Jessica Wooten, 1849 Trail Trader Fashion History

—— FASHION IN GENERAL 1837-1861——


  • Society in Europe & America was prospering
  • Population was growing, especially in urban areas
  • The idea of standardized clothes was still distasteful to many women, so dressmakers were still in vogue
  • The sewing machine, now improved for mass production use, did not help with women’s clothing as much as with men’s, because women disliked uniformity
  • Dressmakers even with sewing machines were hard pressed to keep up with demand for clothing
  • It was more profitable for a dressmaker to hire out work to the elderly or young rather than use a factory
  • Dressmakers had physical shops where they constructed, fit, & sold garments
  • Clothes for upper classes were almost all still made by the visiting dressmaker, or customized by the large department stores
  • In 1847, an American man with his mother started the successful Royal Worcester Corset Company which stayed in business until 1955
  • Royal Worcester American corsets were the most popular & commonly purchased at this time
  • Most corset manufacturers were creating a standardized corset & then fitting women into them
  • RW designs reversed that thought process in that they were based on a natural line, & then adapted to the function or purpose; e.g. sports, evening gowns, breastfeeding, etc.
  • Royal Worcester developed use of the couteil fabric that was functional & quality for a reasonable price, & would be used in corsets forward
Palais du commerce en Rennes, France newly renovated



  • There were huge shopping malls with department stores in Paris operating at their peak in the 1840’s & 1850’s including Galeries du Commerce et Industrie, Palace Bonne-Nouveau, & Grandes Halles
  • Unlike today’s malls, these included inside custom dressmaking shops as well as ready-made items of all sorts from clothing to perfumes to household goods
  • Ready-made applied mostly to cloaks, shawls, etc that a dressmaker would build during the “off season” in her large shop with apprentices
  • Ready-made meant garments were pre-made in general pattern sizes, & then fit to the customer in the dressmaker or department store
  • There was no such thing as “multiple” or “off the rack” until later in the decade
  • Most ordinary women’s clothing was provided in stores. With buses, & railways booming by 1853, shoppers could easily come to the shopping district
  • Drugstores were opened in every department store, selling cosmetics
  • By the 1840’s every drugstore had a cosmetician who sold cosmetics with the goal of enhancing “naturalness” & fixing men’s black eyes
1860’s Canadian sewing machine and an 1898 Worcester readymade corset available from a catalog


  • Paper patterns made the home garment-making industry feasible, but the sewing machine was not yet refined for home use
  • Paper patterns were used by dressmakers who switched from the draped design of previous eras to flat pattern design
  • Designers through upcoming eras would go back & forth from draped to flat pattern design
  • Because mass production meant cutting & then assembling 100’s of sleeves, or collars, or bodices instead of building the whole garment, flat pattern design was more efficient & less costly for factory production
  • Lady’s fashion magazines like “Godey’s Lady’s Book” described the current fashion trends for all who could afford to buy the book with its hand-colored illustrations
  • “Godey’s Lady’s Book” usually included patterns in standardized sizes based on the “proportionate principals”
  • Wealthy women would give the patterns to their dressmaker to make
  • Non-wealthy women would not be sewing their own “Godey’s” fashions anyway, but rather a lesser version of it, so lower classes obtained patterns through catalogs or department stores
  • Fashion magazines were used almost exclusively by the wealthy & elite
  • Photography became common in use by 1840 which allowed women to see what a fashion actually looked like
  • Instead of word of mouth, use of old clothing, patterns, samples, or periodicals of past eras used to communicate design, women now most often chose their fashion from photographs
Editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book in the 1840s and 50s


A page from Godeys in the 1860s gives advice on fashion and how to build your house




  • Americans, other than a few railroad, shipping, & banking moguls, really did not have an elite class
  • America was still made up of a huge middle class, with the standard of living highest in the world
  • While heroes like Lincoln, Clay, & Webster set standards for men, women wanting to be stylish still followed European fashion as they had no American fashion leaders
  • Not all American women adhered to European custom
  • As with all eras in American fashion history, there were exceptions as women pioneered functional & locally made clothing
  • This time period in particular, as the American West was first settled, established its own dress codes for women (discussed as a separate era)
  • American fashion, specifically East Coast & Midwest as far as St. Louis, followed the edicts & was restricted by the same rules as Victoria’s Britain was
  • The “Boston Lady” was a fashion ideal unique to America. She was a fictitious super-refined American woman that “did the continent” like a Londoner, dressed, spoke, & behaved like European aristocracy, & emulated the ways of the rich
1840s American made day dress and underpinnings


  • Early Victorian fashion is jokingly referred to as the time of “drooping ringlets & dragging skirts”
  • The era might appear to be the same as the big & embellished previous Rococco, but despite general similarities of line & silhouette, the Early Victorian is actually almost “prudish” in comparison
  • Early Victorian differs from the previous Roccoco because of all the strict rules & protocols of fashion dictated by Victoria & the rising designer, Charles Worth
  • French “Haute Couture” & the term was invented by Charles Worth
  • Worth was an English born designer who told French women what to wear
  • What French women wore, was what everybody of European influence, including Americans, wore
  • Worth’s concept was that each activity needed its own “costume”, a term he invented
  • “Costume” was a complete fashionable ensemble designed & built for a specific function or event to accomplish a specific purpose such as projecting wealth, status, or community standing
  • The result of Worth’s fashion was that anyone who could afford it needed to buy huge amounts of clothing
  • “Haute Couture” meant there was a lot of dressing & undressing all day; usually requiring a servant or helper & so distinguishing the classes
  • There were marked differences between which clothing was to be worn at which time of day
1850 “Haute Couture” gown



  • A huge fashion trend that crossed “Haute Couture”, “Tailor Made”, ready-made, & mass produced fashions of the time were paisley shawls & piano shawls of paisley
  • Paisley was a specific pattern of color & weave, based on Middle-eastern, Asian, & Eastern designs
  • Paisley was used in high fashion for the elite & wealthy
  • Paisley shawls also appealed to the mass market of the middle class
  • Lower classes would embrace it later after it became in common use at lesser cost
  • Paisley originally came from Edinburgh, Scotland in about 1845
  • The first paisley shawls were of wool & silk
  • Beautiful flimsy silk gauze examples, with bright clear colors were printed for evening wear for the middle & upper classes
  • Heavier shawls of wool & silk with light colored centers were used for summer wear, & dark centers for winter
  • Printers copied the designs of the woven examples, using wooden blocks & later blocks with the pattern lines inlaid with metal
  • Shawls from Scotland were the height of fashion through the early 1800’s
  • Norwich, Paisley, Glasgow & other towns printed shawls which were immensely popular
  • Great Britain was able to reduce production costs through sub–division & specialization of labor of their mass production textile industry that Scotland did not have
  • By 1850, Edinburgh Scottish paisley manufacturers could no longer compete with English Paisley & stopped producing shawls
  • Norwich & France continued to produce very good quality examples forward to the present
  • They were a favorite wedding present for all classes
  • Passed through generations, paisleys were worn from infancy to old age
  • They went out of fashion in the 1870’s when they became associated with the elderly
1860’s paisley day dress


  • A third key trend in this era that never took off were Amelia Bloomer’s “bloomers”;
  • “Bloomers” were pantaloons worn under a loose fitting blouse-like tunic intended to take women out of corsets while still keeping her modestly covered
  • Bloomers were an attempt to simplify the growing complexity of fashion & its understructures, & it failed miserably until 50 years later when the advent of the bicycle demanded women wear something with a split leg
Bloomers on the Trail



  • By the 1850’s the term “crinoline” applied to the silhouette as well as the item
  • A crinoline was an undergarment structure which further expanded & stiffened the starched petticoat of the previous era
  • It widened the bottom of the profile tremendously, creating a wide shouldered, tiny-waisted, & hugely exaggerated hourglass shape of a bell
  • “Belle” (“beautiful” in French) was a term appropriately applied to women of the American south who wore the skirts & structures
  • Leading up to 1850, a crinoline was a stiffened or structured petticoat designed to hold out a woman’s skirt
  • The first crinolines were made of horsehair (“crin”), cotton, or linen
  • “Crinoline” also meant the hoop skirts that replaced the crinolines in the 1850’s & 1860’s
  • NOTE: In form & function, hoop skirts were very much like 16th &17th century farthingales & 18th century panniers in that they were made of stiff structural materials combined with the horsehair & fabric to hold the skirts into specific (large) silhouettes
  • Crinolines were worn by women of every social standing & class, from royalty to factory workers
  • Their use was subject to media scrutiny & criticism, & there were many caricatures, jokes, & satires about them in magazines like “Punch” at the time
  • Crinolines could be hazardous, as they were extremely flammable
  • Other crinoline hazards included hoops getting caught in machinery, carriage wheels, gusts of wind, or other obstacles
  • Crinolines & the later hoops allowed skirts to spread wider than ever, up to 6 yards (18′) in diameter at their peak in size & depth in 1857
  • The steel-hooped cage crinoline was patented in 1856
  • Steel-hooped cages were distributed by agents, intensely marketed, & mass produced in huge quantities by factories in Europe & the US
  • Whalebone, cane, gutta-percha, & inflatable caoutchouc (natural rubber) were used for hoops, although steel was the most popular
  • By 1860, the hoops began to reduce in size a bit
  • The smaller crinolette & the bustle had largely replaced the crinoline by the early 1870’s
The crinoline silhouette of the mid 1850’s



  • The separate blouse & skirt was introduced in this timeframe
  • Lines shifted from the vertical to the horizontal on top as well as on the bottom of the silhouette, assisted by shorter, wider bodices
  • Women’s 1840’s day dresses had boned bodices with dropped shoulders
  • Dresses had a fan-front (gathered) bodice that formed a point below the waist
  • Dresses had piping at the waistline, armscye, neckline & shoulder seams.
  • Dresses had much less ornamentation than the previous era
  • Bodices were worn off the shoulder
  • They featured a rigidly boned elongated shape with a waist that formed a perfect point in the front
  • Shoulders were extended below their natural line
  • Generally necklines were worn high during the day & wide in the evening
1840s fashion plate feature long bodice


  • A new triangular, cone-shaped silhouette emerged featuring new pagoda sleeves
  • Huge sleeves had suddenly collapsed in 1836
  • The new form-fitting sleeves were sometimes so tight that tiny pleats were inserted at the elbow to aid in movement
  • Sleeves in the 1840’s were short & tight with either puff decorations of lace trimming
1845 evening sleeve puffs


  • In about 1852, skirts become even fuller than the previous era when they had widened to a “bell shape”
  • It was still a “bell shape”, but a much larger “bell” formed by cartridge pleating
  • Horizontal flounces or tucks were added to the base skirt to give it width & volume
  • Trimmings of tucks & pleats were used to emphasized the new line
  • Skirt hems lowered to the floor
  • Starting from the mid 1850’s until the end of the century, women’s skirts & understructures continued to get more drapery, a more layers, more stiffening, & more complexity
  • As the era progressed towards 1857, the skirt became very domed in silhouette, requiring yet more petticoats to achieve the desired shape
  • The trend to get more & more ornate continued into the 1860’s
1842 flat pleating makes a small skirt circumference and narrower “bell”
1856 gown with cartridge pleating


FABRICS & TRIMS (see section on Dyes & Colors)

  • There were many more fringes, beads, bugles, & bows with ruchings, loops, & swirls added as time progressed
  • Solid, colored fabrics were more in tune with the new solemnity of the era
  • Colors shifted to darker tones
  • Prints & patterns gradually were introduced & became the norm
  • The huge expanses of fabric were crying out for visual interest which large plaids & border prints provided
  • Fabrics were the same stiff textured cloth as previous eras in winter or cool climates
  • Light cottons were typical in summer
  • Bright printed & woven fabrics were popular
  • Daytime colors were brown, rust, gray, & green & included Scottish plaids, following the lead of Victoria who loved them & wore bright authentic plaids in silk to social functions
  • Pale pastels were for evening
  • The designs of the main dress were repeated in matching pelerines
1840s solid and somber


1850’s prints and flounces with pastels (1857)



  • Multiple layered petticoats & crinolines provided the fullness of the desired silhouette over the very tightly laced corset
  • Numerous petticoats were worn
  • The more the crionoline was worn, the less petticoats were worn
  • Some stiffening was used to support the skirts, but with the advent of the crinoline, only 1-2 petticoats became necessary
  • 2 petticoats were preferred for modestly, as the crinoline did not count as it might sway or blow up revealing the naked woman beneath, or at least an ankle or foot
  • Petticoats were decorated with “broderie anglaise” which was tucking & lace

(more petticoats discussed below)

The heavy wool quilted petticoat of the 1840s and 50’s became much lighter and added ruffles by the 1860s because the latter decade had a crinoline to make the shape instead of stiffening


1860’s modern reproduction petticoat designed to go over a crinoline hoop and so had more flounces and was lighter in weight and was not stiffened nor structured



  • The corset returned in full force with intent to mold the body into a proscribed shape, rather than to trick the eye
  • Waists became smaller & even more tightly laced than in previous eras
  • Strong metal grommets made the tight lacing possible
  • Previous eras had hand sewn eyelets, which would not have taken the stress
  • Center backs & fronts of the corset had additional metal “lacing bones” to take the stress of lacing off the fabric
  • New innovations in innovative “busk” closures for front & back made the entire garment much stronger & durable
  • Design was flexible with many construction methods available
  • By the 1850’s, there were 4 basic corset shapes, with variations by intended activity
  • There were corsets for sports, riding, maternity, evening, & travel based on the 4 main concepts
  • The 4 corsets all had in common a design which produced a wide & very round bosom with a tiny waist
  • No emphasis was made on the hips except to make the corset long enough so that it sat comfortably on the waistline
  • Gussets that had been present since the 1790’s in corsets disappeared, to be replaced by seaming
  • It was the new shaping of seams that would have a major effect on corsets until the end of the century
  • In general, all corsets of the time had colored outer fabrics & a white lining
  • Sateen & jean “couteil” fabric was produced in America specifically for corsetry
  • Silks, satins, & batistes for decorative outer layers were made in Italy
  • Nettings were used for summer corsets

(more on corsets below)

The early 1830s corset still had the Regency center front wooden busk to lift and separate, with soft corded channels or no stiffeners at all, and bust gussets and shoulder straps. Its purpose was more lifting and smoothing with the long silhouette and deemphasis on the waist


By the end of the 180’s the shape was still long with bust gussets and a center wooden front busk, but metal boning had been introduced with hip gussets that started to emphasis a small waist


By the mid to late 1840’s, the front metal hooking busk had been put into common use along with back lacing. The boning was metal and used more heavily to shape and control the body, especially to shape a narrow waist. The silhouette was shorter, but still lean through the hips because the skirts were narrow


By 1863 the corset had lost the bust and hip gores, and was heavily boned and designed for tight cinching and shaping all around, but especially designed to create a narrow waist. Fullness at the hips was hidden by huge skirts, so it didn’t matter about hips or rear ends. The desire to lift and separate the breasts had abated in favor of an almost natural breast position, which could be lifted or dropped depending on the activity and how tight the lacing was and how big the top of corset was made




  • Hair was neatly pulled back into a snood. Snoods were lace or linen coverings over most of the head or at least the back of the head, such as food service workers wear now
  • Snoods were worn in the evening too, but they were ornamented with pearls or other decorations for formal occasions
  • Hats were now small & worn tipped forward, as introduced by Eugenie, Empress of France
1860 hairstyles


  • Women wore a little rouge, powder, & eyebrow pencil
  • Less proper ladies wore pearl & violet powders & rouge
  • Women wore false ears complete with earrings
  • Parasols & pouch bags with wooden handles were carried by every woman
  • Gloves were worn constantly for each & every situation except meals when they were discreetly placed next to the napkin ring
  • Gloves were made of lace or silk net; often worked with gold threads for the upper classes
  • Early Victorian jewelry included a ribbon around the forehead with a jewel in the center (“ferronniere”)
1850s cross necklace and religious jewelry



Out of Regency; into Victorian

The year 1846 is part of the early Victorian Era.  1837 was the year Queen Victoria took the throne and began to lead fashion.  Prior to that, fashion had been transitioning out of the French focused Regency Fashion era, and into Victorian.

The Regency silhouette became stiffer as the waist dropped and the skirt widened heading into the Victorian era which started with the reign of the Queen of England’s coronation in 1837


From 1800-1836, the waistline kept dropping, the skirt got wider and stiffer, sleeves and necklines dropped an became structured and ornamented, and bonnets followed the hairstyle of the day.  The important evolution was that of the corset and the petticoat.  The corset went from a  soft, corded, and long garment used mainly to smooth out lumps, into a structured and controlling garment (see pages on the history of stays and corsets for details).

The petticoat went from wearing nothing at all underneath, to become bigger and wider and stiffer, with more and more added as the fashion evolved into the various silhouettes which varied by length or width of bodice and shoulders into the “hour glass” focused on a tiny waist, wide shoulders, and big hips covered in a huge skirt by the 1860’s.

You can see in the timeline above, that in 1846, the silhouette and the fashion ideal was rather a merge, or a transitional time between two rather extreme fashion ideals.  It ended up looking a bit “normal” to our modern eye.  Features of the 1846 silhouette are long center pointed bodice, moderate and long sleeves with somewhat dropped shoulder, moderately full and symmetrical small “bell” shaped skirt, some focus on a small waist though not extreme, natural breast position, and almost natural hair with small bonnet or head covering.


1846 exact. The high fashion ideal of the day for a high class woman dressing down, or a low class woman dressing up


The key to the 1846 fashion era are the undergarments, notably corset and petticoat.  These had probably changed the most as the desired silhouette evolved, and both were in transition of sorts between the Late Regency and Early Victorian styles.

As we see in the above silhouettes, a moderately wide skirt, dropped sleeves, almost natural waist and bust position, and symmetry marks 1845-46.  In 1835, the shape was created by one or two corded or stiffened petticoats worn over a shift, a soft corded corset, and no drawers.  By 1845 minimalistic drawers were being worn (a nod to Victorian morality and modesty – not to mention warmth at last).  Petticoats were still being corded and stiffened, but with the wider skirt, more petticoats were being added until the crinoline was made popular in about 1855.



1830s undergaments: shift, no drawers, soft long corset, and a corded petticoat


By 1834, a basic pair of split drawers with tucks, tucked chemise (formerly a shift), and still a long corset but one with metal busk and boning was transitional to the more extreme undergarments that would come in the 1860’s.


1859 undergarments were built to support the weight of the dress, but still retained the characteristics of the early ones


1858 catalog page showing the undergarments worn above


Mid – 1840s featuring front and back lacing, the wider symmetrical petticoat, the longer and more stiffened profile, and a chemise with a neckline to accommodate the new wide bodice with drop sleeves. There was still no crinoline, and multiple petticoats were worn as well as the use of tucks, cording, and various stiffeners put into the hem and around the body of the petticoat


High Fashion and the Wild West


Fashion is the result of what a woman knows about, has access to, can afford, and likes given her situation.


In 1878, Calamity Jane Scout & marksman (left) dressed very differently than Dora Hand, rich stage performer (right), even though both lived and worked in the newly settled West. You can see how high fashion translated into western functional fashion here

Before detailing the 1846 undergarments, we need to make a note about culture (refer to the Historical Context page for what was going on in the world, in America, and Pioneers in the West).  Historians document through diaries and records that women had to choose carefully what they would take headed west.  There are funny stories about trees full of crinoline hopes on the Oregon Trail where it headed into the mountains.

Women pioneers of the 1840’s were the first Euro-American females to traverse, and life on the trail was not as easy as it would have been a decade or two later as they were blazing the trail, literally and figuratively.  A woman traveling with her husband in a military or scientific expedition, or coming to serve as a missionary or with intent to settle, would have known about fashion from whereever it was she came from.

Some were making multiple “jumps west”, so might not have ready access to know what was fashionable.  Others might have catalogs or books like Godey’s although it is not likely she would have carried those with her due to weight and having little function.  At the end of the trail, and with railroads coming ever closer, however, she might have had access to catalogs and fashion ideas.

1848 fashion page from Godey’s Lady’s book showed frontier women what to aim for in fashion monthly

It is most likely she would hear about fashion through others: letters, notes, communication with those who followed her west.  It is very likely unless on a financed expedition such as by a church or organization, she would have little money.  It is even more likely she would not have access to materials, notions, fabrics unless it was carried by someone on the trail.

This is one of the reasons we would suggest the depiction to be a trader on the trail.  It would give Jessica’s character more access to materials, and a bit higher fashion knowledge than others who might be high in the mountains or far from supply chains that lay at the time along waterways and trails.  Her proximity to the junction of the trail and being a trader would give her time, money, and access to information and goods.

An important note though on women of the West which has been documented by historians: while most pioneers and settlers knew about what the current fashion in the east was, and wanted it, they were in actuality 5 or 6 years behind the current trends.  Women such as the mother, Caroline, in the Laura Ingalls Wilder fictionalized stories of their continued leaps in pioneering, often referred to her efforts to maintain the latest fashion, even if it meant sacrificing something or making her own bustle.  One can assume from various diaries and periodicals too, particularly of the homesteaders who came later in the 1880’s-1910’s, that they came from fashionable homes, and tried to retain some semblance of that.

Illustration from the Wilder “Little House” books often showed Ma in the latest style, while the girls were also stylish, though in the girl appropriate version. The writer often refers to what the mother wore and how that related to what others were wearing at the time; marking how the characters were very aware of fashion even in the wilderness and away from society

It would be assumed then, that we are actually building an 1840 ensemble, with as much “current fashion’ (1846ish) that the character could know about, want, or be able to implement.

How that comes out in production, actually comes down to the undergarments.  We must assume Jessica’s character was wearing some from 1840 like her good old corset for work, while retaining and building herself some of the latest fashion, though a “low fashion version” of it, for outer dress and accessories.  In other words, it’s most likely her undergarments might be out of date, and her accessories the latest fashion, with dresses varying depending on if it was for work, riding a horse, or going to town.

We find that typical of all historically accurate depictions.  Like today, a woman usually has at least one outfit to wear for “dress up”, one to work physically in or exercise, and at least one for the rest of the time while at home.


There were many “correct” types of corsets for the period 1840-46 because it was a transitional period between the soft, long, corded smoothing corsets of the late Regency, and the metal boned, stiff, shaping and waist cinching corset of the 1850’s forward.

The Regency era focused on “round pert apples on a tray”, or a lifted and separated and rounded breast.  They didn’t care much about what happened with the waist or hips, since the waistline was above the natural position and the skirt was full and one never saw the hips:

Regency corsets were still called stays, and featured a wooden busk down the center front to split up the breasts, and supportive bust gussets to shape the breasts into orbs. The rest was for smoothing


By 1839, the shape was still similar, but the bust gores had split into 4, metal boning had been added, and several styles started to lace in the front, although just back lacing was more common:

1839 corset with hip gores and split bust gores with a hook to carry the weight of the increasingly larger and stiffened and so very heavy petticoats. Note there is still a center busk, but it is curved, and there is boning instead of cording throughout. The hip is still of no concern, and the breasts are dropping down a bit into a more natural position although roundness was still preferred


The 1840 corset looked much like the late Regency one, but was stiffer and more forming. It still laced in the back




The 1840 and 1845 corsets continued to tighten up the waist, and to widen the gores at hip and bust as the fashionable silhouette had finally dropped to the natural waist position – and below as bodices elongated in center front. Additional boning and stiffening was added, and the breasts were deemphasized and dropped too


This 1842 extant corset features one of the early front closure metal busks – note how few hooks there are compared to today’s reproduction metal busks. This was a new invention, as well as steel boning which was still used sparingly. Note the gores have become longer and do not lift the breasts. There is still back lacing on this corset, but they would set the back lacing and then just hook it on using the busk, which is made easier with the few hooks.


The back of the 1842 corset above shows cross lacing and minimal boning


By 1845, not only was the corset become stiffer, boned with metal, and adding a metal busk, but it was also becoming a garment with aesthetic as well as pure functional purpose like this boudoir corset of 1845 from France. It still maintains the 4 gores alternating boning with cording and the large hip gore, but the breasts are barely split in the center, and are allowed to rest at the natural position. The corset itself has shortened in response to the center front of the fashionable ideal bodice which had shortened by then


As shown in this 1850 corset patent sketch, the corset had shortened appreciably, and was using the cut, panels, and boning to shape the body, This one has shoulder strapes and only back lacing, which was typical of a lower class or working corset. This was probably sold in a catalog as a low end inexpensive model for working women


This mid 1850’s corset brings back some of the characteristics of the early 1840’s corsets in the large round breast cups, 4 gored “demi-bust”, and flared hip gores, but note the gores have changed their shape entirely, and all metal boning and busk are added with front and back closure. This has a longer line and is leaner over the hips, which is how we know it precedes the crinoline and would have been worn under narrower skirts. It still emphasizes waist cinching, and is a logical selection for a depiction of a working or rural woman of the late 1840’s-50’s as for modern depictions it would suit for many decades later as an undergarment


1855 corset. As the 1860’s approached and the skirts got heavier and heavier as petticoats were stiffened with horsehair and wire, there were invented corsets that had a ridge along the bottom reinforced with wire to help hold up the skirts like this one. There were many patents on this type of corset. You can see the lines of the 1840’s in the 4 bust “demi-bust” gores, the later type of hip gores, and the emphasis on waist. The metal busk, lower position of the breasts, and emphasis on the waist marks this as being around or about the time the crinoline was introduced – just before. This too is good for our depiction with the longer lines of the 1840’s yet with the metal cinching and gores of the 1850’s.  Note the continued use of cording even this far away from Regency.  At this time it was used for decoration or in active corsets where easy bending at the hip or arms was needed.

A few more corsets appropriate for this depiction include a modern reproduction (woman) 1840’s “demi-bust” corset, and various details of late 1840’s, early 1850’s corsets.  We might consider front lacing which was typical of the time:



While the corsets were the key garment for the shape of the mid 1840’s, the petticoat is perhaps the most interesting in its evolution from Regency to early Victorian eras.

What started as nothing underneath in 1805, ended up being a voluminous over skirt with flounces worn over a crinoline hoop in the 1860’s.  In between those dates, was a continuous enlargement and aggrandizement.  It is logical that for an 1846 depiction then, the petticoat would be something “in between.

This is somewhat true, but as with all fashion eras, there is never a clear line that is cross between one thing and the next.  Some women quickly discarded the old and grabbed the latest and newest, while others clung to the old and never bought new.

In this, the rural and Western depiction must be taken as priority in selection.  Also in consideration, as with the corset, is the ability to stretch the depiction somewhat to get the most for her money.  Since there were women with any of the style below in the 1850’s, we will consider for design develop (next page) fair game.

The main thing to remember is that until structures like crinolines and bustles were invented, except for the paniers of the 18th century, the petticoat had to facilitate and create the silhouette, and particularly the silhouette of the skirt.

In the early 1840’s, when the skirt had just reached the natural waistline, petticoats were worn one at a time, or maybe two in winter.  Since drawers had just been invented and were not widely worn, many petticoats were quilted and made of multiple layers for warmth and modesty.  As drawers became more popular, the quilted and multiple petticoats were reduced in weight and size, but then stiffened.


The tucked and/or corded petticoat of the 1830’s and 1840’s


Early 1840s brown silk tucked and quilted with plain flat waistband


Reproduction modern tucked and corded late 1830’s petticoat


Stiffening early on was made by adding layers of tucks, which worked not only in making fullness, but also increased the thickness for warmth.  A tucked petticoat of the 1830’s and ’40’s achieved a narrow rounded shape and moved like a bell going “ding dong”.  The waistbands were wide and high to reduce fullness at the waist, as a narrow waist began to take emphasis:

1840’s tucked petticoat cotton
Horsehair, which was braided into a flat and about 3″ wide strip was inserted into large tucks that ran around the skirt to hold it out at the bottom. Some women added this and wire themselves to an otherwise plain tucked or corded petticoat. This allowed women to wear less layers


1840’s quilted wool. Notice even without a waistband, the heavy and thick petticoat allows a narrow waist . These were used for warmth and stiffening, and there were many function and plain types of quilting to fancy and ornate quilting. Petticoats of this type and this era might be easily confused with 18th century petticoats as they have similar techniques and silhouettes. The major difference is that in the 18th century petticoats were usually overlapped front and back and had narrow tape waistbands, whereas these closed in back, but not always in either situation


Quilted and wired petticoat from the 1840’s. Some women added wire themselves around the circumference at the hemline. Note the binding on the hem edge. This is also a Colonial 18th century technique


another example of an 1840’s silk quilted petticoat with flat waistband with closure in back


Not every petticoat of the 1840’s was elaborate or structured.  It is most likely pioneer and Western women made themselves and wore a simple petticoat of plain cotton muslin, especially if they were wearing drawers.  Ones like these would be easy to store and wash along the trail, and could be used for other things as they wore out, like menstruation aprons.


1840s simple petticoat


As the 1840’s turned into the 1850’s, the skirt continued to widen, and the bodice to shorten.  To get the fullness, ruffles were added to the bottom in addition to tucks, cording, and wire.


1850’s pattern for modern reproduction




Late 1850’s corded, tucked, ruffled, petticoat. Note the fuller fabric at the waist and the narrower waistband


As with this 1850’s wedding petticoat, sometimes multiple rows of ruffles were used instead of tucks and cording


It was bound to happen that someone would expand the idea of wires and horsehair into a tape and wire or metal contraption called the crinoline hoop by the end of the 1850’s.  It started as a “matinee skirt”, or a structured contraption that looked a lot like the corded and wired petticoats of the 1840’s, but added industrial strength.  This allowed women to wear only the “skirt” plus one lighter petticoat over it to hide the divots and wires.



Once the crinoline was invented and widely used by the end of the 1850’s, the cords and ruffles came back in full force, but this time to emphasize shape in key areas of the skirt like the bottom and center.  The cords and tucks were only augmenting the structural support.

Late 1850’s reproduction petticoat with tucks and ruffle. Note the fabric is now much lighter so as not to crush the crinoline before, so the ribs are visible. This issue would be dealt with into the 1860s


Some petticoats of the 1850’s wore big flounces over the crinoline or without it instead of multiple layers of petticoats like in this modern reproduction


Throughout the timeframe, and in 1846, any or all of these would have been worn.  Which and the type of stiffener would have depended on her location and access to materials; more likely on the ast would be the new crinoline and extreme stiffeners.  In the west or with the pioneer, it would be very simple with some stiffening, but not to excess.  It’s more likely they would have retained in the West multiple layers and quilted layers for warmth or seasonal variation.  It is also likely they would wear drawers and a lighter petticoat for function.



1848 was the Early Victorian Era, and the early 1840’s were a transitional time as we have seen for petticoats and corsets.  Regarding what was worn “at the bum” however, it was a time of innovation.

Up until about 1836, women wore NOTHING underneath their petticoats except a shift or chemise.  The terms were used interchangeably depending on if you were in England (shift), or France (chemise) for a time, as were the terms “drawers” (English) and “pantalettes” (French).  Each of those terms could mean any number of garments, especially in the United States where influence from both countries was felt.  It is commonly accepted now in referring to the Colonial era as wearing “shifts”, and the Victorian “chemise”.  Regarding the lower half, either term is acceptable.

The first “pantelettes” originated in France it is assumed, and they were worn on a pair of suspender like straps over the shoulders, and not around the waist.  Because these were introduced in about 1810 when the long straight line of the early Regency was still popular before skirts began to widen, it was necessary to reduce bulk around the middle.  The waistline of gowns at that time were under the bust, so there was no desire to wear something around the waist itself.

Modern pattern for early Regency split drawers or pantalettes
Extant early Regency pantalettes with waist strap and shoulder straps with the straight legs for no bulk under the long, straight silhouette of the day

In the mid 1830’s, with the skirts wider and stiffer, and the waistline dropping towards the natural waist position, a new and short type of drawer was introduced in lady’s magazines as simple patterns that could be made at home out of any materials on hand.  The favorite in the US became American sourced cotton as, the country led world production of cotton by 1820, so it was cheap and readily available to any woman.

Early patterns of the 1830’s had a short and somewhat diaper like drawer that did not have a split, but had to be untied at the waist and pulled down, much like shorts today

While these would seem to be the best to our modern mind, one must remember they were wearing corsets at the time which were longer than the waist, and becoming more structured and more tightly laced.  That meant the closed (meaning no gap to pull open to use the necessary) drawer had to be pulled down; nearly impossible if worn under the corset.  As the waist of the skirt and petticoat reached the natural position, and the smooth long bodice was introduced by 1840, wearing the closed drawers over the corset meant bulk.

Taking a clue from the French boudoirs (the French seemed to always lead boudoir and high fashion even with Victoria leading worldwide fashion), the “split” or “open” drawers was invented.  Like the term “pair of bodys”, it was always called in plural – never “drawer”, but “drawers”.

Early 1840’s split drawers with “flap over” button waist


The 1840 versions, still not widely worn except in places needing them for modesty or warmth such as with pioneers, were still long with a vertical silhouette, flat and wide waistband to reduce fullness, and minimal fullness through the hips.  These early drawers were split, and were ornamented much like the accompanying petticoat with tucks, broidery lace, and cording, but not ruffles (yet).

1850s drawers added a bit of fullness at the calf to accommodate ever widening skirts. They were longer, as skirts were now at ankle or ground length instead of “high ankle” as in the 1830’s


They were simple, basic, somewhat plain.  Some buttoned and some tied.  At this time closure were generally center front.  As the desire for smaller waists progressed into the 1860’s, closures would move to the sides and always button like a flap.  Drawers at this time were worn under the corset always. It would not be until the late 1880’s that the drawers would be worn over the corset when the gored skirt was introduced.

The shape and design of drawers always worked to maintain the desired silhouette of the outer garments.

1852 drawers were longer and had tucks or lace at the bottom with minimal fullness on top. They were split, worn under the corset, and often replicated the design/decoration of the petticoat and chemise


Through the 1850’s, the style remained straight, but fullness and weight was added at the bottom as the drawers continued to elongate as the skirts got longer.  They were still minimal on top with an effort to reduce fullness at the waist.  By the 1860’s, fullness was desired just below the waist and all the way down, as long as it was not AT the waist, so the long drawers remained popular, but ruffles and fancywork were added at the bottom.

1861 Godeys Ladys book shows the increasingly full split drawers with the tapered waist for low flatness and a much fuller body overall and at the knee. As the 60’s progressed, the ruffled fullness would drop to high or mid calf position to help make the huge silhouette of the crinoline skirt


This 1869 page from Godey’s shows an evolution into even more fullness at top and bottom of chemise and drawers in response to the changing silhouette. As the 70’s progressed, they would be combined into the “combination” in order to remove all fullness at the waist and in front when the bustle era began, illustrating again that the undergarments reflected and were the base for the desired outer silhouette

Drawers and chemise were generally sold and worn together as a “set”, or at least somewhat coordinated with each other and the petticoat.  These were simple garments easy to sew on one’s own, and cheap to buy from a catalog or store, although at this time even the WORD “leg” was forbidden by most society, so they would never be displayed in a general store.

As illustrated above, undergarments reflected and created the desired silhouette of the day.  Coming out of the very low Regency bodices with their puffy sleeves in the late 1820’s, the chemise was a very plain garment with slightly full sleeves and an adjustable neckline by tie string.

The 18th and early 19th century shift had underarm gussets, slight gores, and a drawstring neckline

By 1840, with a “bertha” collar and sleeves dropped over the natural shoulder, the chemise had to follow the shape too, or it would be visible outside the dress.  A new shape of drop shoulder was created, with buttons instead of ties, and the start of fancy work in the form of lace and broiderie on the top only.  The bottom was left the same as the Regency fashion with a simple hem and small gores, as bulk through the middle was still undesirable with the waist of the gown at the natural waistline by the mid 1840’s.

The 1840 chemise had a wide over the shoulder neckline that buttoned instead of tied, and some fancy work along the neck and sleeve edges. They made sure this could not be seen from the outside though


Late 1830s and early 1840’s undergarments still had a somewhat vertical look to them, and the chemise still poufed out a bit at the neckline with puffy sleeves. Pockets had not been invented yet, so they were still wearing the Colonial pocket around the waist


Underneath the quilted petticoat, straight split drawers might or might not have been worn as they had just been “invented” and were not in universal use.  This might be what it looked like under the garments above

As the skirts were dropping to ankle or floor length from the above ankle position of the mid 1830’s, so did the chemise, as it was worn under the corset at this time, and if it was too short, it would pouf out at the hips.  Later that would be considered an asset, but with the long tapered front bodice, a longer and tapered chemise was still desired in the mid 1840’s.

By the 1850’s, like the drawers, the chemise had lengthened to high calf, and was become more ornate.  The shoulder continued to drop so that any fullness was well below the natural shoulder line.  It was a difficult fit to keep it from falling off the shoulders, but this design allowed a woman to wear the same chemise for evening wear with low shoulders, or day wear which covered the shoulders, but still had a dropped seam.  As with every era, the shape of the sleeves augemented and assisted the growing fullness of the outer garment’s sleeves.

This modern sewing pattern exemplifies the 1840’s into 1850’s chemise and drawers.


A few extant examples of 1840’s and 1850’s chemises (first one is a modern replication).  Note the similarities in the 1 1/2″ facing around the neckline, position over the shoulders, different types of sleeves, and center drop that has fancy work and typically a button closure in front.  Most did not have ruffles or fullness at center front, but rather “swooped” down low so that it would not be seen under a low evening neckline.

Note also that almost without exception, these were made of a lightweight and almost sheer cotton fabric in white or bright white that could easily be washed and bleached.  Cotton by the 1840’s was readily available and cheap in America and the American west.  Women made their own cotton crocheted laces, as thread was available too.  Later fancy work would be mass produced and readily available too.

Today, one can find antique garments for sale feature beautiful tatting and crochet on undergarments.  Many of the delicate cotton fabrics have deterioriated (as some of the American cottons were not that high in quality), but the laces remain on the market for sale with fragments of the original chemise clining on.





1828 shift. Note the gores and capped sleeves of many of the 1840’s and 1850’s chemises are the same as the 18th century drawstring tied shift. Sleeves of some sort were necessary as the bottom “wicking” layer to absorb sweat so the corset and outer garments would not have to be washed

By the 1860’s, the shift might be long or short, but the addition of a corset cover in much the same design and construction would be added to the undergarment package.  In the 1840’s and 1850’s, a corset cover was somewhat an optional item and not widely worn as they would be at the end of the century.

The 1865 corset cover looks much like the 1840 chemise, only shorter and worn over the corset rather than under it


Even in the West 1845-46

Examples of 1846 specific dresses and outer garments follow.  Note that the silhouettes, shapes, bodices, skirts, and fabrics are consistent throughout regardless of whether it is “high” or “low” fashion; pioneer/settler or from the east coast or Paris.

Look for the long center front bodice, drop sleeves, low horizontal neckline, long sleeves, somewhat full but narrow belled skirt with stiffener at the bottom, bonnets (prairie for work; straw for dress up), and unique hair of the day.  Note how the corset and petticoat are the key to obtaining and keep these silhouettes:




Late 1830’s; everyone looked like Victoria and Albert on fashion plates


1840, still looks like Regency except the skirt




Even little girls wore what their mothers wore. Note the plaid fabric Queen Victoria made popular at this time






The bloomer was a noticeable addition on the Oregon Trail, although it was not worn until about 1895 when women valued it for sportwear


Garments in museums from 1844-49




































1856 evening





1859 maternity



When one thinks about Victorian footwear, one pictures a leather black boot that buttons up on the sides, or laces up the front.  The zipper would not be invented and put into a hiking boot until 1922, and there was no elastic, so the construction and fit of footwear had to have flexibility to get it on and off – especially considering “right and left” shoes would not be invented for another decade.

Yes, that means a boot or shoe would fit either foot in the 1840’s.  Of course, since only natural materials were available – hides, leather, silk, fabric – as plastics and petroleum products were not invented either, they would stretch and form over the foot to make a kind of “left and right”, but they were not build nor designed as such.

The 1840’s built on the concept of the Regency slipper, which was very much like today’s ballet shoes.  They even had the same square toe as a ballet shoe, and sometimes would be stuffed.

Modern pattern developed from Regency 1820’s slippers shows a square toe and slight heel for wear. The left facing is a modern adaptation for the modern wearer and is not authentic to the era

The Regency slipper might have a heel tap (the small crescent under the heel), but generally did not have a hard sole.  It was made of silk or fabric with some sort of paper stiffener like cardboard.  You can see a general progression towards a show made of more durable material like thick leather.  As the 1830’s progressed though, stronger heel taps and leather soles were added. The shoes below made of kid and/or silk are currently on sale for $800-$1000.

1800 slippers




Early 1830s (top) and late 1830s (bottom show the gradual “hardening” and toughness being added to the shoe

By the 1840’s, the low, ballerina type shoe had grown to encompass the ankle and lower calf.  It became a “boot”.  While many were still made of silk or other fabrics, most, and those of the every day woman, were made of leather that was softened so the “boot” was more like a cozy slipper.  Since there were still no “left and rights”, the leather had to be kid or something soft or it would hurt the foot.

1835 to 1840 boots


1835 to 1840 women’s leather shoes front lacing


Queen Victoria of England liked to wear flat slippers more like the earlier Regency Era even into the 1840’s like this pair of hers, made in England of course!


Lacing in the mid 1840’s was typically done on the inside or outside of the “ankle boot”, and kid leather was still a favorite.  As the 1850’s progressed, center front lacing became popular, and the leather used was thicker and stiffer.  By the mid 1850’s, a thick and durable sole with a heel was added.  These had a replaceable heel tap since the leather was still not that strong.

1838 heeled boots with side lacing


Late 1840s leather and silk side lacing boots


Late 1840s silk lacing boots

The sole and tap were installed separately, but by the 1860’s the sole and heel were one piece together, and the right and left had been introduced.   Right and left shoes became readily available in about 1860 when the techniques of shoemakers changed to make the cutting and construction of a right and left possible.  At that time, a pair of shoes or boots was custom made to the person’s right and left foot as separate pieces and not built as an identical pair, although they were sold as such.

Late 1840s shoes pull on with corded pull ties


Late 1840’s “gauntlet” type boot on top with a very common soled leather side lacing version n the bottom. Note the deep rich natural dye colors of the leather


By the end of the 1850’s, more boots had heels and heel taps.  The sturdy “block” type of heel would lead into the next fashion of the front lacing tall or high calf boot that is more widely associated with the Victorian era.

Late 1850’s wedding boots of kid leather matching gloves of same kid (top), and 1860’s integrated heel higher lacing boot that would evolve into the “prairie boot” modern minds are accustomed to associating with Victorian fashion


Early 1860s footwear fashion plate shows the increasingly higher heel and tall boot of the mid Victorian era that would follow

From the 1700’s until about 1900, women wore over-the-knee stockings with garters.  There were many, many types made of every kind of thread or yarn: wool for working and warmth, silk for special, cotton when available, and blends of woven commercial or hand knit fibers.  All were left white or natural to the type of material used, such as the grays and browns and whites of a sheep, or the various whites and yellows of natural American cottons.

Some were dyed with the same natural colors, and imported stockings such as silk were dyed overseas using the same techniques as for fabric.

There were integrated patterns using same color and same fiber, as well as woven and embroidered fancy work, lace, or intricate “clock work”.  A most typical favorite was to have a contrasting color interwoven into a pattern down the outside of the calf.

1840’s extant “clocked” stockings over the knee. Note the square toe that matches the shoe toe


While stockings got longer so they could be clamped into hooks sewn onto the longer corsets of the 1880’s, for the most part they remained over the knee and were held in place by a garter.  18th century garters could be as simple as a strip of fabric tied around the leg, or a complex reticulating metal looped contraption that dug into the skin and made it bleed.

Some were woven so there was a tight bias band on the top that could stretch to put it on, but still hold to the leg.  Most were tied with something.

Today we wear over the knee stockings that have lycra (rubber product) woven in that makes it “sticky” to the leg and holds tightly all the way to the top so garters nor clamps are needed.

1830’s silk stockings with intricate weave


Real Women of the day

The hair of the 1840’s has been of interest to historians and interpreters more than probably any other era than Regency.  This is because most modern people really don’t like the style.

As the photos and portraits of real women of the 1840’s and ’50’s show, the predominant hairstyle for women of all classes and locations was a type of braid wound tightly into a “cinnabon” and worn low on the back of the head or the sides.

The looping braids over the ears or “spaniel ears” were very popular as directed by Queen Victoria.  All her staff wore them.

Older women who had lived through late Colonial and Regency eras, still clung to a type of “lappet cap” for home wear.  These were generally somewhat sheer in this era, and allowed women to not have to wash and braid their hair.

A few of the corkscrew curls around the face were still worn as a carryover of the prior era, but the very smooth, side/center parted hair with the looping front sides was still the most popular for younger and fashionable women.  There were many odd configurations of the looping of the braids as split on two sides of the heads as per the last two photos.


It is likely a woman pioneer or settler of the West would just part her hair and pull it back into a tight bun low on the neck, or even wear a ponytail in private, but the tail would be low and run down the back of the neck to appear like this.  She appears to be wearing a hairnet, indicating this photo might have been taken in the 1860’s rather than the 1840’s as the uncovered head with bonnet was the norm (uncovered at home, covered by bonnet when out)


Day cap reminiscent of the Regency era on older women







Emily Dickenson


Even naturally curly hair was tamed into braids and controlled corkscrews on the side back of the head



Note the smooth center parts of all of these daughters with their mother. Note the long bodices and dropped shoulders of their dresses as well as the interesting fabrics and dress closures (hooks or buttons in front)


We present this from word for word, or go to the link to see their original:

The typical hairstyle of the 1840s and 1850s was a bun at the back of the head with slight variations. At the beginning of the 1840s the bun was worn low, in the later 1840s it was worn high at the back of the head, and in the 1850s it was again worn low in the neck. The hair was parted in an Y shape, which can be seen in this 1854 painting. The bun could be just a twisted strand of hair; but the hair could also be braided (-> my tutorial) or rope braided before it was put into a bun. For evening wear the bun was more elaborate.


During the day, the hair was usually covered: indoors with a day cap, and outside with a bonnet. The day cap (other names: morning cap or breakfast cap) was worn worn in the early part of the Victorian era by all women (young, unmarried and married women), later just by married women, and since the 1860s or 1870s mainly by older, married women. The front hair was worn in curls or loops.

Early 1840s hairstyles (low bun)

‘The front hair in bands, with or without the ends braided, and turned up again, or in long full ringlets. The back hair is still worn dresses as low as possible at the back of the neck, in braids, chignons, and rouleaux.’  (1840, Godey’s Lady’s Book) Here’s an 1841 painting and 1842 painting of Queen Victorian wearing a low bun with braided loops over the ears.

Mid to late 1840s hairstyle (side ringlets, high bun)

The hair is still being worn in full ringlets on each side, the back part tastefully arranged in plaits caught with a handsome comb’ (1843, Godey’s Lady’s Book). Here’s an 1844 photograph of a woman with ringlets and a braided bun worn high on the head. Here’s a similar hairstyle in a painting from 1848. In 1852, this hairstyle was still worn.

Mid 1840s to mid 1850s hairstyle (loops over the ears)

Here’s a 1845 photograph of a woman wearing hair loops covering her ears. She also wears her bun a bit lower as in this 1849 painting of a similar hairstyle. The bottom of the hair loop in this 1850 painiting is nearly parallel to the floor, while late 1850s side loops of hair are more sloping. In 1855, the same hairstyle was worn, but with the bun a bit lower. And a variation of the hairstyle: this woman wears a braid over her ears (1853 painting).




Where Hair goes, So Goes the Hat

It is important to note that in any fashion era, the hair determines the shape of the bonnet.  As hair goes wide or high, so goes the bonnet.  In 1846, with hair piled on the sides and low in the back, of course the bonnet would have a crown that was low and deep, and wide in front so the hard work of the braids or curves would show.

Rural or Urban?

The type of bonnet worn at this time depended on where a woman lived and what she was doing.  Predominant in the West was the need to protect ones head from the elements: to stay warm in the cold, protect from the wind, keep sun out of one’s eyes, and keep cool in the heat.  On top of that, as the 1850’s approached, was the rising concept that a woman was demure and weak.  She covered herself from head to foot in order to appear to be tiny and diminutive which was the ideal of the day.

This translated itself in the types of bonnets worn.  All practical to some extent, they all had the same characteristics as the Regency bonnet: crown, brim, bavolet (curtain in back or neck covering), and some sort of adjustment tie or lacing.

This complete covering of ones neck from the gaze of men, served double purpose to keep the neck from being sunburned.

There were many types of bonnets worn by pioneers and settlers.  Which kind depended largely on the season, work being done, availability of materials, and ability of the woman to make them herself.  The “prairie bonnet” might be slatted, padded, roved, folded, wide brimmed, narrow brimmed, or flat crowned but they all had: covering by the brim of the whole face with shielding from the side, adjustable soft crown of some sort, bavolet or neck curtain.

Fabrics for the prairie bonnet were of whatever was available, and often all mixed up with different fabric scraps used for different parts.  It was not unusual the bonnet didn’t match anything, including itself.

Examples of several types of 1840-50’s prairie bonnets are below.

Prairie Bonnets

Wadded (filled with wool roving or cotton fill):

Wadded – for cold weather climates, the rows are stuffed with wool roving for warmth and insulation. These are actually comfortable in the heat too as the wool blocks the heat of the sun and maintains head temperature. They are actually very light in weight and fit like today’s sports helmets


Quilted: with cotton or wool:

Quilted and or roved. Some are quilting and stuffed with cotton or other types of batting in additiont to wool. Again, for cold weather climates typically, some of the fashionable types like below were worn as a cloak type hood with a matching shawl or clack


Slat: flat inserts for rigidity:

The slatted bonnet with long bavolet was quite typical on the prairie for working outside in hot summers in a field with the sun beating down on you and the wind blowing dirt in your eyes. This one is a bit fancier than most with its many ruffles. most were plain. The slates might be wood chips, although today’s are made with cardboard. There is a slit at the front edge so the slat material can be removed for washing, as women would get very sweaty in these and they were washed somewhat often

Slatted and Quilted: reinforced brim with insulation:

This quilted and slatted bonnet has been made warmer for winter, but shows the shape of the typical prairie bonnet nicely if you strip away the trim. It has a long brim to cover the face, with an adjustable flexible fabric crown, and bavolet. instead of ties, this one has a double lappet front for extra protection. Many of these were made with double tie strings overlapping each other so one would hold the bonnet on under the chin, and the other was for decoration


Reinforced brim:

The most typical prairie bonnet was not slatted, but instead had the full brim stiffened. Here the method of construction can easily be seen with the side panels. These might of been made with wool or cotton; printed or plain depending on what was available. They were available from catalogs, though most were made by hand at home


This shows a gingham print in the most typical prairie style, but has a unique front trim method


Flared Brim & Fanchon Bonnets

For going to town, dressing up, or not working, because the “diminuitive woman” had to cover herself up as much as possible in public, a version of the prairie bonnet evolved into something like a Regency bonnet with a small brim.

This flared brim bonnet would evolve in the 1860’s into the Fanchon: a wide coned shaped brim with scant back which still looked somewhat like the prairie crown but was made stiff, and with ties for the neck and a short bavolet covering the neck:



1852 Flared Bonnets straw or wool stiffened and covered in part or whole by fabric and/or decoration


Fanchon of the 1860’s


Some flared bonnets were very simple and of straw with a silk flower or two.  Some were corded like a petticoat and stuffed or quilted.  Others were covered in silk or other fancy fabrics with lots of ribbon and lace.  The most basic was worn across the country, and it was a dyed straw that was shaped on a wooden form by a milliner, and decorated at home by the woman herself.  She would change decoration to match her gown or to adjust to the changing fashion or the time of year.



1850 extant day bonnets



1850s flared bonnets


Hybrid Bonnets

At the time, there were long, scoping prairie bonnets that were made rigid into a longer version of the flared bonnets.  There were also flared bonnets made soft and adjustable with the shape of a flare, but the function of a soft prairie bonnet.  It seems at the time, the bonnet’s function might have taken priority, at least compared to other fashion eras.

In the West or with a pioneer, she most certainly would have chose function first, so it is most likely the type of bonnet selected would have suited what she did for a living – however – it is logical most women would also have a special bonnet of some sort to wear when “dressing up”.

Catalog page from the 1850’s with instructions on how to make a flared x prairie bonnet out of a handkerchief


Prairie bonnets with stiff brims and crowns were hybrids of the soft functional kind and those for dress up. One would assume the black one would have been worn to protect a woman from blowing snow and cold, while still being fashionable



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