Many people recognize the pioneer dress from the popular television series, “Little House on the Prairie.” This show was based on the novels that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her life as she and her family moved West. “Little House on the Prairie” was the ultimate feel-good show, and Americans everywhere loved the Ingalls family.

The pioneer fashion from the show was particularly important. The clothes that the Ingalls family wore showed the struggles of everyday life for the intrepid Americans who tried to live in the West. Old West gowns were different than traditional Victorian dresses for women who lived in the East or in the city. Families worked together, and without the help of women, the work would never get done. Because of this, pioneer dresses were loose and flowing. Women had to participate in the same hard labor that the men did. Since corsets did not allow for much movement and weren’t conducive to physical labor, women in the West couldn’t wear them. The hemlines on pioneer dresses were also shorter than traditional Victorian gowns, because women wanted to prevent the dresses from becoming too dirty. Here you can see Caroline Ingalls wearing a pioneer dress that is reminiscent of the kind of dress common for the era. Notice the loose sleeves and shoulders that make it easier for her to do labor (like carrying buckets).

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However, you should also notice the pattern on her dress. Calico patterns were a huge part of pioneer fashion. Frontier women did not have the same resources as women in the city. They had to utilize scraps, make do with less, and get creative with clothing designs. Calico is a light-weight but durable cotton fabric. These fabrics were often dyed with the same pattern, and women had to buy calico when it came through town because they might not have the opportunity to buy more fabric for another year. Sometimes, women would be forced to buy a bolt of fabric with the same pattern and make the entire family’s clothes out of that one type of fabric. Talk about boring!

If you have a reenactment for a pioneer village coming up, or you are simply interested in the era, consider Recollections for providing your ensemble. We have a wide selection of pioneer dresses, and we know our history. Remember, changes in clothing style don’t just happen overnight: styles reflect trends in society. The more that you understand about a particular society, the more you will understand their fashion. At Recollections, we can answer any question you have about period-accurate clothing.