even started, in order to work as a salesman. When the war started, she joined the Union army, fought in battle and was eventually a nurse at Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria. Today, visitors can explore the story of Sarah Edmonds at the site of the former Mansion House Hospital, Carlyle House Museum in Alexandria.
The Costumes of PBS’ Mercy Street
February 17-September 1, 2017
The Lyceum: Alexandria’s History Museum, 201 S. Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314
The Costumes of PBS’ Mercy Street is a new exhibit featuring four costumes from Mercy Street, PBS’ first original American drama in a decade inspired by real events of Civil War Alexandria. Visitors are invited to view original costumes worn in seasons one and two by Josh Radnor (Dr. Jedediah Foster), AnnaSophia Robb (Alice Green), Hannah James (Emma Green), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Mary Phinney) created by costume designer Amy Andrews Harrell. Also on display are sketches of the costumes, photos of the actors in the costumes, and historical artifacts such as items from the Green furniture factory. The Costumes of PBS’ Mercy Street is the only exhibition of the show’s costumes outside of the filming location.
The cast of PBS’ Mercy Street visits Carlyle House. Image Credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria
Who These Wounded Are: The Extraordinary Stories of the Mansion House Hospital
Continuing through 2017
Carlyle House Historic Park, 121 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314
Come see the site that inspired MERCY STREET, the PBS series inspired by real events that took place at Carlyle House and the adjacent Mansion House Hospital. The six-episode program revolves around the doctors, nurses, and patients of Mansion House Hospital, a former luxury hotel owned by James Green, a prominent Alexandria businessman who resided in Carlyle House. The exhibit features costumes including a Smuggler’s Skirt, like one Frank Stringfellow may have hidden under during one of his spying missions, and stories about Sarah Edmonds as well as an interpretation of period hospital rooms and doctor/officer housing, plus stories of nurse Mary Phinney and spy Frank Stringfellow.
Fans of PBS’ MERCY STREET can step back in time and try on a recreation of a Civil War-era dress or surgeon’s coat as a playful nod to the national drama series based on real events of Civil War Alexandria. It’s as easy as 1-2-3… try on a costume and grab a prop; strike a pose and take a picture; and share your photo on social media using #MercyStreetPBS! This dress-up station presented by Visit Alexandria is located at the Alexandria Visitor Center and at select Mercy Street-inspired events in 2017.
“Mercy Me!” Costume Station at the Alexandria Visitor Center. Image Credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria
Enjoy an evening of dance from the 1860s in the historic Gadsby’s Tavern ballroom. The evening will include live music, dance instruction, and period desserts. Period attire, either civilian or military, is encouraged.
U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) Living History Encampment
April 8, 2017 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site, 4301 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria, VA 22304
Reenactors from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Co. B., and the 23rd U.S.C.T. will stage a military encampment that portrays the history, training and soldier life of African-American units associated with the Civil War defenses of Washington including authentic dress. Visitors will learn about the role of the U.S.C.T. in the Union war effort, and about specific units that were trained and stationed in the local area. Historical figures such as Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Major Christian Fleetwood of the 4th U.S.C.T., a Washington resident and civic leader after the war, will be portrayed. The program is free and is weather dependent.
Observe Armed Forces Day by attending a soldier-led tour of Fort Ward at 11 a.m., followed by a concert of Civil War music by the Federal City Brass Band at 1 p.m. where members perform in authentic dress with original brass instruments from the period. Tour participants will learn about the construction and history of Fort Ward, and the daily lives of soldiers stationed at the fort. The Federal City Brass Band re-creates the music and appearance of a U.S. Army regimental band of the 1860s. Song selections are based on original band journals and sheet music of the Civil War era. The concert will feature a variety of military, patriotic and popular selections of the time, introduced with historical commentary. The tour and concert are free with no advance registration required.
For more on Mercy Street-inspired events in Alexandria, click here.