Independence Rock, WY, 2015. Photographer: Megan Huelman


Women's Trail Clothing

Most Overland Trails’ historians have contributed in some way to the study of clothing worn during the journey. However, it can also be argued that some historians have made larger contributions to the topic than others. Due to Mattes’ and Unruh’s more broad and epic approaches, they do not delve deeply into the clothing and accessories imperative for traveling. In comparison to men’s guidebooks of the mid-nineteenth century, this is not unusual. While these early manuals discussed the number of oxen, pounds of flour and boxes of bullets; clothing was not a highly debated topic. In the 1849 Emigrants’ Guide to California, Joseph Ware simply lists: “For clothing, you want plenty of strong cheap goods, for hard service – as well as boots, hats, caps, etc.” (Tate, 11) Not only does this hint more at menswear because of the hard service and mention of hats and caps instead of sunbonnet, he does not offer a very definitive list of provisional clothing. Perhaps because clothing for men was already easy to move around in, or because there were less strictures on their attire, men did not make clothing the top priority of their provision lists in guidebooks.

It would seem that Mattes and Unruh used these guidebooks and other male-written primary sources to establish a great deal of their information, and therefore the similarities between the emphasis of men’s provisions in guidebooks and the more masculine aspects of trail life written by Mattes and Unruh are congruous. Mattes makes an attempt to speak on the topic of fashion in his section entitled “Emigrant Styles.” The three pages devoted to the topic mention both men and women’s clothing based on journal entries. It would seem Mattes and most historians are in agreement about the use of homespun fabrics for men’s garments as well as women’s eventual submission to more functional traveling garments given the demands of the trail. Lavina Porter donned short wash dresses and “looked the ideal emigrant woman.” (Mattes, 68) Although Mattes mentions clothing, it is only in three of his five-hundred-twenty-one pages.

Schlissel and Faragher supply larger contributions to the realm of Overland Trail clothing studies. Schlissel discusses attire and accessories with quotes from trail journals as well as analyzing the gender and societal influences on women and their choice of clothing for the trail. Interesting components like bathroom necessities, pregnancy, and burying the dead make Schlissel’s book, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, a helpful resource for previously unwritten details about women’s clothing. Of interest is her discussion of women needing the long skirts they wore for use as curtains when another woman had to go to the bathroom. By several women standing together and holding out their skirts, a woman may have the privacy not otherwise awarded on the flat open plains. (Schlissel, 98)

Schlissel notes that frontier women of the mid to late nineteenth century refused to accept more accommodating forms of dress that were too masculine as it threatened their sense of social role and sexual identity.” However, in another section of her book, discussion of bloomers and the many women that accepted them as a “gesture of participation in the fashion of the day” shows that some women did accept a more masculine form of dress for fashion. (Schlissel, 85,105) While this directly opposed the idea that women began to wear shorter skirts for easier walking and wore bloomers for freedom of cumbersome skirts, Schlissel does make an excellent point about the need for privacy and a long voluminous skirt’s ability to satisfy that need.

Interspersed throughout the book, Schlissel uses diaries to discuss clothing in terms of the condition of the clothing and the reasons for which it was worn. One woman noted that her dress was ragged but she had to keep wearing it because it was the only one she had left. (Schlissel, 101) Other excerpts like that of Elizabeth Woods’ diary offer even further explicit clothing details: “I [wore] a red calico frock, made for the purpose in the wagons; a pair of mackasins, made of black buffalo hide, ornamented with silk…” These types of journal entries logging attire are not unusual among trail diaries, but are often not what historians looking at the bigger questions are concentrating on. Schlissel’s attention to these smaller day-to-day details are enlightening for costume historians as a much better picture of what women actually wore at that time on those trails.

Faragher breaks down the trail clothing even further. He details the weaving, dying and cloth construction processes involved in clothing especially that of the pre-trip preparation for trail clothing. Because Faragher’s emphasis is on gender roles, trail chores like mending and washing clothing became an important part of his dissection of gender-based trail duties. He spends several pages discussing the Bloomer Costume as it is an important garment that may prove easier for the woman but unfortunately did not conform to “rigid feminine standard.” Claiming that mid-nineteenth century society revolved around the separation of two oppositional genders, Faragher analyzes the trouble women might cause wearing a man’s bifurcated garment. (Faragher, 1, 106-107) The garment that created this trouble was the Bloomer Costume of the Reform Dress Movement.

It would be impossible to describe fully the clothing of all 250,000 pioneers that traveled west on the Overland Trails. The time frame is several decades, the travelers were multi-generational as well as from different regions of the country, different religions, different ethnic groups and so on. However, it is possible through trail narratives to investigate the main and common forms of women’s dress. In 1849, Catherine Haun wore “a dark woolen dress which served me almost constantly during the whole trip.” (Schlissel, 168) Woolens, cottons, and linsey-woolsey, seem to the most popular fibers for women’s garments of the time. Silk may have been worn by wealthy in cities and for more formal attire, it is clear silk would not have been a functional material to wear when traveling across the country. Both cotton and wool have good heat retention and durability ideal for outdoor traveling conditions. Based on his research with diaries and primary sources, Faragher believes “women required two or three dresses, usually of dark gingham, calico or heavy wool.” (Faragher, 68)

Of course no historian would leave out the trail woman’s need for a sunbonnet as this kept their fashionable complexion pale and freckle-less. In many ways, this accessory has dominated the contemporary imagery of the pioneer woman. The main concept is the same, but sunbonnets were constructed in many different ways, with wire, wooden slats, or horsehair. Also imperative for the nineteenth century pioneer woman: the apron, shoulder kerchiefs and perhaps a shawl or coat. (Faragher, 68; Schlissel, 168) These are not wholly unusual accessories for a nineteenth century non-pioneer woman but the apron, bonnets and outerwear were likely more commonly made of serviceable calico or homespun instead of store bought fabrics that were both costly and not as sturdy.

While not an iconic garment associated solely with the pioneer women, the Bloomer Costume was seen on the Overland Trails and is mentioned in diaries and journals, specifically in 1852. This bifurcated ensemble was most commonly worn as long and baggy pants gathered about the ankle and partially covered by a short skirt and topped with an otherwise ordinary bodice. Sandra L. Myres, a western historian, states that women on the trail wore bloomers as a practical form of dress, not for political reasons. (Myres, 125) However, Lillian Schlissel contends they were indeed a fashion statement.” (Schlissel, 105) Whether for practicality or fashion, bloomers were not a normative article of clothing of the period so it is interesting they were worn on a treacherous journey so soon after their introduction into mainstream American society. It is understandable why women along the trail found this to be an ideal garment for walking several miles a day, climbing in and out of wagons and cooking over fires without the fear of their skirts catching on fire. Overlander Dame Shirley wrote, "There is one thing for which the immigrant can serve high praise, and that is for having adopted the bloomer dress (frightful as it is on all other occasions) in crossing the plains. For such an excursion it is just the thing." And in 1853 a gentleman wrote: "Bloomerism has done wonders for Oregon… all the women emigrants who cross the plains dress in that style." (Brown, 140) Evidently, not all women wore them, but it is significant that many adopted them so soon after Amelia Bloomer first began promoting them to Americans in 1851.

Clothing is a necessity in any way of life, but unnecessary garments like the Bloomer show the pioneer woman’s desire for practical clothing that would make trail life, if not easier, at least more convenient. Many trail historians of the last 40 years discuss clothing at some point in their writings. They address the nature of the clothing along with its function on the prairie. However, no one trail historian has specifically delved into the topic of clothing based on the trail’s demands as seen through trail diaries exclusively. Trail diaries give a wonderful example of everyday life and describe clothing in either minute detail or broad context.

Image: Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Author's collection.