History of Fashion and Dress
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Clothing of the American Frontier from 1800 to 1840
There is much documentation of what men wore during this period (see image at right) but not a great deal of research on women's clothing. I suspect this is because early American frontier women and children (of European decent) did not prominently serve as trappers, land surveyors, or explorers. Instead, they made history quietly by building communal ties in what was then the wild and unruly wilderness. What I do know about the clothing on this region I have pieced together from a variety of different historical texts- specifically those relating to the historical and cultural heritage of Southern Appalachia.

The early 19th century was a great time of influx and expansion across America. In 1803, the United States acquired the Louisiana territory from France, doubling the size of the country overnight. Individuals and families began pushing westward from the already settled regions of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Pennsylvania. By 1800, over 150,000 European settlers had emigrated into the Appalachian region alone.

In the 1820s, gold was discovered in Georgia- bringing a rush of spectators into the mountains. From 1830-1838 (against the ruling of the American Supreme Court), Andrew Jackson forcibly removed all remaining Native Americans from their homelands east of the Mississippi to areas known as the New Indian Territories (what is now present day Oklahoma and Kansas). As a result, what was previously deemed as "unsafe Indian territory" was now open to white settlement.

With the opportunity for large plots of open land, many frontier families sold their smaller parcels in Kentucky and Tennessee and moved farther west into Missouri. From 1820-1840, immigration to America was rapidly increasing and the concept of manifest destiny was sweeping the nation. Thus, the massive emigration west pushed white settlement even farther into the the American wilderness. (See maps below)

Trapper's Bride
Hunter Museum of American Art

Westward expansion 1800-1820  Westward expansion 1820-1835
Settled areas from 1800-1820 (left) vs. Settled areas from 1820-1835 (right)
(Images courtesy National Atlas)

American clothing in during this period was still very much regional. In Pennsylvania and Tennessee, the Quakers brought about fashionable period styles coupled with simplicity of adornment. In New Orleans, French fashions were still very much en vogue. In New York, clothing amongst the immigrant population was both a sign of cultural heritage and religion. Immigrants held onto much of their traditional dress. It provided a sense of belonging and a sense of community. But clothing also denoted social status. And, only in America could the poor have the chance to achieve a better life. For these people, clothing was an outward expression of the American dream.

Woman Holding a Hymn Book by Ammi Phillips, circa 1826 (left)
The Immigrants by C. F. Blauvelt, circa 1850 (right)
(images courtesy The Hunter Museum of American Art)

But in the untamed American wilderness, things were a bit different. While European settlers took with them a combination of their traditional garb and their new American styles, these types of garments were not always conducive to the untamed terrain and their new living conditions. As these new settlers pushed further into the frontier, they had to adapt their clothing to the demands of the region. Many incorporated deer skin, fur, and other types of wilderness materials to make European- style shoes, breeches, and outerwear. Women planted flax from which they made their own fabrics. Once near an established market town, families could visit stores and purchase fine imported European cloth and ready made garments.  But these goods were pricey and in a world where money was scarce, purchasing (or in most cases- trading for) fabric would have only been for very special occasions.

Across the Prairie
A. Bierstadt, 1864
Hunter Museum of American Art

Sadly, there is little remaining evidence of clothing worn by the settlers of this period. Because cloth is a perishable good, clothing that was no longer mendable, patchable, or usable was recycled into quilts, bonnets, and dress linings. Most documentation of surviving fibers and prints from this period indeed come from period quilts. What we know of how the clothing looked comes from period sketches and frontier diaries.

It is known that the garments of these early settlers typically followed the silhouette of the period. While there is evidence of high fashion entering the frontier, it can be surmised that for the average American settler of the early frontier, practicality and functionality mattered more than high style. A frontier family's day was filled with hard labor and long hours. For women, skirt lengths were shorter, necklines higher, and sleeves were close fitting. Both women and children wore large sunbonnets or woven hats to protect their skin from the sun. Aprons and smocks were worn to protect clothing from the laborious chores of frontier life.

Clothing was primarily wool or linen- and later mixed with cotton. Dyes were natural and came from nut shells, berries, and the bark of trees. Clothing of the American frontier was of mixed textiles- some hand woven and some purchased from local frontier stores. Prior to 1850, all garments were hand stitched. Items not purchased from the store were either made by the frontier families themselves or traded for.
(Right) A recently completed interpretation of a rural American dress for the 1850s-1860s.
Although the the time period is later than  discussed, one can still get the feel of what  early wilderness dress might have looked like.
(Left) Wooden button details which the ingenious seamstress would have carved from her environment
Selected Bibliography:
Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People. PBS Series, 2009.
Bush, F.C. Dorie: Woman of the Mountains. University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
Dunn, Durwood. Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community. University of Tennessee Press. 1988.
Dykeman, Wilma. Tennessee Women. Wakestone Books, 1993.
McCaulley, Margaret. A Cades Cove Childhood. The History Press, 2008.
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These pages are for educational purposes only.  All text copyright Susan Jarrett.  No unauthorized use without permission.
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Page revised January 2013