American pioneer women, who moved west between roughly 1815 and 1880, dressed in practical clothing. Their outfits consisted of several layers. Standards of the era meant they could show virtually no skin and could not wear pants, which were considered immoral on a woman. Pioneer women made or purchased only a few dresses each year, so they took great care with their clothing to make it last. For women in areas where whole cloth was not readily available, new clothes meant shearing sheep, spinning thread, weaving fabric, dyeing cloth and sewing.
A pioneer woman’s outfit started with a chemise, a one-piece undershirt and slip. Her knitted cotton, silk or wool stockings came up above the knee. They were held in place with ribbon or a garter. Drawers, the 19th-century version of underpants, came all the way down below the knee. Some drawers had a split in the middle to make trips to the outhouse easier.
The corset, constructed from heavy cotton fabric and stiffened with whalebone or metal “bones,” provided a smoothly curved foundation for fitted dresses. The stiffness also helped support a woman’s body while carrying heavy things like water buckets or small children. Hoops, which were worn under a dress to make the skirt bell out, were fashionable in the mid-1800s. However, tough conditions on the wagon trail made many women abandon their hoops along the way.
A pioneer woman always wore a dress, often made from gingham or calico cotton or linsey-woolsey, over the foundation garments. Although pants allowed more freedom of movement, few women flouted the social and religious conventions against wearing pants. Laundry was an all-day chore, so pioneer women wore aprons over their dresses to keep them as clean as possible.
In cool or cold weather, a woman wore a coat or a long cape, as sweaters were not yet popular in the United States. Gloves were essential for women to wear in public and protected a pioneer woman’s hands against the elements. She fastened a bonnet over her hair, which was commonly styled in a bun. On her feet, she wore thin boots or brogans, tough leather shoes appropriate for all weather conditions.
References and ResourcesMemorial Hall Museum: Women's Clothing from 1800
Memorial Hall Museum: Women’s Clothing at 1860
"Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier"; Linda S. Peavy and Ursula Smith; 1996
Arizona Costume Institute: Maternity