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Fashion Along the Overland Trail

There was, of course, no standard emigrant costume for crossing the Plains, as Merrill Mattes points out in his Great Platte River Road, but the prevailing styles may be noted. Emigrant J. M. Shively advised prospective emigrants in 1846: “Let each man and lad be provided with five or six hickory shirts, one or two pair of buckskin pantaloons, a buckskin coat or hunting shirt, two very wide brimmed hats wide enough to keep the mouth from the sun. For the want of such hat thousands suffer nearly all the way to Oregon, with their lips ulcerated, caused by sunburn. Take enough coarse shoes or boots to last you through–three or four pair a piece will be sufficient.”



The Forty-Niners a few years later were mostly unpretentious young men from farms and villages in plain, utilitarian clothes. They might have a red flannel shirt or a pair of fancy boots, but most wore drab hickory or butternut shirts, stout homespun pants, and rather shapeless wool hats. Delos Ashley’s wardrobe consisted of “one strong winter suit, with a change of drawers, shirts and sox.”



Insight into feminine apparel is given by emigrant Lavinia Porter: “I started out with two blue cloth travel dresses with an array of white collars and cuffs, . . . . These were soon discarded. . . . Fortunately I had with me some short wash dresses which I immediately donned, tied my much betrimmed straw hat up in the wagon, put on a big shaker sun-bonnet and my buckskin gloves, and looked the ideal emigrant woman.”



The big fashion note of the California Gold Rush was ladies’ bloomers, popularized by Amelia Bloomer, an early advocate for women’s rights. Strange as they appeared, they were much more practical than long skirts and dresses that collected dust and mud and were torn to ribbons on the trail. Ezra Meeker noted, “Of the fortitude of the women one cannot say too much. Embarrassed at the start by the follies of fashion, they soon rose to the occasion and cast false modesty aside. Long dresses were quickly discarded and the bloomer donned.”



Whatever their costumes, a few weeks on the trail altered emigrants’ appearances drastically. When their shoes wore out, the travelers went barefoot if they had no replacements. Moccasins–if available–were an alternative. Washing and shaving were discontinued by many men. Emigrant Henry Coke claims he bathed once a week, but concedes that “not one man in 20,000 washes his face once a month,” explaining that “as to appearances, they are no object here.” 

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