The fashionable Victorian Era coincided with the rugged Westward Expansion of the United States. Each year, from 1807 – 1912, thousands of pioneers would travel across the wild prairies to settle the untamed land west of the Mississippi River. Although guidebooks, written for pioneers preparing for their journey, advised simple clothing made from durable fabrics such as denim, calico, and muslin, many pioneers were unwilling to give up their fine Eastern clothes. It didn’t take long for them to realize how impractical silk dresses and white shirts were and their taste for Eastern fashions quickly gave way to unique but appealing styles that would come to characterize the American pioneer.
Because of their limited access to provisions, the transition from Eastern to Western life required men and women to become more resourceful and creative when it came to their clothing. Early pioneers wove their own fabrics from linen and wool they cultivated and raised themselves. Linsey-woolsey, a blend of linen and wool developed by early pioneers, was quite common, but it was so scratchy it was often referred to as wincey. When calico became more readily available, it quickly replaced wincey because it was so comfortable, easy to care for, and came in attractive colors and patterns. One woman commented that “the ideal morning dress for women who do their own work is of calico, not so dark as to be gloomy in its suggestions, nor so light as to show every spot that may happen to soil it. It is simply but tastefully made, so that laundering it will not be too difficult or tedious, and so that it will not be too nice to wear every day.” The design of pioneer clothing was kept simple so that it could be made quickly and then easily made over as necessary. Skirts were made shorter to prevent them from dragging on the ground and sleeves were made long to protect arms from the sun. Clothes were passed down from child to child until there was no wear left in the cloth. Even then, any cloth that still had wear left in it was scavenged to make bonnets, aprons, curtains, or quilts.
While most Victorian fashions were impractical on the western frontier, women still longed to be fashionable and often inquired about the latest styles in letters to friends and family members. Detailed descriptions of dress patterns and an occasional Godey’s Ladies Book were exchanged by mail. Although elaborate Victorian trimmings and heavily draped skirts had to be avoided, some of the more practical fashionable elements were often incorporated into their wardrobes. Trimmings, such as ruffles and bias tapes, could be fashioned from leftover pieces of fabric to replace a worn hem, lengthen a short skirt, and add new life and charm to a tired dress. As time went on and the land became more settled, pioneers had more access to Eastern goods. Even as more and more fashionable details began to appear in their clothing, the women of the frontier would never completely give up the unique pioneer styles that had come to define their unique culture.
I like your summary of the broader time period, 1807 to early 1900s. Most of the time we think about post-Civil War era. The few women who were with the earliest settlers in the Ohio frontier and the trapper/trader era were able to utilize the woolens and calico fabrics that were trade goods (blankets, cotton fabrics from the eastern mills, ticking/bedding canvas, and, as you mentioned, their own woven homespun and muslin). Garments made of silks, worsted wools and delaines were much more costly and reserved for Sunday or the one best dress. Denim didn’t come into use until after the 1849 California Gold Rush and was primarily for outerwear, trouser jeans (of course!) and coveralls. Chambray was a good sturdy fabric for work shirts. The fine chintzes and cotton calicoes were developed for mass production in England in the 1830-40s and American New England mills followed, thanks to the South providing cotton with slave labor.
Thank you for incorporating a look at history with your doll patterns. Well done!
I love all your wonderful Historical essays on clothing and fabric. Thank you so much.
“Even then, any cloth that still had wear left in it was scavenged to make bonnets, aprons, curtains, or quilts.” Or rag dolls. Or nine-patch quilts. Love you, Shari!
I read somewhere that they put several layers, up to 6″ front and back, at the hem. When one became worn, it was taken off and a new hem showed. By adding layers, the dress lasted longer.
My sewing for dolls is often tempered by my genealogical findings. I too find it fascinating that the year 1901 (when my grandmother was born) found this nation so diverse. The north was in high fashion, the south having just suffered reconstruction into the union was still destitute and near starving, and pioneers were westward bound, settling in Texas and beyond. I grew up in Georgia. Living and farming was hard and unforgiving. Their clothing much resembled the pioneers. Indeed much of the land had been recently taken from the Cherokee and the Creek. It was not until the men returned from WWII that the south began to recover. Perhaps this is the reason I love American Girl above all other dolls. I am sorry they are getting so far away from the history lessons that I love. Thank you so much for continuing to keep our heritage alive through your patterns!!