Independence Rock, WY, 2015. Photographer: Megan Huelman

Societal Factors

It may seem that the pioneers crossing mostly unpopulated land would be traveling in a societal bubble, but trail diaries prove the women were always conscious of the mid-nineteenth century social standards that pervaded dress, appearance, and femininity. While this topic could fill a book, this section will look specifically at a dress-related example of the way women adapted their clothing to the trail's demands despite social disapproval.

The Bloomer Costume, also called the American Costume and Short Dress consisted of a normal dress or bodice with the skirt reaching to just below the knee and a pair of bloomers beneath. Called trousers or pantalettes as well, the bloomer was either straight cut or bound about the ankle. Despite gaining slight popularity with dress reformists, anti-fashion followers and communal societies, the Bloomer Costume was deemed inappropriate by many for its masculine bifurcated feature and unfeminine abbreviated skirt length. Patricia Cunningham catalogs the rise of bloomers and asserts the strongest argument against the ensemble was “the belief that the Bloomer costume was incongruous with the prevailing ideology regarding the role of women.” (Cunningham, 42) This role lay in the Cult of Domesticity of purity and piety; dress was likewise meant to demonstrate these values outwardly. (Welter, 157) In general, women wore skirts and men wore pants. This created a gendered identity for bifurcated garments that put into question women overstepping feminine public sphere. (Cunningham, 43) Yet despite this general public distaste for the Bloomer Costume, many trail diaries mention the garment being worn by either the author or the another traveler in their train, especially in the early 1850s. It is quite significant that women decided to wear the garment despite public opinion and those women that do write about wearing it also write their absolute disregard for what other travelers think of their garment because it makes their lives easier. Marriet Foster Cummings wrote:

“Got up and put on a suit of short clothes [bloomers] to avoid the mud. Got out and walked and in passing one house the women came out and laughed at me or my dress, I did not ask which, but find it much more convenient for traveling than a long one.” (Holmes, CWW 4, 180)

These kinds of comments suggest women placed function and convenience above appearances. This is not to say however that the Cult of Domesticity was all-together forgotten. Lavinia Porter sums up the way many emigrants were willing to let certain standards of appearance slide while on the trail but meant to return to the high standards of femininity in dress and appearance as soon as the trip was over.

“After the luxury of a good bath and having removed the red dust of the road we gladly donned the garb of civilized society and looked and felt fit to be once more within the pale of civilization. Such is the power of good clothes, for the unkempt and soiled emigrants had blossomed out into really good looking people... I had worn my shaker sun bonnet so closely and was always so vain of my white hands, never allowing myself to go ungloved save when cooking, that I bore no marks of the emigrant when I discarded my emigrant garb.” (Porter, 135-136)

The Bloomer Costume never became hugely popular in the United States. Although it made several reappearances in several forms throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, by the early twentieth century bifurcated garments became more popular for women in physical activity and the garment no longer caused quite the same invidious commentary. Never the less, the functional yet politically and socially charged garment left its mark on nineteenth century fashion. It is by no means the most popular form of woman’s dress on the trails, but in almost every trail diary that mentions it, the garment’s added mobility, convenience, and practicality prove it to be a useful addition to the emigrant’s wardrobe.

Image: Doll wearing short dress and bloomers. Source: Nebraska State Historical Society