As many of our readers, I enjoy spending my free time dreaming about owning Victorian gowns and wishing that I could spend more time in the layers, colors, ribbons, and elegance that come to mind when I think of the era. I am also a true woman of the Southwest – an Arizona native and a Daughter of Utah Pioneers who recently landed in Denver. This mix of interests has got me thinking about how pioneer women dressed and how the fashions of the Western frontier differed from those of established Eastern cities during the time. 

Pioneer women had a lot to consider when it came to their wardrobe. From convenience to class and everything in between, I have uncovered some basics about their basics and will be following this post with more from my research. Enjoy! 

What do I mean by “frontier”?

For the purposes of this post, I will be looking at what women wore west of Missouri/Arkansas from roughly 1850-1890. The fashions and wardrobes I am generally describing are those of female homesteaders and members of settlement communities. I will also be referring mostly to white settlers who were making their way from the East to the West. 

I love the fact that the clothing of these groups was less about status and what one could manage to purchase and more about the common bond that these families shared of living out their dream to explore the great unknown. 

Underclothes

There was not a massive difference between underclothes of the eastern cities and those of women in frontier areas. The staple undergarment was the chemise, a light cotton slip worn for the primary purpose of hygiene and cleaned often. Next, pantalets made of flannel or cotton would be put on, worn for modesty purposes (and let’s face it, panties weren’t really a thing back then). 

Despite my original assumptions, on top of the standard chemise and pantalets, most frontier women would have laced on a corset. Remember, many of the women traveling west were doing so because of hopes for a brighter future for their families. Whether driven by economic promise or religion, these were “proper,” proud women who would not have considered giving up something viewed as so fundamental during that time. 

While women with heavy workloads may have loosened the corset or even skipped it while completing household tasks, the majority of women on the frontier would have brought corsets with them and worn them when at all possible. 

After the corset came petticoats (a personal favorite). As with their dresses, many women would have multiple petticoats to select from depending on how casual or formal the circumstance or the weather. Stockings were worn whenever leaving the house or accepting visitors, and I have read that they were held in place by garters or by being tucked into pantalets. Personally, this seems to be the most improbable and uncomfortable-sounding part of the entire pioneer clothing ensemble. 

Fabrics

Across the board, calico was the fabric of choice for frontier clothing. While I have often thought of calico as quaint flower patterns found on the dresses of pioneer clothing, it is actually a type of fabric made of unprocessed cotton, woven simply and a few notches lighter than today’s canvas. It was the perfect material for moving around in the great outdoors as it was light, sturdy, and easy to clean. When bought from general stores many dyed options would have been available, otherwise, women would dye the fabric themselves using store-bought dyes or natural dyes made from leaves, bark, berries, or fruits. 

Cotton and silk fabrics were still worn for Sunday best and even some nicer “going out” dresses, and many women would have brought such outfits with them out West. 

As mentioned, by this time fabrics would have been available at general stores, though how often a family would have access to one would vary greatly from one area to another. Without the ability to purchase fabrics many families across the frontier made their own, though that is a subject for an entirely different post. 

Daily wear

Regardless of how they lived back in their eastern origins, women in frontier settlements would have had to participate in the tasks necessary for the establishment and maintenance of homes and farms. There was cooking, cleaning, caring for children, laundry, and even working in the fields to occupy days (and according to television and movies, lots of pies to bake). The success of the family farms or enterprises depended on each person’s physical contributions, and there was no outsourcing of domestic tasks. A day full of manual labor would have been something frontier women got used to, and fast. 

The general dress styles popular in the rest of the country carried over into the wardrobes of pioneer women, namely tight bodices and very full skirts. However, notable alterations were made to accommodate the realities of frontier living. Skirts were hemmed three inches shorter for day-to-day dresses, making it easier to move from task to task. It was possible that they would have also had weights sewn into the hem to prevent improper exposure on a windy day. 

While the bodice remained tight, sleeves were loosened and worn down to the wrist, accompanied by a high collar to protect against the sun. 

Of course, laundering clothing was a big job back then, and one that women would have to take on, regardless of how used they had previously been to doing it themselves. I came across an interesting reference to “wash dresses” in the book How the West Was Worn by Chris Enss that reads: “Caring for clothing, regardless of whether the item was homemade or store-bought, required work and time. In 1867 a two-piece dress of white cotton with a printed background became popular due to its easy care and was sold in stores, then duplicated by seamstresses throughout the West. The garment was known as the “wash dress” because it could be laundered easily. Women from all socioeconomic backgrounds wore “wash dresses.”  While I haven’t yet uncovered further sources for the “wash dress,” it does make sense that fashion would have quickly adapted to meet the needs of the families living “out West.” 

Put on your Sunday best

While many families moved onto land and lived free of neighbors for long periods of time, settlements with multiple families nearly all had churches and regular attendance would have been an unspoken rule between community members. And while I did find references to women in poor communities arriving barefoot to church during this time, a more common situation would have been for women to have a dress or two reserved for wearing on Sundays. Then again, there is more documentation about settlers with more privileged circumstances, so it is hard to know for sure what reality was most common. 

Women’s ‘Sunday best’ on the frontier looked remarkably similar to the fashions of those in cities around the country. Full skirts were worn over petticoats and corsets and during this time the sleeves would have been puffed in various styles including bell, leg-o-mutton, or pagoda. Depending on the decade, it is also likely that the most current skirt style would have been worn on Sundays, whether it be crinoline, hoop, or bustle. 

For colors, younger women and the newly married opted for light colors and would switch to darker colors within a few years. Dresses would have been worn with the most fashionable hats possible along with kid gloves and low heeled boots. 

Roundups, balls, and parties: dressing for socializing on the frontier

If the means were available, in addition to a small handful of daily dresses and a Sunday dress, women on the frontier would have reserved a separate dress for socializing. There were dances, holiday celebrations, picnics, and many other excuses for gathering as a community and as in eastern cities, women would have been used to dressing for the occasion. 

Women would have highly valued these outfits and perhaps sent away for the fabrics from their general store and waited with great anticipation for the chance to try their hand at creating the latest fashions. Nearly everything I read in researching this post referenced Godey’s Ladies Book and the way that women on the frontier would have passed it around to enthusiastically copy the dress patterns or styles found on its pages.

What materials were available for creating new dresses would depend highly on the distance between town to town and which ones had a general store. In many cases, women would not have owned enough dresses to pick and choose what they wore when. In these cases, the best dress they owned would have been used for special events and various embellishments would have been added to dress up the ensemble. Options such as hand-crocheted collars and shawls would have been popular, as well as a host of other accessories that we will look at now. 

Accessorizing on the frontier

Something else that I learned while preparing for this post was the significance of women’s accessories in the frontier wardrobe. While I thought it was all about hoop skirts and calico, I’ve come to understand that the finishing touches were a BIG deal! There was such an emphasis on jewelry and accessories in everything I read that I have compiled a list here and plan to return to the topic soon for a future post to describe each in more detail. 

Women on the frontier enjoyed accessorizing with: 

  • Aprons
  • Boots
  • Brooches
  • Lockets
  • Earrings
  • Precious stones and metals
  • Hair adornments
  • Hats
  • Collars and cuffs
  • Gloves
  • Undersleeves 
  • Parasols
  • Fans
  • Handbags
  • Shawls

A surviving legacy

I have recently begun to learn more about my own pioneer ancestors and it’s an interest that has really taken on a life of its own. When I decided to write this post I discovered that while there is an abundance of “prairie style,” “pioneer,” and “western wear” clothing available, it was hard to find historical information about how the women of this time and place navigated their desires for propriety, beauty, and fashion in an existence with so many new physical demands. 

It is a topic I look forward to studying more and hope that you will stay tuned for my follow-up post on accessories in the frontier.