Thursday, February 20, 2020

Corsets for Ranch Women? Not Mine!

In the Victorian Era women were regarded as the weaker sex and corsets were considered a necessity to protect their virtue and support their “fragile” bodies. Tight lacing indicated a virtuous woman, loose lacing a loose woman.
Hourglass corset c. 1878; wikipedia commons, public domain
Of course a corset’s main purpose was to pinch in the waist and push up the bust, making the wearer more appealing to the opposite sex. It didn’t matter that the devices made deep breathing impossible, caused fainting, led to lung infections, deformed internal organs and caused many miscarriages. Yes, maternity corsets were available, but rather than provide helpful support, they were designed to constrict the pregnancy. I hate to think what this did to the mother and baby.

Doctors were well aware of these ill effects. The following is from an article published in the British medical journal, The Lacet and reprinted in the The Times of London.

“Our old friend, tight-lacing, has again made his appearance. ... The folly is one which was formerly to be found mainly in the drawing-room, but now it also fills our streets. ... as medical practitioners, we see its effects every day in the train of nervous and dyspeptic symptoms … and in the still more grave internal mischief of permanent character which is often caused by it.”

Corsets also seriously restricted movement. After donning a chemise to protect the corset from body oil, it was advisable for a woman to put on her drawers, stockings, garters and shoes before being laced up because she wouldn’t be able to bend over afterward.

How could a woman encased in layer upon layer of clothing, bone or metal stays, and laced up tight, ride a horse? Well, there were corsets designed especially for riding, cut higher over the hips to allow sitting in a saddle – a side saddle that is. Ladies did not ride astride, not by society standards.

However, those society ladies didn't perform all the tasks required of a frontier wife and mother. Quoting an article by Susan Jarrett, on her site History of Fashion and Dress:

“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.”

Nowhere does the author mention corsets. Although she was writing about an earlier period (1800-1840) it’s safe to assume the same applied to women on the advancing frontier. If a ranch wife needed to mount a horse and help her husband push cattle, which some did, she would likely pull on a pair of boots, hike up her skirts and ride astride. Alternatively, she might make a split skirt or buy one ready made if available. Such a skirt wasn’t tailored. It contained yards of cotton, wool, corduroy or even denim in later decades. It would be hot and heavy but far more comfortable than a tightly laced corset.

In Dearest Irish the heroine, Rose Devlin, must learn to ride if she’s to save the life of a wild stallion that won’t let anyone but her touch him. A split skirt may preserve her modesty.

Rose met Jack’s stare, reading challenge in his dark eyes. “I would like to try riding him,” she said timidly, wondering where the words came from.
Tye glared at her. “Have ye lost your mind? That fiend would likely kill ye.”
She regarded the stallion, who was now rubbing his neck on the fence rail separating him from herself. His warm brown coat gleamed in the sunlight. Raising his head, he nibbled at her open palm with his lips. It tickled, making her giggle.
“We’re friends. He wouldn’t hurt me, would ye, Brownie?”
“Brownie? You’ve named him? Woman, you’re as daft as Choctaw Jack,” Tye said crossly. Bending close, he whispered, “And ye plied your healing arts on the beastie last night, didn’t ye?”
Rose gave him a tiny smile, not denying his accusation.
Her riding lessons began the next morning. For the first few days, her brother attempted to teach her, but she had trouble getting used to the lady’s saddle, was afraid of falling off and found it impossible to obey his directions. He became impatient and snappish, driving her to tears at one point, until he finally turned her over to Choctaw Jack for instruction. Tye was not happy about the Indian cowboy being her teacher, why she didn’t know, but Lil convinced him his sister would learn more easily from a stranger, for which Rose was very grateful.
Jack insisted she learn to ride on a man’s saddle, saying it was more natural and safer. Tye grumbled but couldn’t say no since his wife pointed out she’d always ridden astride before growing heavy with child. Rose expressed no opinion in the matter until Lil casually mentioned she would need to wear a pair of men’s trousers for riding. Horrified at the thought, Rose stared at her wide-eyed from her chair at the kitchen table, where she sat peeling apples for a pie.
“What? No! I can’t,” she protested.
“Why not? I did,” Lil said, frowning from across the table as she shucked corn for dinner. Her mother stood between them, preparing dough for the pie.
“Ye did? But how could ye display yourself so . . .?” Rose bit back the word she’d been about to utter, not wishing to insult her sister-in-law, but it was too late.
Lil narrowed her eyes. “So brazenly? Is that what you were going to say?”
“I-I meant no offense,” Rose stammered, clutching a paring knife in one hand and a half peeled apple in the other. “But I’m not as b-brave as yourself. I simply can’t wear trousers.”
“Even if it means never riding your Brownie and knowing he’ll be shot?”
“Oh, please don’t say that!” Rose cried. Her eyes filled with tears. Dropping the knife, she clapped a hand over her trembling lips, fighting to hold back a flood of regret.
“There is another way,” Rebecca said. Wiping her hands on the long white apron draped over her dress, she glanced at Rose. “I could make a riding skirt for you.”
“You mean one of those split skirts like Jessie wears?” Lil asked dubiously. “I don’t know how she climbs aboard a horse with all that skirt dragging on her.”
“She manages.” Motioning Rose to her feet, Rebecca looked her up and down carefully. “You are about the same size as your sister. Perhaps she will let me use one of her skirts as a pattern.”
“I’m sure she would,” Rose said, a surge of hope helping to dry her eyes. Recalling the riding skirt she’d once seen on Jessie, she thought she could stand to wear such a garment. Certainly it was better than figure-hugging trousers. If it allowed her to ride Brownie, thereby saving his life, she would do it.
Word was sent to Jessie and she immediately supplied not only a skirt, but the paper pattern she’d used to make it. At Rebecca’s request, Tye escorted Rose and her into Clifton, the nearest town, where Lil’s mother chose a durable corded fabric suitable for their purposes. While there, Tye also outfitted Rose with a plaid work shirt, a pair of thick-heeled western boots, and a Stetson hat much like the one he wore.
Once back at the ranch, Rebecca wasted no time in cutting out the pieces for Rose’s skirt. With Lil pitching in to help, the three of them finished sewing it within two days.
On the morning her lessons were to commence with Jack, Rose hesitantly stepped out of the house wearing her blue plaid shirt and grayish blue riding skirt. She’d pinned her long hair into a tight knot at her nape beneath the brim of her brown hat. Walking cautiously in the unfamiliar boots, she tugged on a pair of leather gloves borrowed from her sister-in-law.
Lil had assured her she looked fine; Tye had merely raised an eyebrow and shrugged at her appearance. Still, when Rose spotted Jack standing by the corral, watching her approach, she blushed hotly, feeling self-conscious in her strange new clothes.
“Morning. You ready to learn?” he asked as she drew near.
“Aye, I’m ready.” Painfully aware of his gaze upon her and his imposing size, she studied the ground. Much to her relief, he made no comment about her changed attire.
“Good. Come on. I saddled Betsy for you,” he said without any inflection in his voice. Ushering her into the corral, he led her over to the quiet mare Tye had previously chosen for her. She was a muddy brown color, not the lovely warm hue of Brownie’s coat, but she was sweet-natured and patient, qualities Rose had come to value during her inept attempts to ride.
“Hello, Betsy,” she murmured, patting the mare’s neck. The animal turned her head and eyed her, perfectly calm.
“The first thing you need to learn is how to mount and dismount,” Jack said. With that, he demonstrated the proper way to do both. Then it was her turn.
She felt horribly exposed with her backside partially outlined by the riding skirt and practically in his face as she clumsily lifted herself into the saddle, but he seemed not to notice. All he did was adjust her feet in the stirrups and order her to sit straighter. Once he was satisfied with her posture, he had her climb down and repeat the process. This went on for close to an hour, with Jack patiently, if somewhat coolly, correcting her mistakes. Finally, he seemed satisfied with her efforts.
“That’s enough for today. I’ll meet you here tomorrow morning,” he said, touching his hat to her.
Lyn Horner is a multi-published, award-winning author of western historical romance and paranormal romantic suspense novels, all spiced with sensual romance. She is a former fashion illustrator and art instructor who resides in Fort Worth, Texas – “Where the West Begins” - with her husband and two very spoiled cats. As well as crafting passionate love stories, Lyn enjoys reading, gardening, genealogy, visiting with family and friends, and cuddling her furry, four-legged babies.

Amazon Author Page: (universal link)
Newsletter:  Lyn’s Romance Gazette
Website:  Lyn Horner’s Corner 


  1. Interesting read, Lyn. Thank goodness for drawers and split skirts in the latter 1800's so I could factually allow my heroines to ride astride! By the turn of the century, women were actively riding bicycles too.

  2. Thanks, Cheri. Yes, women's fashions, including undergarments, did change a lot during the late 1800s and early 1900s. They sure became more comfortable.


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