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Wild Women Of The West: A Fashionable Encounter

COWGIRL LIFE

Wild Women Of The West: A Fashionable Encounter Before heading west, pioneers consulted guidebooks for advice on suitable dress for the trip.

pioneer fashionable 1800s fashion cowgirl magazine

A hot July breeze skidded across the banks of the Green River south of Fort Bridger, Wyoming.  The clear water flowed swiftly past a grove of trees, waving with the wind. The grass on both sides of the river was spangled with flowers.

Elizabeth Graves, a handsome woman in her late 40s, was decorating a tree branch hanging over the water’s edge with bluebonnets.  She was dressed in a green calico garment with short sleeves, lace collar and lace caplets. Her long brown hair was twisted in a bun on top of her head.

Elizabeth’s husband Franklin stood nearby, looking uncomfortable.  He tugged at the tie around the neck of his linen pullover shirt as he dragged a couple of chairs out of the back of the wagon and sat them under the copse of trees.  He stopped to admire the placement of the chairs and adjust the pant-leg of the scratchy wool trousers he was wearing. His steady, steel blue eyes were wet from crying.  Three of the Graves’ children, ranging in age from five to nine, brushed by Franklin as they chased one another around the wagon. He backhanded the tears out of his eyes and smiled after his brood.

“I can’t believe my little girl is getting married,” he told his wife after a few moment’s contemplation.  

“She’s not so little,” Elizabeth replied.  “She’s twenty. She’s older than I was when we got married.”

“Is that right?”  Franklin shrugged.

“You don’t remember?”  she quipped impatiently.

“That was a hundred years and nine children ago, Lizzie,” he retorted.  Franklin stared out over the water then turned to Elizabeth and smiled confidently.  “Ray Fosdick is a good man,” he said. “He’s a good worker. He’ll make a good husband.”

“And she’ll make a good wife,” Elizabeth added.

“That she will,” Franklin agreed.

Elizabeth walked over to a baby’s crib sitting by the wagon, reached down and picked up her nine-month-old son.  Franklin strolled over to her and kissed her on the cheek and she handed him the bluebonnets.

“Why don’t you finish putting those posies around,” she suggested.  “I’ve got to change your son. All we want anyone to smell at this wedding are the wildflowers.”  Franklin grinned, then buried his nose in the bouquet.

The Franklin’s daughter, Mary, walked along he hillside overlooking the setting.

She strolled through a colorful assortment of blossoms, carefully selecting the best flowers and adding them to a bouquet she had started and had bound together with a lace ribbon.  Mary looked up from her work and gazed out at the marvelous valley spread out before her. A gentle breeze blew past her and she held out her arms pretending to be caught up in the wind.  The edges of her hand-sewn cape with a delicate, blue rose pattern danced over her hoopless, straight, cotton skirt. Without thinking she opened her hand and the loose flowers scattered about.  The wind blew the flowers across the ground and over to the feet of Charles Stanton. Charles, an attractive, bespectacled man of medium height and build, bent down and retrieved the bundle. His opened vest with wide fashionable lapels revealed a soft display of ruffled material running up and down his chest.  His trousers were loosely tucked into his wide-mouthed boots.

“These must belong to you,” Charles said to Mary as he handed her the bouquet.

Mary smiled politely.  “Actually, they’re for my sister,” she said.

“I can help you pick more flowers if you like,” Charles offered.

“Thank you,” she replied, “I can manage.”

Mary bent down to pick more flowers and Charles watched her closely.

“I hope I’m not intruding,” he probed.

“Not at all,” she said kindly.

“It sure is beautiful here,” he added staring out over the valley.  “You can almost see right into the future.”

“And what does the future hold for you, Mister…?”  she inquired.

“Stanton, Charles Stanton,” he told her.  “In my future I see my own piece of land, my own home, my own hearth fire, the heads of my own horses looking over the gate bars for my hands to feed them.”

Mary giggled a little.  “You can see all that from here?”  she asked playfully.

“Can’t you, Miss…?”  Charles questioned.

“Mary Graves,” she said giving a slight curtsy.  “My view isn’t as clear. All I see is a new world filled with exciting prospects.”

“That’s good enough for now,” he assured her.

“Are you part of the Donner party heading out West too?” she asked.

“Yes,” he nodded.

Mary stared out at the beautiful view, took a deep breath of fresh air, then said, “I heard someone say that there’s no Sunday west of Independence, no law west of Dodge City, and no God west of Fort Bridger.”

“Don’t believe it, Miss Graves,” Charles said bending down to pick a particularly breathtaking flower.  He presented a delicate red bloom to Mary and she gave him a coquettish smile.

“I’ll see you on the trail, Mr. Stanton,” she promised.  

“Yes, ma’am,” Charles responded.

Mary pulled her blue slat bonnet hat down over her head and started down the hill.  Charles watched her disappear into the horizon.

The pilgrimage west was an arduous undertaking.  Emigrants hurriedly loaded their wagon trains with as many personal belongings as they could, and if they were unable to make what little they had fit, it was left behind.   Limited space forced many to wear all the clothing they owned on their backs. The basic outfit for a pioneer woman consisted of a gingham or calico dress, a sunbonnet, and a muslin apron.  Men pioneers wore simple overalls, cotton work shirts, and caps or broad-brimmed hats.

Many who made the trek were poor, possessing only a single pair of boots or shoes, the soles of which would be worn off long before arriving at their final destination.  Socks wore out as well, forcing settlers to wrap their feet in rags to protect them from the elements. When traveling through snow and ice, they wrapped their footwear in gunny sacks to keep their feet from freezing.

In preparation for the trip, women altered their dressed to make walking easier.  Several inches were cut off the bottom of the skirt and lead shot was sewn into the hem to keep the billowing material from blowing in the wind.  Men wore their trouser legs tucked into their boots for the same reason. Wearing them in this manner also kept out mud and reptiles. Pioneer women’s dresses were worn without a hoop, and the bodice was lined with canvas for strength and warmth.

Before heading west, pioneers consulted guidebooks for advice on suitable dress for the trip, and how to best protect the body against the direct rays of the sun and sudden changes in temperature.  If they acquired the necessary items listed, travelers were assured to be prepared for any possible condition.

A suitable dress for prairie traveling is of great import to health and comfort.  Cotton or linen fabrics do not sufficiently protect the body against the direct rays of the sun at midday, nor against rains or sudden changes of temperature.  Wool, being a non-conductor, is the best material for this mode of locomotion, and should always be adopted for the plains. The coat should be short and stout, the skirt of red or blue flannel, such as can be found in almost all the shops on the frontier:  this, in warm weather, answers for an outside garment. The pants should be of thick and soft woolen material, and it is well to have them re-enforced on the inside, where they come in contact with the saddle, with soft buckskin, which makes them more durable and comfortable.  

Woolen socks and stout boots, coming up well at the knees, and made large, so as to admit the pants, will be found the best for horsemen, and they guard against rattlesnake bites.

In traveling through deep snow during very cold weather in winter, moccasins are preferable to boots or shoes, as being more pliable, and allowing a freer circulation of the blood.  In crossing the Rocky Mountains in the winter; the weather being intensely cold, I wore two pairs of woolen socks, and square piece of thick blanket sufficient to cover the feet and ankles, over which were drawn a pair of thick buckskin moccasins, and the whole enveloped in a pair of buffalo-skin boots with the hair inside, made open in the front and tied with buckskin strings.

In the summer season shoes are much better for footmen than boots, as they are lighter; and do not cramp the ankles; the soles should be broad, so as to allow a square, firm tread without distorting or pinching the feet.

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