How The West Was Worn: Clothing For The Homesteader And Emigrant

how the west was worn cowgirl magazine

The pilgrimage West was an arduous undertaking.  Emigrants hurriedly loaded their wagon trains with as many personal belongings as they could, and if they were unable to make what little they had fit, it was left behind.  Limited space forced many to wear all the clothing they owned on their backs.  The basic outfit for a pioneer woman consisted of a gingham or calico dress, a sunbonnet, and a muslin apron.  Men pioneers wore simple overalls, cotton work shirts, and caps or broadbrimmed hats.

Many who made the trek were poor, possessing only a single pair of boots or shoes, the soles of which would be worn off long before arriving at their final destinations.  Socks wore out as well, forcing settlers to wrap their feet in rags to protect them from the elements.  When traveling through snow and ice, they wrapped their footwear in gunnysacks to keep their feet from freezing.

In preparation for the trip, women altered their dresses to make walking easier.  Several inches were cut off the bottom of the skirt and lead shot was sewn into the hem to keep the billowing material from blowing in the wind.  Men wore their trouser legs tucked into their boots from the same reason.  Wearing them in this manner also kept out mud and reptiles.  Pioneer women’s dresses were worn without a hoop, and the bodice was lined with canvas for strength and warmth.  

Before heading west, pioneers consulted guidebooks for advice on suitable dress for the trip, and how to best protect the body against the direct rays of the sun and sudden changes in temperature.  If they acquired the necessary items listed, travelers were assured to be prepared for any possible condition.

According to The National Wagon Road Guide written in 1858, “A suitable dress for prairie traveling, for both women and men, is of great import to health and comfort.  Cotton or linen fabrics do not sufficiently protect the body against the direct rays of the sun at midday, nor against rains or sudden changes of temperature.  Wool, being a non-conductor, is the best material for this mode of locomotion, and should always be adopted for the plains.  The coat should be short and stout, the shirt of red or blue flannel, such as can be found in almost all the shops on the frontier: this, in warm weather, answers for an outside garment.  The pants should be thick and soft woolen material, and it is well to have them re-enforced on the inside, where they come in contact with the saddle, with soft buckskin, which makes them more durable and comfortable.

“Woolen socks and stout boots, coming up well at the knees, and made large, so as to admit the pants, will be found the best for horsemen, and they guard against rattlesnake bites.

“In traveling through deep snow during very cold weather in winter, moccasins are preferable to boots or shoes, as being more pliable, and allowing a freer circulation of the blood. In crossing the Rocky Mountains in the winter, the weather being intensely cold, wear two pairs of woolen socks, and a square piece of thick blanket sufficient to cover the feet and ankles, over which were drawn a pair of thick buckskin moccasins, and the whole enveloped in a pair of buffalo-skin boots with the hair inside, made open in the front and tied with buckskin strings….

“In the summer season shoes are much better for travelers than boots, as they are lighter, and do not cramp the ankles; the soles should be broad, so as to allow a square, firm tread, without distorting or pinching the feet.”

The same guidebooks warned women in wagon trains that, while traveling on the trail, they should dress plainly, avoid fancy attire, and never draw attention to themselves. 

“A guy dress, or finery of any sort…lays a woman open to the most severe misconstruction.  Wear always neutral tints. …Above all, never wear jewelry (unless it be your watch), or flowers; they are both in excessively bad taste.”