Tizz Crowley wore this dress for a ball in November 2015. It is based on a dress in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of 1860 gowns. Dressmaker Birdi Wallace made a matching bonnet later.

Auburn woman finds her passion for Civil War fashion.

On a chilly, damp afternoon in mid-December, Tizz Crowley was led to a spot in a gloomy vacant lot in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

There, 154 years ago almost to the day, her great-grandfather Michael Crowley had fought with the Grattan Guards of the 2nd Maine at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

“I stood, at 10 minutes after four on Dec. 13, in the same spot my great-grandfather had once stood,” Crowley says, of Auburn. “To stand there and just be quiet . . . I felt something. It wasn’t sadness, it wasn’t despair. But there was definitely something.”

That undefined connection with another age is part of the reason Tizz does the things she does.

It’s not the only reason.

There are the dresses, for instance.


Right place, right time

A romantic might suggest that two events conspired to nudge Tizz Crowley back in time to the Civil War era. The first of those events happened 22 years ago when Tizz was diagnosed with breast cancer just three days shy of her 43rd birthday.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me, in the sense of putting your priorities in order and making the most of your days,” Tizz says.

The second event occurred three years ago when Tizz met Birdi Wallace, a manager in the Marden’s fabric department who would go on to make the nearly 20 Civil War-period dresses for which Tizz is now locally famous.

“Long story short, God sent Birdi to me,” Tizz says. “She is so talented. She’s a wonderful designer and she likes having her own Barbie doll.”

And with that revelation, Tizz has dispelled a significant misconception: The lavish and period-appropriate gowns she wears to events all over the country don’t cost thousands of dollars as one might expect. In fact, not even close.


“I am a Marden’s girl and I’m proud of it,” Tizz says. “I love to go to these events and be dressed up in dresses that are all silk that I might have paid $5.99 or $6.99 a yard for. Or red velvet that I paid $12.99 for that might be $180 a yard retail. I have trim on an outfit that we might have paid 39 cents a yard for at Marden’s and there’s got to be 20 yards or more.”

No one would argue that Tizz’s wardrobes look fantastic, but looking good isn’t the only thing. When she wears her dresses to Civil War re-enactments, to formal dances or anything related to the period, Tizz knows that authenticity is the name of the game.

You don’t put zippers on a dress meant to reflect a time before zippers were thought of, for instance. Buttons have to be the right size and material. Colors, prints and patterns matter. And the wrong belt, bonnet or snood will out you as a newbie in no time; people who indulge in this bygone age will notice any and all anachronisms in your wardrobe, right down to the type of thread in one’s pantaloons.

“There are so many things to consider,” Tizz says.

The snood, for instance, which is used to cover a lady’s hair bun at the back of her head.

“They did not wear those in the Civil War era,” Tizz says. “Every single newbie makes that mistake.”


She knows that now. She didn’t always know it. In fact, Tizz didn’t have all that much interest in the Civil War until March of 2014 when author Annette Dorey came to Auburn to talk about Maine women from the past who became physicians.

That sparked an interest in Tizz, who was already working as a volunteer with the Androscoggin Historical Society. Three months later, when she was invited to work a booth at a Civil War rally at the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore, Tizz got to work.

“In the instructions to us as vendors,” Tizz recalls, “it said, we’re not going to hold you to the standards of a re-enactor in how you dress, but if you could make an effort – which meant probably a long dress on a woman and a long-sleeve blouse.”

Make an effort? Tizz did that by diving directly into a full-bore study of the Civil War period and of the people who inhabited it. She studied the life and wardrobe of Dr. Elizabeth Horr, the character she would portray. She looked at old photos, she found a historically accurate dress pattern and she headed for Marden’s.

“I knew nothing about all this,” Tizz says. “Thank God there was a woman there named Birdi Wallace.”

Hello Birdi


Birdi created a period-appropriate dress for Tizz to wear to Norlands, but she also opened a door to a wider world of Civil War re-enactments and all the detail-oriented hoopla that goes with it.

At Birdi’s urging, Tizz hopped into her car that August and headed for an event in Nahant, Massachusetts, where a New York Times fashion photographer snapped her picture.

Over the next three years, Tizz would go all over the country, taking epic road trips and hitting Civil War events everywhere she could find them.

“I get the bug,” Tizz says. “That’s when I go.”

In 2016, one odyssey had her in Gettysburg one day and in Silver Springs, Florida, for another event a week later.

Some events are friendlier and more informative than others. The sites are always fascinating, Tizz says, while some are unexpectedly profound.


Tizz recalls one such site in Petersburg, Virginia, where she stopped to visit the trenches left behind after the Siege of Petersburg in 1865.

“There’s no one around, my car is the only one in the parking lot,” Tizz recalls. “You could hear the cries. I’ve never had those kinds of feelings, but I had them there. They were unbelievably strong.”

Most recently, Tizz is back from a two-week jaunt that started with a Civil War re-enactment in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.

“It was the best re-enactment place I’ve ever been to,” Tizz says. “I picked up lots of tips on things I want to try.”

She had to be in Capon Springs, West Virginia, on May 5, which left her with a couple days to fill. Fill them she did, with stops at Civil War sites in Hagerstown and Boonsboro, Maryland, as well as the Antietam battlefield and the historical park at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia.

Everywhere she goes, Tizz hauls around her period dresses and related accessories in hard plastic cases in the back of her Subaru station wagon. When there’s an opportunity to dress up for an event, she’s all over it. She’ll duck into her hotel room and get her 1860s on as quickly as possible.


Which isn’t all that quick, as it turns out.

“I’ve got it down to just under an hour,” Tizz says.

If she’s not changing wardrobes with the speed of Superman in a phone booth, Tizz can be forgiven. The typical Civil War-era get-up includes more undergarments alone than most of us have heard of: You’ve got your drawers, your chemise, an under petticoat if not two of them, a corset, a hoop and, of course, your pantaloons, stockings and stays.

That Tizz can get all of that on by herself is a testament to her commitment to the history she has come to love.

Who is Tizz?

Those who know Tizz Crowley invariably describe her as energetic, lively, passionate. She gives 110 percent to everything she does, they say, and never seems to wind down.


To Tizz herself, that’s kind of funny – you should have seen her before the breast cancer diagnosis.

“People who knew me then and who know me now will tell you I’m actually quieter now,” she says. “I’ve slowed down.”

Tizz has a son, Chip, who is 41 and living in Vermont, and an ex-husband she remains close to.

She was raised in Auburn and graduated from Edward Little High School before taking off for Bangor and a career as a group practice administrator, handling the business side of medicine.

Tizz came back to the area in 2004 to work at Central Maine Medical Center. She also served a couple terms as a city councilor in Auburn, a period in which she was known as a bear for detail and one who would occasionally butt heads with other councilors.

She’s sometimes regarded as stubborn, Tizz is. Butting heads is not a new thing.


“People either like me a whole lot,” she says, “or they don’t like me at all.”

She has since retired. When it comes to taking off for road trips whenever she gets that bug, Tizz doesn’t have to answer to anybody.

“I am limited by a budget,” she says. “I don’t like that part.”

What does she do when she’s not on the road immersed in the latest character from the Civil War era? Quite a lot, actually.

She collects Irish whiskey, tea and obscure holidays. She’s a member of the Woman’s Literary Union, studies genealogy, occasionally gives talks at area nursing homes, loves to dance, is learning how to play the piano – Civil War-period music, of course – and at least for a time, rode a motorcycle, which is currently parked in her garage.

“I don’t ride it,” Tizz says, “but I own it, so I guess I get bragging rights.”


She works hard, she plays hard, she’ll never let unfamiliarity get in the way of knowledge or of a good time.

You get the feeling that the people who lived back in those turbulent times around the Civil War would have loved Tizz Crowley as much as she loves the era.

This dress, in Tizz Crowley’s favorite color, features exceptional detail, including tabs, trim and tiny “pearl” seed beads. The headpiece, made by Three Sisters Millinery, was a door prize at a recent event. She says a bonnet and purse are on dressmaker Birdi Wallace’s to-do list.

Birdi Wallace: The woman behind the dresses

By Mark LaFlamme, Staff Writer

LEWISTON – Somewhere in Birdi Wallace’s sewing room, standing tall and proud is a dress form named Matilda.

In a way, it’s kind of a marvel that the form wasn’t named Tizz: Matilda, after all, is set up with Tizz Crowley’s precise measurements, so that when it’s time to make a new dress, Birdi can get down to business.

“Tizz,” says Birdi, “is my living doll. I didn’t play with dolls when I was a kid, but now I have one.”


For more than three years now, Birdi has been making all of the dresses Tizz wears to Civil War-era events around the country.

How many dresses? Birdi made nine last year alone – Tizz refuses to wear the same dress twice to the same event, so there is always new demand.

In all, they estimate that she’s fashioned between 16 and 20 dresses for Tizz, and that includes all detail work, including things like trim, hand-crafted fabric flowers, hats and corsets.

With only one exception, Birdi hasn’t used a pattern. She’ll hear what Tizz wants, maybe look at a few dresses on museum websites, and then get started freestyle.

“I’ve researched so much about the Civil War period,” she says, “I know the basic construction and style.”

The average dress requires 10 yards of fabric, Birdi says, and usually takes her 16 hours to make.


“After I’m done,” Birdi says, “I’ll sit and play with it for days.”

For one dress, Tizz and Birdi decided there should be some kind of ice effect, because ice was the theme of Tizz’s next event. With that in mind, Birdi got a hold of 500 Swarovski crystals and painstakingly sewed them into the dress.

“The crystals shimmer like ice,” Birdi says.

In a way, it sounds like a one-sided relationship – Birdi does all the work, after all, and Tizz gets to go off sparkling like diamonds to extravagant events.

But no. Dress making is Birdi’s art, and Tizz has become an inspiring central figure in that art.

“She’s my blank canvas,” Birdi says. “When I go to her house and have her try everything on, it just takes my breath away. Even though I’ve already seen it, it’s not the same until I see it on my living doll.”

Tizz Crowley has worn this dress for two different time periods. With a hoop and appropriate accessories, the dress represents the mid- to late-1860s. By removing the hoop and wearing a large brim hat, Crowley said it was perfect for a Kentucky Derby party of 1875. Each of the “flowers” on the dress were handmade by dressmaker Birdi Wallace. Crowley is also wearing her favorite piece of jewelry: a gold-tone chatelaine, an authentic 1860s piece she got at Orphan Annie’s in Auburn.

Tizz Crowley wore this white lace dress in August 2014 while attending an afternoon tea and concert at Egg Rock, in Nahant, Massachusetts. The dress has great detail; the bodice has seven different laces. Like many frugal Maine women who reuse nice clothes, Crowley said dressmaker Birdi Wallace later added 480 Swarovski crystals to the dress for Crowley to wear at the Crystal Ball in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in November.

Dressmaker Birdi Wallace dressed up as Mrs. Claus.

Dressmaker Birdi Wallace sits with a friend in this Facebook photo.

This outfit, for a ball in November 2015, included a detailed coat in a warm copper tone. The inside is an embroidered silk. Under it is Tizz Crowley’s second ball gown, based on a dress in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of 1860 gowns. Dressmaker Birdi Wallace made a matching bonnet once Crowley returned to Maine and was Mrs. Santa Claus in the New Auburn parade.

This black and white outfit was made for an August 2015 weekend in Nahant, Massachusetts. The detail of the skirt, jacket and even the purse clearly indicate a “Birdi original,” said Tizz Crowley, referring to dressmaker Birdi Wallace.

Tizz Crowley says this dress is currently her favorite. She wore it for the first time in May at the 1860s Civilian Celebration in Capon Springs, West Virginia. She notes that the sleeves “clearly identify it as a ‘Birdi original.'” She bought the bonnet in Gettysburg last November and the book, which is from the 1880s, here in Maine.

Tim Dotts and Tizz Crowley,  as Dr. Owen Horr and his wife, Elizabeth Horr, pose for a photo while at the Auburn FireFighters’ Ball in April 2014. The evening attire is from the 1863-1865 period. The dress is the first ball gown Birdi Wallace made for Crowley. 

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