I recently wrote a post on how women in the American frontier dressed as they settled into new lives in the West. I looked at how they adapted their clothing to accommodate their new household responsibilities, how they clung to the fashions of the day and those they were used to and considered feminine, and how they got dressed up with limited options and small wardrobes. I was pleased to learn something new, and that is that Victorian women on the frontier used a LOT of accessories.
It has sort of opened up a new area of study for me, and I thought I’d share with readers as I go along. I have compiled a list of accessories that have come up in my research so far along with some basic information on each. Which of the many accessories do you think I should expand on first?
Popular accessories for frontier women
Boots: typically low-heeled, ankle-length and either black or brown. Women would have often had one pair to wear during the week and one pair for special occasions. Laces and buttons were used as enclosures.
Brooches: One of the most popular types of jewelry, the brooch was always worn in the middle of the collar and were typically made of ivory or pearl. Brooches would have been appropriate for daily wear or special occasions.
Lockets: Tied using a thin rope or piece of ribbon, most lockets had personal significance. They held pieces of hair, portraits, or other sentimental items. They could have been used as a necklace, tied around the wrist, held in a pocket, or tied to a belt.
Earrings: The only earrings that were considered proper during this time were those with wire hooks. Post earrings had not appeared yet. And how the piercings were accomplished? Well, that is definitely something I’ll be looking into more!
Precious stones and metals: Due to the prevalence of the gold rush, jewelry made of gold would have been acceptable to wear for any occasion. Semi-precious stones, on the other hand, were worn only at night.
Hair adornments: Ribbons, flowers, and various clips dressed up hairdos for church and special evening events.
Hats: The highest fashion options available would have been worn on Sundays. Day-to-day, we see the entrance of the slat bonnet as the item now most associated with pioneer women. Slat bonnets were shaped in the front using cardboard and would hang low in the back to protect the neck from the sun.
Collars and cuffs: Typically white, detachable collars and cuffs were often made by hand using crochet, knitting, or lacing techniques and worn to embellish a dress for special occasions.
Gloves: Gloves were an absolute must for frontier women. I have read many times that there were very few exceptions for a woman to leave the family property without gloves and a hat. Gloves were worn in various lengths from kid glove to above the elbow and would have been made of wool, cotton, or suede. They would have been a popular item to buy or order at general stores.
Undersleeve: Also detachable and optional, undersleeves were worn under a bell-sleeve on a nicer dress to extend the length and add a special touch. Nearly always white, they were seen with lovely decorations such as embroidery or simply plain cotton. They were worn above the elbow attached using a button.
Parasols: Used during the summer months, a parasol was a common, but optional accessory and a clear sign of wealth.
Fans: We’re talking about summers with no airconditioning, folks. Most women would have had at least one paper or feather fan to use during the warm months, especially while indoors.
Handbags: Women on the frontier carried around the most adorable handbags, though they kept them tucked in pockets, attached underneath skirts, or in between the pleats of the skirts. How times have changed!
Shawls: A shawl was also a sign of wealth, and while they were a common item, they were mostly used for fashion purposes more than any functional use. According to How the West Was Worn, the paisley shawl was the most sought after, but many different types were found on the shoulders and elbows of frontier women.
For further reading:
Pioneer Clothing: What Women Wore in the Western Frontier
The Covered Wagon: Shaper of American History
Pioneer Dresses on the Silver Screen: Little House on the Prairie
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