Women's Trail Clothing of the Mid-Nineteenth Century

Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, United States' territory grew exponentially as the West was opened to pioneers in search of gold, new beginnings, health and hope. Emigrants moved thousands of miles by foot, wagon, stagecoach and eventually train across the open plains and high mountain plateaus. Pioneers were heading to destinations in Oregon, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Montana. The trails that crisscrossed across the American West can be overarchingly called the Overland Trails.

This project analyzes trail diaries for an understanding of the clothing women wore on the trail. Their clothing needed to be functional for the already arduous trail life made even more difficult by the flora, fauna, terrain, and weather encountered along the way. These environmental factors, availability of new clothing and materials, and personal decisions influenced what women wore as they journeyed west. Trail diaries do not focus solely on clothing and yet a wealth of information can be gleamed by simple references. Many of these references are in direct correlation with the environmental forces at work on the trail. This connection of women dressing to accommodate their surroundings while maintaining some semblance of society’s feminine constructs is the scope of this project. Trail Historians of the 1970s (Merrill Mattes and John D. Unruh) covered the trails west in large seminal works that discussed all topics relating to the trail, but women’s clothing is not broken into any detail. The same can not be said for the trail historians of the 1980s (Lillian Schlissel, John Mack Faragher, etc) who wrote in some length on the topic. They quote some diary entries but with the breadth of diaries available now, a deeper study can focus on the commonalities between clothing-related diary entries and look to the contextual information of simple undescriptive clothing diary entries.

The MAP section illustrates clothing-related diary entries geographically. The DIARY ARCHIVES allows full-length reading of diary entries that mention clothing as well as a browsing function that categorizes specific dress topics. ANALYSIS is an in-depth inquiry of women's clothing. This section will both overview the general forms of dress found on the trail as well as an understanding of the fine line between women's need for more functional trail apparel based on the environmental trail factors and the desire to still maintain the strict mores of the American society they left behind after crossing the Missouri River.

Image: Schlissel, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, 48.