Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Clothing and the Western Woman
Women living in the west in the 1800’s dressed in the silks, satins, and fashionable dresses just like their sisters in the east for special occasions. However, they also dressed decidedly different when facing the rigors of western living.
In the rural areas, women’s clothing could be dated to when they first arrived from the east- up to ten years earlier. Silk and satin could be scarce in the rural areas. In these instances they would make ball gowns out of gingham and calico adding all the extra flounces, bustles, and trains. Adding handmade lace collars and wool braid around the hems to enhance the garments.
They would have one special dress they wore only to dances, church, and socials, and only wear a corset with their finest dresses to special occasions.
Common material for women’s clothing was linsey-woolsey, calico, silk, plaid, muslin, printed cotton, wool challis, dimity, and grosgrain-striped silk taffeta. Most garments had a pocket sewn in the right side seam. Generally each dress was the same style, the fabric and decorations made them different. In the early part of the 1800’s most wore one piece dresses. A dress with a full skirt required 10 yards of calico or 14 yards of silk because silk wasn’t as wide on the bolt as calico. From 1850 on women started wearing two-piece outfits(skirt and blouse). It wasn’t until the 1890’s when the “shirtwaist” or blouse became popular. By 1886 the chemise was replaced with the camisole a shorter version of the chemise with square or round neckline, lace and embroidery. Ready-made clothing became available in stores in 1882.
Traveling on stage coaches and trains they wore linen dusters to keep the dirt and coal dust off their clothing.
Three essentials of any western woman were their apron, bonnet, and shawl. An apron was a full length garment worn while cleaning the house and cooking. It helped to keep their clothing clean, making less laundry. They called any type of hat a bonnet. Most had a sunbonnet with ties under the chin and a wide cloth brim reinforced with cardboard or thin slats of wood to make the brim stiff and keep the sun off their faces. They would also have a winter bonnet or hat. Some would even have a fancy bonnet to wear to weddings, funerals, and socials. The shawl was a quick wrap to throw on to greet company or make a trip to the outhouse. They usually had a special one to wear to social events if their family had the means.
Working and dealing with the heat they would shed undergarment layers, specifically petticoats and a corset. Rather than the 5-6 petticoats that was customary they would work in one or two. This also helped on wash day when they only had to laundry a couple petticoats and not half a dozen. To keep their skirts down without all the layers hide their limbs, they would sew metal bars or lead shot in their hems, thwarting any strong winds. They would also wear bloomers under their skirts rather than all the layers of petticoats. In winter they would wear flannel or quilted petticoats.
Western women worked by their husband’s sides. To make their chores easier they shortened their skirts, wore split skirts and some even wore men’s clothing. It made walking and riding horses easier. They also were less likely to wear the tight corseted styles. They could do their work easier in loose-fitting garments.
This information was found in: The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West by Candy Moulton.
The heroine in my current release Miner in Petticoats wears her late husband’s clothing while working in the mine. It makes more sense when she’s handling a pick and lugging buckets of debris.
Here’s an excerpt when the hero first meets the heroine and she’s dressed in her husband’s baggy clothing:
“Mrs. Miller?” he asked, extending his hand. She kept her head tipped forward just enough her
face was shadowed and hidden behind the brim of the hat.
“Who be askin’?” Her voice caught his attention with its deep, lyrical tone.
“I’m Ethan Halsey. My brothers and I have a claim just over the ridge.” It aggravated him he couldn’t see her face and register how she took his words.
“Are ye lost?” The voice vibrated under his skin, causing his body to warm.
He cleared his throat. “No, I’m not lost. I’m looking for Mrs. Miller. I’m assuming that is you,
since you’re the only grown woman I see here.”
“Ah m Aileen. Ah dinnae fancy bein’ called Mrs. Miller.”
This disclosure piqued his curiosity. “Mrs— Aileen. I’ve come with an offer.” Her head tilted, tipping the wide-brimmed hat to the side and revealing a slip of her face.
“And whit may this grand offur be?” He saw the slightest curve on one side of her lips.
“Ma’am, not to sound bossy, but I’d like to see your face as we discuss this proposition.” Her
shoulders dipped slightly before she squared them, stretched her neck to its full length, and
whipped the hat from her head. Copper sparks reflected off her hair as the sun lit her dark locks.
Ethan hadn’t believed the words of a cowardly man like Miles, and he was happy to see there
wasn’t any kind of mark on the woman’s face, at least none put there by the devil. Her skin was
abundantly sprinkled with angel kisses. That was what his mother had called the freckles on her
face. Angel kisses. He’d always had a fondness for freckle-faced women and children.
“Thank you, I appreciate seeing people’s eyes when talking business.” Ethan took a step closer
to the porch, waiting to be invited to the shade.
“And whit be yer business?” The woman didn’t seem inclined to invite him any closer.
“I’ve scouted the land all around our claim. The five acres of your land down where Cracker
Creek drops in elevation is the perfect spot to set up a stamp mill. The side of the canyon has the
right slope and the water is moving fast enough to power the mill.”
“So yer business is askin’ me tae sell ma land?” She clamped work-reddened hands onto
those ample hips and glared at him.
“We’d give you a fair price for the five acres, and you could use the stamp mill to claim more
gold from your mine.” The information didn’t seem to change her opinion. She still glared at
him. “We’re allowing the nearby claims to build rails to bring their ore to the mill. They can use
the stamp mill, giving us a small cut of their profits.” He smiled at his family’s generosity.
“So ye’re doin’ this oot o’ the goodness o’ yer heart? Takin’ yer neighbor’s land and their gold.”
Her light green eyes flashed with indignation.