Saturday, March 12, 2011

Two or Six Petticoats? Which would you be?

Women living in the west in the 1800’s dressed in the silks, satins, and fashionable dresses for special occasions just like their sisters in the east. However, they also dressed decidedly different when facing the rigors of western living.

In the rural areas women’s clothing could be dated to when they first arrived from the east up to ten years earlier. Silk and satin could be scarce in the rural areas. In these instances they would make ball gowns out of gingham and calico adding all the extra flounces, bustles, and trains. Adding handmade lace collars and wool braid around the hems to enhance the garments.
They had one special dress they wore only to dances, church, and socials. A corset would be worn with their finest dresses to special occasions.
Common material for women’s clothing was linsey-woolsey, calico, silk, plaid, muslin, printed cotton, wool challis, dimity, and grosgrain-striped silk taffeta. Most garments had a pocket sewn in the right side seam. Generally, each dress was the same style(they used the same pattern over and over), the fabric and decorations made them different. In the early part of the 1800’s most wore one piece dresses. A dress with a full skirt required 10 yards of calico or 14 yards of silk because silk wasn’t as wide on the bolt as calico. From 1850 on women started wearing two-piece outfits(skirt and blouse). It wasn’t until the 1890’s when the “shirtwaist” or blouse became popular. By 1886 the chemise (like a long slip) was replaced with the camisole a shorter version of the chemise with square or round neckline, lace and embroidery.
In 1882 stores began selling ready-made clothing.

Traveling on stage coaches and trains linen dusters were worn to keep the dirt and coal dust off their clothing.

Three essentials of any western woman were their apron, bonnet, and shawl. An apron was a full length garment worn while cleaning the house and cooking. It helped to keep their clothing clean, making less laundry. They called any type of hat a bonnet. Most had a sunbonnet with ties under the chin and a wide cloth brim reinforced with cardboard or thin slats of wood to make the brim stiff and keep the sun off their faces. They would also have a winter bonnet or hat. Some would even have a fancy bonnet to wear to weddings, funerals, and socials. The shawl was a quick wrap to throw on to greet company or make a trip to the outhouse. They usually had a special one to wear to social events if their family had the means.
Working and dealing with the heat they would shed undergarment layers, specifically petticoats and a corset. Rather than the 5-6 petticoats that was customary they would work in one or two. This also helped on wash day when they only had to laundry a couple petticoats and not half a dozen. To keep their skirts down without all the layers to hide their limbs, they would sew metal bars or lead shot in the hems, thwarting any strong winds. They also wore bloomers under their skirts rather than all the layers of petticoats. In winter, flannel or quilted petticoats kept their legs warm.

Western women worked by their husband’s sides. To make their chores easier they shortened their skirts, wore split skirts and some even wore men’s clothing. It made walking and riding horses easier. They also were less likely to wear the tight corseted styles. They could do their work easier in loose-fitting garments.

My historical western Gambling on an Angel is set in the 1800's in the west, and can be purchased in e-book at a 50% discount at Smashwords today. March 12th.

Paty Jager

This information was found in: The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West by Candy Moulton.
Photos from


  1. PATY-- I adore sites and posts about historical clothing for the Western Historical woman. It's interesting that all the clothing looked alike, at least those frontier women wore. I'm sure those in cities had more selections.
    Using patterns over and over? My mother did that during the forties when my little sister and I were little and so close in size--I was older but smaller, so that we were the same size. (as we grew older, she grew taller. I'm just the runt of the lot, I guess.)
    Mother dressed us alike, and used one pattern over and over--but she knew little tricks to make our dresses look different. She would have made a good pioneer mother.

  2. Paty, lol...if I lived in the
    1800's I think I'd wear pants and skip all the "undertrappings".

    Loved the pictures!

  3. Celia, I remember my grandmother who had an odd shaped body using the same pattern to make her clothes but adding things to them to make them look different.

    Marin, I agree. I think I would have been the odd woman who wore men's pants. LOL

  4. Great post, Paty. It's easy to see why western living without servants would quickly convert women to more practical living. I'm glad I have all the modern conveniences even if western romances are my favorites.

  5. Thanks for commenting, Caroline.


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