Thumbnail Image

Dressing like Laura: Reconstructing women's dress on the Great Plains frontier through the national Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum's dress 2829

Patton, Claire
This project explores why women on the 19th century Northern Great Plains frontier continued to follow Euro-American modesty and fashion conventions and purposefully sought out fashionable clothing. In the popular imagination, the frontier was an egalitarian space with minimal cultural constraints; theoretically, it was a place where women could wear clothing that did not align with overall Victorian norms. Yet women from Dakota Territory, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Montana from 1875 to 1885 continued to wear corsets, wrist length sleeves, and ankle-length skirts and even spend their families’ hard-earned money on decorative clothing.
In the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum there is a silk dress which this project recreates. The most recent historiography of experimental archeology defines the practice as “the reconstruction of past buildings, technologies, things, and environmental contexts, based on archaeological evidence, and their use, testing, recording, and experience. Through these we are better able to understand the character and role of materiality and material culture in peoples’ lives.” This project continues the field’s turn towards phenomenology and embodied history.
Practicality would dictate that settlers eschew fashion norms and dress conventions, but fashion is far more than practicality. Clothing is a physical manifestation of culture and a symbol of the wearer’s morality, class, gender, race, and respectability. This reality was no different on the frontier. Women expressed a desire to return to the lifestyle they had before arriving there. By wearing normative Euro-American clothing, a woman signaled to herself and others that she was still respectable and adhering to societal norms; she had not become uncivilized in the West, and the realities of frontier had not overcome her. Through continuing to follow Euro-American modesty conventions in their everyday clothing and wearing fashionable clothing that served no practical purpose, women were signaling a desire for Euro-American culture to continue and thrive in a frontier space. Clothing was an expression of the hope that one’s burdens were temporary, and a declaration that the supposed wildness of frontier had not consumed the women.