A magnificent palomino carried its rider past a regiment of soldiers marching toward their quarters at Fort Phil Kearny, a rugged Wyoming outpost. The soldier’s heads turned to watch as the curious rider sauntered up the dusty thoroughfare to the post mercantile. The figure in the saddle pushed back a wolf fur hat and squinted into the brilliant white light of the noonday sun overheard. On close inspections one could see the person on horseback was a woman, but from a distance she could have been mistaken for a man. She was adorned in a wolf-skin outfit, and the wolves’ tails on the garment hung so low they skidded across the ground. She wore knee-high boots over the legs of her ankle-length leather bloomers, and the sides of the boots were accentuated with a bouquet of wolf tails. Cavalry troops in Annie Blanche’s path broke from their duties to watch the unconventionally dressed woman ride by.
Annie’s face wore the expression of a patience that comes from long-endured hardship. She was aware of the many eyes following her, and she smoothed down a patch of unruly fur on her coat lapel.
Thirteen dogs trailed close behind her, adding a further touch of eccentricity to her overall look.
“Why all the dogs?” a perplexed recruit shouted out to her.
“One for each stripe in the American flag,” she answered proudly.
General Marcus Thines, a distinguished military leader, stepped out of the officers’ quarters just as Annie rode by. He watched her remove her primitive hat and drag her hand through her rough, brown hair. “What do we have here?” the general asked the lieutenants on either side of him. “Savage, renegade, woman…or all of the above?”
Annie forced her hat back down on her out-of-control mane and dismounted, seemingly unaffected by the inquisitive stares and snide remarks left her wake. She proudly headed toward the entrance of the store, confident that her fashion sense, if never duplicated, would certainly never be forgotten.
In the 1850s popular opinion was that a woman’ place was in the home. Those like Annie Blanche who ventured outside those confines not only distinguished themselves by breaking with traditional roles but also with conventional manners of dress. A woman’s outfit at that time in history was a powerful statement of who she was and to whom she was related.
Married women who wore expensive garments made from the finest silks and satins proved that their husbands were not simply good providers but able to afford the cost of servants to attend to their wives. Society looked upon the wives’ dresses in muslin, tulle, lace, and organza as reflections of their husband’s economic status.
The basic outfit for nineteenth-century women living in towns and cities was a hoop skirt, blouse, and bodice. Creators of the hoop skirt were granted a patent in 1856, but crude versions of the undergarment had been in use for more than ten years. Hoop skirts came in two styles: the caged crinoline and the hoop petticoat. Store-bought hoop skirts were often made from either narrow steel or stiff wire. Homemade hoops were fashioned from pieces of brass tubing or piano wire. The crinoline was a dome, funnel, or pyramid-shaped understructure made of whalebone or spring hoops used to distend or widen skirts to a large as eighteen feet in circumference.
Women’s blouses were most often fashioned for the affluent and combined expensive materials with intricate handwork. They were available in three sleeve styles: leg-o-mutton, pagoda, and bell. The most common was the bell. The sleeve was straight and loose to the elbow, where it widened and ended just above the wrist with a soft curve.
The favorite materials for everyday wear were linen, wool, and cotton. Lace dresses were popular for formal occasions, and most typically had tight bodices and long flounced skirts. In 1862, a new dress style was introduced to eastern socialites, and within a year, the Cossack gown became the evening gown of choice, not only in Boston but in San Francisco as well.