Mary Ellen Snodgrass
How the West Was Worn: Bustles and Buckskins on the Wild Frontierby Chris Enss
Fashion that was in vogue in the East was highly desirable to pioneers during the frontier period of the American West. It was also extraordinarily difficult to obtain, often impractical, and sometimes the clothing was just not durable enough for the men and women who were forging new homes for themselves in the West. Full hoopskirts were of little use in a soddy
Fashion that was in vogue in the East was highly desirable to pioneers during the frontier period of the American West. It was also extraordinarily difficult to obtain, often impractical, and sometimes the clothing was just not durable enough for the men and women who were forging new homes for themselves in the West. Full hoopskirts were of little use in a soddy on the prairie, and chaps and spurs were a vital part of the cowboy's equipment.
In this book, author Chris Enss examines the fashion that shaped the frontier through short essays; brief clips from letters, magazines, and other period sources; and period illustrations demonstrating the sometimes bizarre, often beautiful, and frequently highly inventive ways of dressing oneself in the Old West.
Mary Ellen Snodgrass
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 7.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.56(d)
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Dressing for a Gold Rush
Clothes Make The Man
Like many of the young men seeking their futures in the western frontier, Canton Wells, a gangly youth dressed in a patchwork of hand me down clothes, found the dream of prosperity elusive. Drifting from town to town he made his way through the west by hiring on to the worst of jobs. The further he traveled the more bleak his prospects seemed. In the winter of 1873 Canton found himself in Flatwater, Iowa. The only gainful employment available was that of a swamper at the Bloated Goat Saloon, run by the Infamous "Boss" Buckland, a noted swindler, con man and local politician. Just when Canton thought his plight could get no worse, on March 11th fire broke out in the hotel where he had a small room that contained all of his meager belongings. All night long Canton, along with the rest of the towne folk, fought the inferno but by morning's first light a pile of ash and cinders was all that was left of the town's cheapest hotel. Everything he had worked for over the last seven years had been destroyed in one night. Even the clothes he was wearing were tattered and singed beyond repair.
With little more than a week's worth of wages in his ragged jeans he entered River City Junction Trade Company where he was greeted by the store's proprietor. In reply to Canton's request for some clothes the store owner asked what seemed to be an unusual question. "What do you want to be?" the man asked. Noticing Canton's puzzled expression the owner explained, "A man's station is first announced to the folks around him by the clothing he chooses to wear." The two men talked for over an hour about the differences of practical and professional, and of formal and stylish. Canton purchased three new light calico shirts, two pair of trousers, a trimmed notched lapel vest, a herringbone suit coat, a narrow tie tac, suspenders, socks, a pair of sable tip shoes and a derby hat. To his surprise he had found that River City Junction's prices were so reasonable that he still had enough money in his pocket to get a good cleaning up at the barbershop and a fine dinner at Ma Cooms' Restaurant.
While at dinner a stately silver haired gentleman asked to share his table. The gentleman was none other than John R. Waddell, Sr., founder of Waddell Land and Cattle Company. Before the after dinner brandy and cigars had even been brought to the table Canton had secured the position of Territorial Agent, with a generous salary and expense account. Mr. Waddell was heard to say, "I can size a man up just by looking at him. And I can see that you are a man of great potential."
Within a month Canton had contracted with the Army to supply it with beef (with the help of a hand styled fur felt hat with the cavalry pinch by River Junction) and been put in charge of acquisitions for the Waddell Land and Cattle Company. By fall he defeated Boss Buckland by a landslide in the election for mayor of the now prospering city of Flatwater and had become the most influential person in the Indian Territories. Never forgetting that it was River City Junction Trade Company that helped to guide him on his road to prosperity when he was so lost and he is still a loyal customer and friend to this day."
-Advertisement from the McGregor Daily News, Iowa-March 12, 1873
A hot blazing sun hung high over the Salt Lake Desert. Shafts of light like giant fingers thrust their beams to the far corners of the great expanse. A pair of slow-moving riders pressed forward across the terrain, their watery silhouettes bouncing off the sand. In the middle distance was the faint outline of a naked man with a canteen flung over his shoulder.
Wearing only a pair of boots and a brown faded hat, the bare-skinned man walked with great purpose across the heated ground. As the bewildered riders approached, the man adjusted his skimmer and scratched some vital organs.
"Nice hat," one of the riders said as he sidled up to him. "No-good thieves stole my horse and my gear and left me naked as a branding iron." The two men on horseback exchanged puzzled looks. They had heard of highwaymen taking off with money and property, but never a man's clothes. "Must have been some fancy duds," the second rider commented. "Red silk shirt, custom-fit money jacket and trousers that match," the naked man boasted. "Got them in Boston." The riders stifled a laugh as they followed slowly behind the discouraged man.
One of the men reached into his saddlebag and produced a pair of wool pants and a ragged blue shirt. Holding them up he said, "You can borrow these if you like."
The unclad wanderer stopped in his tracks and eyed the garments, thinking. "You might as ochwell," the second rider encouraged. "What are folks going to say if you show up in the next town like that?" The nude sojourner responded with a smile, "How about 'there goes a man made by the Lord Almighty and not by his tailor'."
In December of 1849, there were 53,000 miners in the gold fields, with even more gold-seekers on their way west. They came from all over the world and were dressed in unusual styles and fashions. Some were ragged emigrants hoping to hit the mother lode and replace their old, worn frocks with new ones. Some were aristocrats, dusty from their travels, but neatly dressed for their arrival in the Gold Country. Throughout this period, clothing for men of the West reflected the styles and attitudes in the East; however, due to delays in communication and deliveries of goods, western styles was not uncommon to see some European miners dressed in brown or tan linen coats, vests, and trousers, wearing odd-shaped hats similar to the U.S. Mounted Dragoons forage cap. Their knee-high boots were always turned down during warm weather to allow for leg ventilation. Not far away, working another claim, one could find prospectors from Oregon wearing wide-brimmed generally lagged behind.
In the mid to late 1800s, clothes revealed a lot about a man. How a person was attired spoke to his social standing in the community, his age, his marital status, and his geographical home. Once the massive migration west began and styles merged, it became increasingly difficult to read a man solely by the garments on his back.
Forty-niners in the gold fields invented a manner of dress that protected them from the harsh environment while maintaining a touch of their homeland's influence. It hats to shade their necks and faces, two pairs of shirts, and yellow-gummed leggings hanging from their belts. The bright-colored leggings helped keep the knees and trouser seams from wearing out.
Upon arriving in the Gold Country, many eastern dandies parted with their silk shirts in favor of ones made from cotton, leather, linsey-woolsey, or wool. These fabrics were chosen because they provided warmth in the winter and they quickly absorbed perspiration in the summer. White shirts were worn on special occasions, and solid colors-especially red and blue-were for everyday use.
Another popular item of the time was the "fireman's shirt," a long-sleeved garment with a series of buttons down two sides of a bib. Bib-style shirts were considered a more practical design than a key-hole neck or a straight line of buttons down the middle front of a shirt because they protected the upper body better. They were originally designed for firemen and fs20were primarily made of red wool.
No matter what the average sojourner wore in the West, most every outfit was topped off with a hat of some kind. The most predominant material used for headgear among men was straw, but in 1857, a new substance came into fashion.
Indeed, the soft felt is the only sensible hat now worn. Instead of the shiny, hard and stiff fur silk hat, so lately universal in places like San Francisco and New York. A perpetual annoyance to the owner, in his way in every conveyance and in every crowd; never protecting him from sun or rain, but keeping him anxious trying to protect it, very much in the shape and about as pleasant to the head as a section of stove-pipe would be; always getting blown off, or mashed, or weather-stained; instead of all this, we now have the broad-brimmed, flexible-bodied, easy-fitting hat, without fur on it or stiffening in it, never binding the brow or causing headache, never injured by rough handling; always in shape, if shape it might be called, which shaped has none, always shading the face from sun and sheltering it from storm; and last though not least, the prettiest hat, if beauty is associated with utility and fitness of things. This is the hat which constitutes one of the most belauded inventions of the day-one which should universally supplant its absurd predecessor, and be worn by all classes, clergyman included.
The Daily Alta California-January 24, 1857
Among the most popular pants worn by men living in the Old West were Hercules Overalls. Made from full nine-ounce York denim, they were more often than not held in place by a pair of elastic suspenders. Before 1873, the majority of britches was made from wool, sturdy canvas, or corduroy, and had an interwoven plaid design. Oregon City Woolen Mills was noted for making the finest trousers west of the Mississippi. In 1868, a single pair of Woolen Mills Hercules Overalls cost $12.
A dry goods dealer in San Francisco named Levi Strauss entered the clothing business in 1870, introducing a brand of blue denim work pants he believed was superior to any other on the market. Strauss's trousers had back pockets and rivets along the seams to provide added strength. He began mass marketing the product in 1873, but the pants did not become a big seller until seventeen years later.
At first many California transplants considered the denim pants to be "poor man's wear," solely for use by pilgrim farmers. In 1890, however, Strauss introduced a pair of "shrink to fit" jeans with straight legs. Those "Levi's" as they would later be called, made the marketer a fortune and his pants a household name.
Under the typical miners' overalls and fireman's shirt was a pair of long-handled underwear. Usually red in color, the garment was made of cotton, wool-flannel, silk, or a combination of those materials. The drawers had three or four buttons and a tie-string to hold them in place; some had tie-strings near the ankles, while others had knitted elastic gatherings at the bottom. Mail-order merchandisers like Montgomery Ward and Company and Sears, Roebuck and Company frequently advertised the "scarlet knit drawers" and "matching undershirts" in their catalogs. The underwear came in a variety of weights and cost from 45 cents to $1.25.
Some prospectors preferred to wear nightshirts under their clothes. The all-purpose covering extended to the knees and had a dual role of an undergarment and sleepwear. Those who wore long-handled underwear referred to nightshirt wearers as men who liked to sleep "dressed as cocky as the king of spades."
After their hats, the most important item of clothing for miners was their footwear. Miners typically wore Hessian boots, a style derived from the boots worn by Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution. They under-the-knee boot had a square toe and moderate heel. Rounded leather flaps at the tops of some styles were used to protect a prospector's knees while kneeling. Pant legs were tucked into the boots. Elastic-sided ankle-high boots with cloth tops were preferred for special occasions. Acquiring such luxuries as formal footwear was difficult in the remote mining camps that dotted the West. In fact, the more hopeful gold seekers poured into the country, the more difficult it was to come by even the most common of items.
The summer of 1849 saw no less then 549 sea-going vessels in the port of San Francisco. In the month of August, 400 large ships were idly swinging at anchor, destitute of crews; for their sailors had deserted, swimming ashore and escaping to the gold mines. 35,000 men came by sea, and 42,000 by land, during the year. The Asian coasts, Australia, South American and Africa, all contributed a melting pot of individuals that thronged the roads to the placers.
The California Chronicle-October 5, 1852
Before setting off to the hills in search of gold, eager prospectors loaded up on the limited supplies available at busy mercantiles, purchasing bedding, picks, shovels, food, and an outfit of work-clothes. Shoulder-puffed sleeved shirts and black dress pants made from expensive fabric was traded for cotton shirts, denim britches, felt hats, and Hessian boots. Smaller items used to accessorize the look were also bought.
Until the late 1800s, belts were not commonly used in the West. Suspenders held a man's pants in place, and were made of sturdy cloth or woven tape. The ends of suspender straps were leather and contained buttonholes that attached to buttons on the trousers. Miners who struck it rich would often mount a small gold nugget on a stickpin and attach it to their suspenders.
Watches of the time were pocket-watch style only. They usually were wound with a key, rather than a stem-wind type and were most generally made of silver. If a vest was worn, the watch was carried in a cloth or leather bag buttoned on the inside of the pants waistband. In 1881, Levi Strauss put a watch pocket on the front of his jeans, thereby doing away with the watch bag. Miners would wear metal chains, braided leather, or the braided hair of far-away loved ones affixed to the watches.
Poor eyesight was considered a sign of old age and weakness, so it was rare to see anyone wearing glasses in the mid-1800s in the Old West. Glasses were also quite expensive, so many with vision problems were forced to live with vision problems. Those who could afford to improve their eyesight and face possible criticism from peers purchased ready-made, wire eyeglasses with octagonal frames.
No prospector's look was complete without a scarf or bandana. Often bright in color, the scarves were used to mop perspiration from sweaty brows and could be pulled up over the nose in cold weather. Westerners would also tie the material over their hats to hold them in place during strong windstorms.
Miners generally wore the one or two outfits of clothing they possessed until they became threadbare. Only after they exhausted their efforts at patching holes and repairing ripped seams did they decide to purchase new garments. Prices in emporiums around mining camps were extremely high and clothing was no exception.
In 1849, Barnes Store, on the North Fork of the American River outside of Sacramento, posted the following prices for an outfit of clothes:
Socks $3.00 a pair
Denim Trousers $7.00 a pair
Shirts $4.00 each
Cotton Handkerchiefs 50 cents each
The currency of the time was almost exclusively gold. At the height of the Rush, gold was going for $16 an ounce. Miners who had yet to find any flakes at all, and could not afford to pay inflated mercantile prices for a new pair of britches, could wait and buy clothing from traveling peddlers, or from small temporary stores housed in a tent or under a lean-to and called "slop shops." The merchandise was limited and offered at cut-rate prices. Many slop shop owners were suspected of having stolen their inventory from merchants in San Francisco, or from supply wagon trains filled with goods making their way from the East.
Finally, the way a man wore his hair was an important part of the overall look of a miner. Most hair was parted either in the middle or on the side and was generally kept no shorter than the bottom of the earlobe. Uncooperative hair was slicked down with a perfumed oil or wagon wheel grease.
From the tops of their heads to the bottoms of their feet, gold-field residents had a unique, rustic style of dress that distinguished them from all other western emigrants. Forty-niner Barton Bailey made note of the manner of a miner's wardrobe in a poem he published more than 150 years ago:
His trousers are quite ragged and his gray shirt torn and frayed,
he wouldn't draw attention with merely the clothes upon his frame.
Shifting through the dirt and gravel working his small claim,
'tis finding riches not sporting linen britches that will bring pride to his name. (Daily Alta California-May 12, 1854)
Meet the Author
Chris Enss is the coauthor of Gilded Girls, With Great Hope, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Happy Trails, and The Cowboy and the Senorita. She is also an award-winning screenwriter with experience in theatre costuming and has a passion for the subject.
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