Costume Of The California Gold Rush



In 1999, I taught some costume classes through my local Parks and Rec program. Since I live in the California Gold Country, I decided to offer a course in the Gold Rush period. This page is based on my notes from my classes.

Studying the costume of the California Gold Rush is particularly challenging, because the Gold Rush changed many of the rules governing society.

The 1840's and 50's was a time of rigid social codes. For hundreds, even thousands, of years, people had lived in an unchanging class system. The idea of "bettering oneself", economically or socially, was not common. Most men either went into the same trade as their fathers, or one of an equivalent status. One was expected to work hard, respect one's betters, and set an example for one's inferiors.

While the American Revolution had brought about the extremely radical statement that all men were created equal, the actual development of the idea and its effects on society were still in their infancy. The country was only 73 years old when gold was discovered at Sutter's mill. Most people still expected that if they had been born poor, they always would be.

The one real outlet was education, as the early Americans, especially in New England, respected learning enough that a poor farmer might be proud to scrape together enough money, at huge sacrifice, to send a bright son to college. Often this was a family endeavor. One of the first opportunities open for women to work outside of a domestic setting was employment in the cotton mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, where many respectable New England girls worked to put their brothers through college, often risking their own chances of marriage and their health to do so.

The Gold Rush was to change all that forever. For the first time, "striking it rich" and becoming wealthy overnight was a possibility. A poor store clerk could, and did, spend a few years in the gold fields and return to become governor of his state. A woman could do the same domestic chores she had at home, but be paid an unbelievable amount for them. No longer was one doomed to spend a lifetime in honest study and toil, struggling for a living. A person could go to the gold fields and get rich quick. Even though the possibility rarely became reality, this idea entered the American psyche and never left. Today, the idea of the self made man getting rich quick is at the heart of the American ideal.

Back in the States, clothing reflected the rigid social system. By looking at a person, one could tell how old he was, what social level she occupied, how much money he had, what her marital status was, and where he lived. In California, all those signals became blurred and confused. One of the most refreshing parts of life in the gold fields was freedom to act, live, and dress, the way one wanted to.

The lack of a "service economy" in the gold country meant that even people, especially women, who were quite well off, found it necessary to do their own work, and that the menial occupations paid extremely well. All of these circumstances led to considerable blurring of the usual conventions. We find educated ladies of refinement living in dirt floored cabins, wearing dresses made of cheap calico with men's boots, at the same time as we find washerwomen dressed in the height of expensive fashion.

In order to give you the background necessary to understand the clothing of the time, I'll be covering what the normal standards were, and the exceptions to them that the Gold Rush influenced.


I feel I must apologise for the limited ethnicity discussed here. I simply did not have time for the several years of research I felt would be necessary to discuss the numerous ethnic groups who participated in the Gold Rush. rather than do an inadequate job, I have chosen not to discuss what I don't know. I hope to remedy this in the future, but, at present, the styles discussed are those of Americans and Europeans.


Where did they get their clothing?

Most clothing in the period was hand made at home by the women of the house, by dressmakers, or by tailors.

Women were trained in needlecraft from infancy, and were expected to spend a considerable portion of their time in the production of clothing for their families. While commercially woven fabrics were widely aailable, many rural people still spun and wove at least some of their cloth.

There were no commercial sewing patterns: clothes were cut from homemade draped, drafted, and fitted patterns, or an old garment might be picked apart and used as a pattern. Ordinary chemises and shirts were still cut on much the same rectangular lines that had been in use for a thousand years, because those methods were economical of fabric as well as requiring no complex patterning.

The sewing machine had been invented in 1838, but was not common for home use until after the Civil War. They were used for factory production, and mass producing garments for sale to gold miners was one of the earliest instances of mechanized garment factories in the US.

Almost as soon as the news of the gold discovery reached the East, entrepenuers began marketing products, including clothing, hats, and boots, to outfit men for the gold fields. Whole "California outfit" packages could be purchased, much like the Y2K survival kits being marketed at the time of this writing.

This would have been the first experience most people had of wearing mass produced, off the rack clothing,. and it may have been a factor in the widespread acceptance of ready-mades in the next decade, along, of course, with the factory made uniforms of the Civil War period.

Fine tailoring was a highly prized, and priced, skill, requiring a long apprenticeship to learn properly. However, in looking at period photographs it becomes sadly apparent that the majority of tailors were not terribly good. Most coats seen in portraits were indifferently fitted at best. This may have been due, in part, to the high price of clothing. It is likely that a man wore a coat until it fell apart, despite weight gain or other changes.

Those men who had not brought adequate clothing or who had been forced to abandon it during the arduous journey West found, when they arrived in California, that what clothing was available sold for highly inflated prices.

Clothing could be purchased from many merchants in the large cities such as San Francisco. Most stores of the period did not specialize: they were general stores.

In the gold fields, clothing could be purchased from traveling peddlars, or from small stores known as "slop shops". Some of these stores were canvas tents, or even peices of cloth stretched across bushes. The slop shops, while having limited facilities, carried a wide range of goods.

Many accounts of life in the gold fields mention the miners wearing very ragged clothing, although some of them treasured one decent shirt to wear on Sundays or to parties. On the other hand, the traveling cardsharps, gamblers, and others were often described as being quite nattily dressed.




Short drawers with a button fly and back belt were worn. This style is still a popular alternative to elastic waist boxers in Europe. . Long drawers were usually worn under wool trousers. The idea of wearing a hard to wash fabric next to your skin would have been repellent to a 19th century person.

Undershirts knitted of fine wool were similar to the Henley styles still available today. They were underwear only!! While a miner might work his claim in an undershirt, he would NEVER appear anywhere he might meet a lady in one. He would no more wear one into town than a modern man would go in his Jockey shorts. The one piece "union suit" or long johns was originally a health fad, and did not become generally accepted for several more decades.


Shirts were made in a variety of fabrics, including linen, cotton, leather, wool, and linsey woolsey, a linen-wool blend.

They were made in two basic styles, the drop shoulder, which is made entirely of rectangular pieces, and the curved armhole style still worn today, which was a new style in the 1840's. They did not button all the way up the front. Some shirts had a slit placket, with or without frills, and some had a buttoned placket. Dress shirts often had a "bib" placket with buttons or studs, trimmed with embroidery, frills, or pleats.

Shirt collars were straight bands, either cut wide enough to spread or to turn down over a cravat, or narrow bands with buttonholes for attaching separate collars with studs. Work shirts could have rounded breast pockets. Cuffs were wide, buttoned, and were often rolled up for work.

Shirts were often worn in layers for warmth, i.e. linen shirt with wool shirt over it. White was worn for best, solid colors, especially red and blue, for everyday. Stripes and checks were also popular.

White dress shirts were sometimes called "boiled" shirts after the practice of boiling them to launder them. They were heavily starched and ironed. A few miners in the gold field brought them along and wore them for Sundays and special occasions.

The art of laundering and ironing shirts was a major moneymaking opportunity for women, until male Chinese laborers took it up and dominated the business.

The style of western shirt known today as a "fireman's shirt" with the buttoned plastron front, was also worn, almost always in red or blue wool, although there were some novelty shirts with small figures of picks and miners resist-dyed on them, or embroidered with floral patterns.

Trousers were most often wool or "Jean" (a sturdy twill, wool, linen, or cotton) fabric. casual and work trousers were also made in corduroy, and sturdy canvas.

They were held up with buttoned suspenders, or with belts without belt loops. Dress trousers were fitted enough to stay up by themselves, but still worn with showy suspenders. They were worn at natural waist band (belly button height) not at the hips like modern jeans. No creases.

They often had a strap and buckle or lacing eyelets at the back waist to tighten them. The back waistline had two peaks with the suspender buttons at their apexes,. buttons at waistband, 4 in front, two in back, for suspenders.

The seat was baggy, the legs moderately so. The front fastening could be broad fall, a buttoned flap like sailors pants, narrow fall, an older version of the same style, or could have a concealed buttoned fly front . Pockets along the side seams, no back patch pockets. Dress trousers often had straps that fitted under the instep of the shoes, and narrower legs.

The Myth Of Levi's

It has been an accepted fact for many years that Levi's, or blue jeans, were invented in the early 1850's by Levi Strauss. It now appears that this is not the case. Blue jean, or Serge de Nimes (denim) had been used for work clothes for many years, but Levi Strauss was a dry goods dealer in Gold Rush San Francisco, who did not begin making pants until the 1870's. Blue denim work pants are appropriate, but should not be called Levi's.

Suspenders were made of sturdy cloth, woven tape with leather ends with buttonholes which fastened to buttons on the trousers. Ladies sometimes made them in Berlin work, similar to needlepoint.

waistcoats, or vests, were worn by all classes of men, including laborers. They were made of silks, wool, or leather. Evening waistcoats could be brocaded or embroidered in fairly subtle patterns. Most had a shawl collar. The roll line was considerably higher than it is today, so that the opening was at the sternum . They were cut straight or slightly curved across the bottom, not notched like a modern vest. They had lacings, tape ties, or belts across back for fit. Many laborers wore the waist coat even for hard work, practical as it kept the shirt from billowing.

Cravats or ties: Many different styles were worn. Most common 2-3" strip of fabric , wrapped around the collar, and tied in a small bow. Silk was common. Dark or flamboyant colors and patterns, white for evening. Cravats were worn by most men, even laborers.

Bandannas of the period were also worn: they were elaborately printed, batiked, or tie dyed squares, often made of silk, and usually folded on the diagonal into an oblong and worn as a cravat. Modern bandanas are usually far too small to work as cravats.


The sack coat, coming to upper thigh, was the most common, especially for laborers, but tail coats were also worn by miners. Tweed, checks, plaid, and sold colors were all worn.

Black or dark blue tail coats were worn for evening, and were quite similar to the ones worn today. .

Frock coats were similar to the sack but longer, with shaped, fitted seams at back, and a slightly flared skirt. Sleeves were very full at the elbow. The roll line of the lapels was much higher than modern. Avoid "western" cut with yokes.

Overcoats were of wool, often caped. "Duster" coats of oilcloth were usually fitted in back like a frock coat, and were often an off white color, although black and brown were worn. The modern straight cut black duster or "drover" coat has become a cliché of reenacting, on a level with the short sequined saloon girl dress.

Shawls were smetimes worn by men, usually woolen ones in plaids or solids. They were large squares, worn as an extra layer, like an overcoat.

Hats for working men were wide brimmed, low to moderate crown, in felt or straw. Cloth caps were also worn. Dress hats: slouch hat, much like a wide brimmed homberg, or top hat of silk, or felt. Fine Panama hats were worn, and may have been purchased in Panama while crossing the Isthmus. No collapsible silk opera hats. Always removed when talking to or greeting a lady.

Footwear: working class men wore high boots, with square toes and moderate heels. Some were actually thigh high, sometimes worn with the top turned down below the knee. Paintings show miners wearing knee high boots with a rounded flap in the front only, sometimes turned up, sometimes down. these may have been for protecting the knees when kneeling. No western boots. Pants often worn tucked in. For dress, oxford style shoes, elastic sided ankle high boots.

Foul weather gear: Umbrellas, rubber cloaks, coats, suits, oilskins.


Rings: signet rings. Wedding bands for men were not common in America. Some men wore diamonds or other gems set in rings, but these were considered vulgar.

Sailors wore a single hoop earring made of gold, a tradition of thousands of years' duration.

Shirt studs, used to fasten dress shirts instead of buttons, were usually brass or nickel, sometimes made of gold or silver, or set with mother of pearl, real pearls, or crystal. Stickpins were worn in cravats.

Masonic or other fraternal emblems were popular, but reenactors should remember that it is incorrect and considered rude to wear Masonic emblems if you're not really a Freemason, unless for a specific theatrical purpose.

For a miner who'd struck it rich, "diamonds like young Kohinoors" were sold even in small slop shops, probably in rings or stickpins. Gold nugget jewelry was very popular, and photos show nuggets set in stickpins, watch fobs, and belt buckles.


Watches were pocket watch style only. They usually wound with a key, rather than the stem-wind type more available today, and silver was more common than gold. They were fairly expensive.

Watch chains were attached to the watch on one end, and to a small bar which slipped into one of the vest buttonholes. If a vest was not worn, the watch was carried in a cloth or leather bag buttoned to the inside of the pants waistband. The watch pocket on Levi's developed from this.

Watch cables were often used instead of chains, often braided from a loved one's hair. Some watches were attached to simple leather thongs called "fobs" About this time "fob" also started to mean decorative charms or trinkets attached to the watch chains. Some fobs were designed to also function as keys to wind watches. This is why scholastic fraternities such as Phi Beta Kappa call their emblem a key: it really is one.

Hair: In the gold fields, many men let their beards and hair grow out. Fashionable hair was ear lobe level or a bit longer, oiled or pomaded and swept back in wings or curls. Very short hair was unfashionable due to its association with louse removal. Ponytails, braids, and other long styles were not worn. Side parts, usually on left.

Facial hair was either clean shaven or shaved into shapes such as sideburns, mutton chops, etc. Full beards not popular for young men, except in the gold fields or by Jewish men. Mustaches were considered a military style, which is why the pacifist Amish don't wear them today.

Walking sticks or canes were carried by dignified older men. Gold or silver mountings were popular, as were elaborately carved ones. Sword canes were known, but are illegal to carry in modern California.


Most laborers wore some type of knife. The "Arkansas Toothpick" style and the Bowie knife were worn by those in need of protection. For simpler utility purposes, a straight edged knife similar to a modern hunting knife is most appropriate. They were worn in a sheath on a belt, which explains why they wore belts before belt loops were invented. Handguns were also worn on or tucked into the belt. the "gunslinger" look of a low hip belt with the holster secured around the thigh is much later.





.Women's Lifestyles

As I said earlier, clothing is a reflection of one's status. In the 19th century, women's clothing, in particular, was a powerful statement of who one was..

In the 1850's A Woman's Place Was In The Home. Many women worked, especially as domestics, but almost all middle class women stayed home, especially after marriage.

A married woman's working was considered to be demeaning to her husband. Of course, she was often running some sort of flourishing home based business such as making butter or selling eggs, but that was considered to be either part of her normal house wifely duties or "helping out".

Since at the time a working class man actually could support a wife and family, society supported his wife staying at home. Very few employers would consider hiring a married woman.

A wife, in addition to being a helpmate and housekeeper, was also a status symbol. If she wore expensive and confining garments, it proved that not only could her husband provide them, but that he could afford to pay servants to make up for her lack of ability to work while wearing them. A married woman's clothing displayed not only her marital status, but her husband's economic status, via expense of garments and her ability, or lack thereof, to work while wearing them.


In addition, clothing advertised a married woman's chastity and her respectability. by dressing as a married woman, she sent a message that she was taken, and not to be considered available. This was accomplished by wearing more decorated clothing and darker and richer colors.

Conversely, her clothing also displayed her status as a sexual object, even though it was limited to one man's use. Married women's evening clothes were much more provocative than those of unmarried girls.

One identifier of marital statues was the cap. After a woman had been married long enough to have a child, whether or not she actually had, she covered her head. Outdoors, she wore a bonnet, but indoors, she wore a cap, usually made of white muslin or linen. There were hundreds of variations in style and utility, and trimming caps was a favorite occupation. By the end of the decade, caps were going out of style, and by the end of the Civil War most married women no longer covered their hair indoors. This was the end of a tradition that had lasted for thousands of years.

Due to family size, lack of birth control, and high infant mortality, married women were likely to be pregnant or nursing fairly constantly throughout their adult lives. Therefore, clothing for poor and middle class women had to accommodate changes in their bodies.

Higher economic status means the conspicuous consumption of "not going out" during the pregnancy, which proved that a husband could afford servants to run errands. The fiction of "not going out" was that one remained in the house from the minute a pregnancy began to show, because pregnancy was an unmentionable state. In reality, there were a number of street styles which could conceal a fairly advanced state of pregnancy and it may very well have been that one went out until one's condition was impossible to conceal.

Servants were scarce to nonexistent in the Gold Rush economy, so it is unlikely that "not going out" was practiced on a widespread basis.



Single women had little or no status after the age of marriagability. An unmarried woman over a certain age was an object of pity or ridicule, not to mention a millstone around the neck of her father or brother, who was obliged to support and house her. All respectable single women lived with relatives, friends, or employers. "She lives alone" was synonymous with "she's easy" well into the 20th century.

The only respectable jobs for single women who wished to be thought of as ladies were as companions, governesses, and sometimes as teachers. Some women worked as clerks in stores, as milliners or seamstresses, but these were marginal occupations. Being a servant might mean you were respectable, but definitely lower class. Actresses, dancers, and other entertainers were, in general, considered to be on a par with prostitutes, and nursing was a filthy job that only drunkards would take, although that was to begin to change very soon.

It was believed that an absolute requirement for marriagability was sexual purity. If a woman's chastity was even slightly suspect, she was "damaged goods" and her chances of making a decent marriage were destroyed. Therefore, her purity was her stock in trade and her most valuable possession, and needed to be advertised.

Single and available women advertised their status by wearing simpler clothes, in innocent and girlish patterns. Pastels were considered most appropriate. Indoors, they left their hair bare when married women wore caps. Evening dresses tended to have more modest necklines.

A single woman also did not wear much jewelry, usually limited to a brooch or locket. Only one's husband or fiancee could give one jewelry, and only a father, brother, or husband, could give any article of clothing. To accept clothing or jewelry from a suitor was tantamount to agreeing to be his mistress. Even jewelry that one had inherited was usually not worn until marriage. In the Gold Rush, however, there was a local custom of miner's celebrating strikes by giving presents of costly jewelry to ladies, including unmarried ones, and even to children. While the practice was frowned on by some, it was an accepted custom.

All of these statements are, of course, subject to differences of class and location. Unmarried women from "New money" such as those who struck it rich in California, might very well have dressed in much more ornate style than their married social superiors back east.

Single women dressed in age appropriate styles, but after a certain age, usually around 30, wore the same clothing as married women. However, the scarcity of women in the Gold Rush made women of marginal value marriageable.


Prostitutes in the Gold Rush worked in private bordellos, not walking the streets. There is very little evidence of how frontier prostitutes dressed in public. but it is likely that they dressed very similarly to other women, in order to avoid hostility. They may have been quite fashionably and richly dressed, as by the very early 50's stores in mining towns were advertising that they sold silks, velvets, and in one case, were importing the latest fashions from Paris. They could afford them. In Placerville in 1854, the best House in town charged $50 a night, of which the girl kept half; at a time when the price of an ounce of gold was $14. At today's rates, the girls were earning $100,000 a year.

Performers were dressed as fashionably and as richly as they could afford, which was very rich indeed in some cases. Their social status, however, was on a par with that of prostitutes.

The "dance hall girl" costume is largely a costume myth. Women who worked in taverns dance halls wore ordinary clothing with long skirts, although they probably would have made it as enticing as possible. The knee length dance hall girl costume seems to be based on the can can costume, which was a theatrical costume only worn on stage. There are some descriptions, somewhat later, of dance hall girls in "short skirts" but pictures show them to be just above the ankles.


Women's Clothing in Detail

The basic underwear of the period was the chemise. This was a smock like garment with short sleeves.. Earlier, they were cut like a "T" shape, with a plain round neck. Later the sleeves became set in and the neckline was more scooped, often with a bound edge and gathers at the front and back neckline. They often had a front buttoned placket for nursing convenience. they were knee to calf length. They were probably owned in multiples, at least 6 at a time.

Fabrics were usually linen and cotton. Some lace and embroidery is seen, but these were probably not everyday garments. sometimes small Mother of Pearl or china buttons closed the placket.

Drawers were the underpants of the time They were loose, knee length pants, not ankle length "pantalets" a la Gone With the Wind. They were gathered into a narrow waistband, buttoning at back, and the entire crotch seam was open.

There are several patterns available for them, or you can adapt a modern pattern for loose, full legged pants. It is important to cut the crotch not-a-seam several inches lower than for regular pants, for comfort. Finish the edges with a narrow hem. They can be trimmed at their lower edge with bands of tucks, white work embroidery, lace, or eyelet, or with moderate ruffles up to 4" wide. They should not be gathered at the knee with an elastic like bloomers, but can be gathered just below the knee into a narrow loose band with a ruffle beneath. the band should be several inches larger that the leg measurement.



Corsets are probably the most maligned garment of the 19th century. Contrary to popular belief, a properly fitted corset doesn't hurt, isn't too tight to breathe in, and doesn't require huge effort to tighten. As little as 2" reduction is all that is needed to make one fit well.

There is a great deal of debate as to exactly how many women wore corsets, and when, and what they were like. Victorian women rarely spoke of intimate garments in their letters or diaries, and the advertisements and patent records describe the forefront of fashion which would be purchased, not the every day garments that were made at home and worn until they were discarded.

The corsets we have the most examples of, therefore, are high fashion. Imagine the bra that you wear under your fanciest evening outfit. Now think of the one that you wear to do the yard work. Isn't there a substantial difference? It stands to reason that there was a difference in types of corsetry then, too.

It's most likely that for housework and home wear, 19th century women wore what are referred to as "sensible stays" or "waistcoats". These were unboned, lightly boned, or stiffened with cording and quilting. They usually laced in back and had shoulder straps. The shaping was provided by gussets at breasts and hips. They provided support for the breasts and back. Many full breasted women find them more comfortable than bras, because the length and the fitted waist supports the weight of the breasts rather than suspending it from the shoulders.

Fashionable corsets were much more shaped. During the 50's, there was a change in the style of cutting, moving from the older style of gussets to shaped gores. This enabled them to give a smoother, more curved shape. They were still lightly boned, often only 6 bones in a corset. Corsets for large women, of course, had to do more work and required more boning. Also in the 50's came the invention of a front opening busk, which allowed a corset to be removed without unlacing it.

The primary purpose of a fashionable corset was still not to constrict the waist, but to lift the bust and smooth the lines of the torso. The ideal of the corseted figure was an absolutely smooth torso, with no bulges or wrinkles showing. However, if you look at period photos, you will see that that ideal was often not achieved.

There is a popular myth that all women were expected to have waists under 20 inches. This is false, probably based on the fact that so many surviving corsets are so small. There are many other reasons why they are small, but the predominate one is that small corsets were probably made for growing girls who outgrew them before they could be worn out. .

Another myth is that women had their lower ribs removed to enable them to lace smaller. There is no firm proof that this has ever happened. Certainly, in the 1850's, with no anesthesia and a 50% or higher post surgical death rate, it didn't happen.

Corset patterns are not always easy to make, and there are several very good ones on the market.

Petticoats were usually plain rectangular panels, gathered or pleated into a waistband, with a buttoned placket at each side. They could be made of linen or cotton, or wool for warmth. They were most often untrimmed, but some dressy ones had lace or eyelet insertion and edging, and tucks. Some petticoats were corded, with multiple tucks with stiff cording inserted, to make them stiff and help hold the skirts out. Some were quilted, both for stiffening and warmth.


Hoop skirts were first patented in 1856, but unpatented versions probably existed several years before. They were quite narrow at first, to simulate the look of multiple petticoats without the weight and heat. In the next decade they spread to huge proportions.

Hoopskirts come in two basic types, the cage crinoline and the hooped petticoat. Cage crinolines consist of a number of concentric hoops of narrow steel or stiff wire, held together with tapes of fabric.

The only substitute for narrow hoop steel currently made is very expensive, so most reproductions today are made with hoop wire, which is made of two thin strips of steel encased in buckram or plastic. The buckram version is stiffer, but melts when it gets wet. Some people also use music wire, which can be purchased in 3' lengths at hobby stores and joined with small pieces of brass tubing, epoxied to the wire. Cage crinolines often have their lower edges encased in a "bag" of fabric to avoid catching the wearer's foot.

Hooped petticoats are far easier to make and wear, although they can be warmer. they are basically gored petticoats with casings applied though which hoops are run. They usually have four or five hoops, although a large woman or heavy skirts will require more. Sometimes appropriate hoop skirts can be purchased from bridal stores. Modern hoops usually have a drawstring waist, which can tend to stretch and sag with wear. I recommend a firm but narrow waistband.

Plastic or buckram covered hoop wire is used for the hoops. If you need a very heavy hoop, or just want to save money, the metal banding that comes around bundles of lumber works very well, and can usually be obtained free. It does rust, so a coat of rust proof spray paint isn't a bad idea. Cut it with tin snips and secure the ends with duct tape.

Hoop skirts for the 1850's should be quite small. their diameter should be not more than half the wearer's height, or even less. the length of your comfortable walking stride is a good rule of thumb.


The ideal shape of the skirt was a gentle dome. Gauging the skirt and wearing multiple petticoats gave this look, but it was also helped along by wearing a crescent shaped pad or ruffled bustle around the waist, causing the skirts to stand out from the waist at the back and sides. this also made the waist looked smaller. When hoops came in, the pad grew smaller, covering the back of the waistline only, and was worn under the hoop to keep the hoops from falling into the small of the back and tipping up in front.



The 1850's bodice was cut quite differently from the modern one. To a reasonably educated eye, a modern bodice pattern adapted to 19th century costume looks glaringly wrong.

Bodice seams were placed differently from the way they are today. The shoulder seam was not on the top of the shoulder as it is today, but approximately 1 1/2" to the back, and often cut with a slight downward curve. The side underarm seam was also further back. The back was not darted to fit, but had seaming similar to modern princess seaming, except that it narrowed at the waist line to a center panel a few inches wide. Combined with the dropped shoulder seam, this gives a flattering diamond shaped panel in back. This style was so much the standard that dressmakers used it even when it wasn't necessary for shaping, sometimes even faking it by cutting the bodice as one panel and making a tiny topstitched tuck along the "seam" line.

The bodice front was most typically cut with four waistline darts. In day dresses they pointed straight up toward the bosom, in evening gowns they were more likely to be angled outward. These darts need to be carefully fitted to the body to get the proper shape. It is almost impossible to make it look right without a personal fitting over proper undergarments.

The waistline was at the natural waist, not raised or dropped. For most dressy dresses, the bodice had a point at the lower center front, and sometimes the back. The point could range from a softly blunt point to a very exaggerated narrow point. Every day and home dresses were usually "round", that is, not having a point at the waist. The lower edge was usually finished with self piping, which also stays the fabric and keeps it from stretching when the skirt is attached.

One of the most important design features of the 1850's bodice was the dropped armsceye seam. The top of the armhole was cut several inches down on the top of the arm, enhancing the sloped shoulders that were the ideal of the day. The dropped shoulder looks confining and uncomfortable, but is surprisingly easy to wear and has the additional benefit of being much easier to set a sleeve into.

This seam, and the shoulder/back seam, tended to be very stressed and were usually reinforced with tiny self piping. Interestingly, the side back seam was not piped to match, but topstitched. Contrast color piping was not used in construction details. Even on a dress trimmed with colored piping, the armhole and side back seam are self piped.

Most day dresses of this period buttoned up the front with small buttons spaced 2-3", or fastened at back or front with hooks and eyes. Some wrappers and other casual dresses simply fastened with straight pins, a style still maintained by some Amish sects today.

The standard 1850's bodice is the four darted pattern described above.

Most day bodices of this period were cut along these lines, but there were a few exceptions such as the fan front, the open bodice, the cadet bodice, and the jacket bodice.

The fan front bodice replaces the darts with shirring at the lower waist. Early in the 50's they were pleated at the shoulders, but later they were smooth at the shoulders and only used the depth of the darts for the shirred area. The fan front is particularly suited to sheers, stripes, and plaids, as it does not break up the pattern lines with darts. Fan fronts could be fastened up the front with hooks and eyes hidden in the pleats, or up the back. There is even an example of a fan front bodice that has openings for breast feeding hidden in the pleats.

Open bodices were cut with a front "V" opening, ranging from a few inches to waist deep. Sometimes they were slashed along the center front line and the edges were turned back to give a lapel effect. They were always worn with a chemisette underneath.

The cadet bodice had a center front opening, fasted at the neck and waist only, showing the chemisette underneath.

Jacket bodices were a dressy style, suitable for afternoon wear or visiting. They had skirts on them to give a peplum effect. They were often cut on princess lines, with continuous front and back panels to the hem and side skirt panels seamed on at the waistline.


Day necklines were almost invariably a high jewel neck, worn with a lace or linen collar, or with a chemisette with a jewel neck and or collar. The high standup collar is a later period. Some "home" dresses had a wide, shallow V neck, often with long, tight sleeves, but they were not worn on the street.

Some dresses could be worn with plastrons, a sort of vestee that changes the look of a bodice. They were often elaborately trimmed. They could be held on with a belt or simply pinned in place. This is a good way to make a convertible wardrobe, starting with a very plain dress and adding accessories.

Some dresses, especially sheer ones for hot weather, were "demi lined". A lining was cut with a low, scooped neck. These linings were attached to the outer fabric at the lower edge and the side seams, and usually had independent back fastenings.


As mentioned before, the dropped shoulder line makes setting sleeves into the armsceye easy. the sleeve cap is very shallow, and is most often set in flat, with no gathers or pleats. Since the armhole is piped, the sleeve can be easily ditched stitched by hand if desired.

The two most common sleeve styles of the 1850's are the "coat" sleeve and the bell/pagoda. The coat sleeve is cut, like a modern man's coat sleeve, in two pieces, on a curve. Note that there is an upper sleeve and an undersleeve, and the seams run along the back and front of the arm, not the underarm. This sleeve is cut with the upper arm on the grain and the lower arm on the bias, a pretty effect with a striped or plaid fabric. Tight sleeves were a fashion of the 40's and are going out of style. the coat sleeve typically has several inches of ease, or may even be full enough to need to be gathered into a cuff, or wide enough to wear with a full undersleeve.

The other common style is the bell sleeve, which by the end of the decade is widening into the pagoda sleeve. The bell sleeve can be cut with the seam at the underarm. It is fairly straight, but loose, to the elbow, and then widens into a soft curve which ends several inches above the wrist. It is worn with puffed undersleeves with cuffs, with or without a ruffle. Occasionally the bell sleeve is seen with a band gathering it in above the elbow, resulting in a puffed upped sleeve and flared ruffle.

The pagoda sleeve is a fuller, more flared version of the bell sleeve. . It was often cut with a curve or notch upward on the outer arm, to display elaborate undersleeves. Sleeve edges were a popular place for trim.

Both the coat and pagoda sleeve could have a "jockey", a short (2-3") cap sleeve over the long sleeve. they were often elaborately trimmed.

Engageants, or undersleeves, can be a simple tube of fabric, gathered into a band at the top and gathered into a cuff at the wrist. Often they had a narrow ruffle at the cuff. The upper band can be tacked, pinned, ties, or buttoned into the sleeve lining. alternately, cut an above elbow length straight sleeve, gather the lower puff to it, and attach it to the armhole seam. Engageants range from absolutely plain linen to elaborately embroidered, laced, shirred, etc. If you do any "French heirloom" sewing this is an ideal place for it. They should be white. A quick solution is to buy a thrift store blouse with full sleeves, appropriately trimmed, cut off the sleeves, and pin them to the armhole seam of the dress. If the blouse has a fancy front and an appropriate neckline, it can be made into a chemisette.

Chemisettes are worn under open bodices. They are sort of "super dickeys" consisting of a front and back , usually decorated with needlework and lace, and with a collar attached. They fasten around the waist with ties. They are almost always white.


Skirts of the 1850's are almost invariably made of simple rectangles, not gored or flared. Guaged/cartridge pleated into a waistband or directly to the bottom of the bodice. 4 widths of 45" fabric makes a generous skirt. Less looks skimpy. If you are wearing a hoop, the skirt should measure AT LEAST 4' wider than the hoop. Skirts stretched and straining over underpinnings look awful.

Dressy skirts, including those for dancing, should be not less than 2" from the ground. Skirts for working could be as high as 6", but would be thought of as very countrified.

Some skirts had inseam pockets, while some still had the older style of openings in the seams, with separate pockets worn underneath. Patch pockets were not used on dresses-put them on your apron.

Trained skirts were not worn during this period.

Skirts could either be gauged onto a narrow waist band, or directly to the bottom of the bodice. They could also be pleated onto a waistband which was then hand-tacked to the inside of the bodice.

One of the differences in period construction technique is that the skirt is seamed, decorated, and hemmed before being put on the waistband.

To "balance" a skirt, you will need a helper, or a dress form that can be adjusted to your height. Finish the hems and decoration first. Wearing all the appropriate underpinnings and the shoes you will wear, safety pin a piece of 1" wide elastic firmly around your waist. the elastic should be marked in even quarters at center front, back, and sides. . Mark quarters on the skirt. Pull the skirt through the elastic, distribute fullness. Using chalk or a disappearing pen, mark the waistline at the bottom of the elastic. The trim may be higher in back. It's okay, it's period.

Skirts on every day and work dresses were usually untrimmed. Dressy skirts in the 50's were most typically flounced in 3 flounces. The top flounce started 6-8" down from the top, and the flounces were of equal depth. They usually increased in fullness from the top to the bottom. Be warned that a flounced skirt takes a huge amount of fabric. the class example took 11 yards, and used another fabric for the base layer. It is also heavy. Do not make a tiered skirt in which each flounce is gathered onto the one above it! the flounces should overlap by at least 2", more if using a different base fabric. Flounces were most often trimmed with a plain hem, but elaborate dresses show lace, narrow fringe, ribbon, ruching, and pinking--cutting the fabric with punches to make van dyke scalloped edges. Flounced skirts are useful for theatrical costumes or others which may need to be altered, as they can easily be shortened by taking tucks in the under layer.

Flounces were put on by folding the top edge over a cord, stitching next to it, and pulling up the cord to gather. They were then topstitched onto the base layer, which leaves the corded edge showing as a ruched piping.

Trim along the lower edge is characteristic of the next decade, as is trim applied in festoons or scallops, or day skirts gathered into scalloped draperies. Do not trim the bottom of your skirt with a ruffle.

Trim on skirts is often placed in bands about 12" above the hem line. Late in the decade, "tablier" or apron trimming became popular, consisting of two vertical bands running the length of the skirt, starting from approximately the point on the waistline where the dart begins.

Most skirts were unlined. the lower edges were usually faced, having a strip of fabric several inches wide sewn to the hem and turned inwards, with the facing edge rolling slightly outwards in order to take the wear. the facing was hand hemmed to the skirt, often with rather large stitches as it was intended to be taken off for cleaning or replacement. On some skirts, the facing was as much as 12" wide and was lined with a stiff interfacing to hold the skirts out.



Since most women were pregnant or nursing throughout their adult lives, it stands to reason that there were garments to accommodate their condition. While the fashion magazines of the day show a number of elaborate robe dresses, mantles, etc., that could serve as concealing street wear, the most common everyday garment was the wrapper. The wrapper was not exclusively for maternity--many women wore them for housework and other strenuous duties.

The question of whether they were worn with a supportive garment is still being hotly debated. The answer is probably that some women did, some didn't, depending on their economic circumstances, their need for support, and other factors. If stays were worn, they were probably "sensible stays", with little or even no boning. Pregnant and nursing women could wear a "gestation stay" with gussets and laces to accommodate the changing figure and give nursing access. Past Patterns has a "Sensible stays" pattern that includes a gestation stay, which several ladies have told me is so comfortable in late pregnancy that they wore it under their everyday clothes!

Wrappers were sometimes cut with a front yoke treatment, with the lower bodice gathered or pleated to the yoke, or the pleats might start at the shoulder seam. The back could be as for ordinary dresses, with the skirt gauged to a fitted back, or it could also be pleated. Some of them had a wide continuous panel from the yoke to skirt hem, and some had a drawstring at the front waist/skirt seam. Many of them had an inner vest that laced shut and held the dress together, and could provide support for the uncorseted figure, while the outer CF opening fastened with buttons, hooks, straight pins or, for dress, a brooch at the neck. They were worn with white collars and undersleeves or cuffs. The sleeves varied with fashion but almost invariably were wide enough to roll up for work. . Wrappers were usually made of wool or linsey woolsey till after the Civil War, but are often made of calico for modern reenacting.


Many people will tell you that formal evening wear is not correct for Gold Rush costume. It is true, there are descriptions of mining communities holding "balls" at which the ladies were wearing calico dresses and old boots, but there are other, contemporary, accounts of balls a few miles away with ladies wearing quite elaborate formal toilettes. this is just part of the confusing nature of the Gold Rush economy and social upheaval. At any rate, an 1850's ball dress is one of the most flattering and enjoyable costumes possible, and I'm willing to stretch the possibility a bit to wear one!

There was a substantial difference in the evening clothes worn by young, unmarried women or new brides, and by matrons. White and pastels in light, airy fabrics such as muslin tulle, lace, organza, etc. were worn by young ladies, and dark or bright jewel colors were worn by matrons. All black was rare for ball gowns, and black lace or other black trim was more likely to have been worn by matrons.

Silk, in taffeta, brocade, moire, satin, and other weaves, was usual. Cottons and wools were too informal. In the opposite of today's fashions, velvet was considered a day fabric, although it was used for trimming evening dresses, particularly ribbons. Matrons also covered their heads, either with extremely frou frou lace caps, or, for younger matrons, headdresses of flowers, ribbon, and lace that attached to the back of the head. Matrons could and did wear the most impressive jewelry they possessed.

There are two basic types of evening dress, the dinner dress and the ball gown.

Dinner bodices had low, square necklines, usually filled in with a chemisette. They usually had bell sleeves, and could be worn without undersleeves, in which case they had a lining of lace or ruffles. They were worn by wealthy women for evenings at home or dinner parties without dancing afterwards.

It is possible, by careful planning and selection of appropriate fabrics, to make a costume which has one skirt and two bodices, a dressy day bodice and an evening bodice, or even three, if you want a dinner dress. Since most of the cost of fabric is in the skirt, this is an economical idea, and is quite period. There are a number of surving gowns with multiple bodices. Silk or tafetta are probably the best choicesfor this sort of ensemble. Make a skirt on a waistband, and sew hooks and eyes to the waist of the skirt and the bodices to keep them from gapping.

Ball gown bodices were cut just off the point of the shoulder, with a wide neckline that dipped at the front into a wide V or curve, not the exaggerated "sweetheart" shape". This resulted in the dropped armhole seam becoming a narrow strap. Elastic can be concealed in this strap and covered with decoration, resulting in an easier fit.

The standard four-dart day bodice pattern can be easily cut down for evening wear.

Bodices could be quite revealing, although a young girl's bodice was likely to be less so. In period, they were shaped with darts at front like a day bodice. There are several patterns available that use princess seaming for ease of fit, and it is a reasonable compromise, particularly as the trim on the upper bodice usually conceals the fact. Ball bodices almost always need boning. While a corset is desirable, it is possible to build sufficient boning into a ball gown bodice to let it be worn alone.

They hooked at the back, or sometimes laced. If lacings are used, they should be small sewn eyelets, not grommets. Some sewing machines can do this. A reasonable, unobtrusive fake can be done by sewing the eye portion of hook and eye tape into both sides of the back opening and using the eyes to lace though. The lace should be a matching color. Lacing was not a design feature, and should be unobtrusive.

The lower edge and side seams were piped. Usually the front darts, side seams, and back opening edges were boned to keep them smooth, even over a corset. The neck edge can also be piped, and the piping cord can be drawn up and stitched in place for a secure fit.

They were almost always trimmed around the neckline, often with a wide collar like arrangement called a bertha, of pleated fabric, lace, ruffles, flowers, ribbons, and rosettes, sometimes all at the same time.

Evening dresses had either short straight sleeves, not much decorated, which barely showed under the bertha, or very short puffed sleeves. these puffs were cut in a very interesting style known as the beret sleeve, a large circle with a faced hole for the arm. The circular edge was gathered into the armsceye.

Skirts were cut the same as for day, but could be much more trimmed. Lace, silk or ribbon flowers, fringe, bouquets of ostrich feathers, and much more are seen in fashion plates, but it was also quite typical to have a plain skirt of a beautiful fabric. Flounced skirts were often trimmed along their edges with lace, ruched ribbon, or tiny self ruffles, in singles or multiples.

One pretty look was the double skirt or overskirt. A second skirt, often somewhat shorter, is either mounted on a separate waist band or attached to the first. It can be of lace or another sheer, of self fabric, or a coordinating fabric, but not usually a contrast color. An overskirt can be draped up in different styles

Some evening dresses were trimmed with layers of tiny ruffles, from 3-6", covering the skirt or the lower skirt under the overskirt. They were usually tulle or some other sheer fabric. This is very labor intensive and the lower ruffles often need to be replaced from wear and dirt.


There were many types of garments for outerwear available. Coats were not much worn, which may be a carry over of the difficulty of fitting them over the huge sleeves fashionable in previous decades.

The most common outer garment was the shawl. This was usually wool, square, and quite large, as much as ten by ten feet. Replicating them today is difficult because wool fabric usually doesn't come wide enough, although some light wool blankets can work. It is also possible to take a square of 60" fabric and add wide, mitered borders to it. Shawls ranged from simple fabric squares with hemmed or self fringed borders, to embroidered ones, to the epitome, which was the Kashmir shawl. They were imported from India, and were fabulously expensive, the equivalent of wearing valuable fur today. A Scots industrialist started a factory to make copies of them which became so popular that today the traditional Indian pattern of the fabric is known by the name of the Scots town where the factory was: Paisley.

The chrocheted wool shawls worn by many reenactors are not correct until the 1890's.

Mantles, mantuas, pelerines, pelisses, mantillas, etc., were all names for various types of short capes. the most common style seems to have been one that curved up at the sides to allow freedom for the arms, and had long hanging ends in the front and an point or rounded end in back. They were often elaborately decorated with lace, fringe, and braid, but there were also quite simple wool ones which were probably ordinary day wear. .

Lace shawls became popular in the 50's, usually triangular ones. They were also quite expensive. They should be triangular, with a border worked in the pattern, not simply a length of lace fabric.

Long cloaks, known as traveling cloaks, were an uncommon fashion. The hooded "Kinsale" type long cloak had been out of fashion for some time, in fact in the early 40's one magazine called it an "old woman's cloak".

For rain, fashionable women probably tried to stay in and not ruin their clothes. The large wool shawl was probably the usual choice of women on the trail and in the mining camps. There are references to miners wearing cloaks and suits of rubber, and women may have worn them too. In San Francisco and the mining towns, many women wore men's boots during mud season. Umbrellas were made of oiled silk and had handles made of wood, horn, or even silver.


the etiquette books and the fashion magazines of the times stated that a lady always wore gloves. While this may not have been the reality, gloves are an essential part of a dress costume. For day, gloves of soft leather were appropriate. Mitts, or fingerless gloves, were also worn, usually made of lace or net work. For evening, wrist length kid gloves were mandatory, especially on the dance floor. Mitts are not appropriate for evening because they do not protect fragile evening fabrics from perspiration and body oils.

Parasols were carried in summer for shade. They ranged from plain utility ones to elaborate lace ones. They were small, not more than 24" They can be purchased and recovered or trimmed.



ankle high, laced boots, with square toes and wide heels less than 2", in black or brown. . The high heeled button boots with pointy toes are later. Shoes: "buskins" were low heeled, comfortable laced shoes, worn by lower classes. Wealthier classes wore boots on the street and changed to house shoes or slippers indoors. Slippers, soft cloth or leather with a very small heel or none at all, were worn indoors or for evening. The evening ones were usually made of satin, and tied on with crisscrossed ribbons. These survive in a stiffened form as modern ballet pointe shoes.

Stockings: fine knitted, openwork, embroidered, or striped. They came above the knee and were gartered with knitted garters with leather or silk ends which buckled around the leg.

reticules or purses were worn, and were usually small drawstring or clasp bags. However, with the full skirts of the time, it was more common for purses to be kept in pockets.

baskets were used for carrying shopping, and a moderate sized one is good for holding anachronisms under a cloth. Paper bags were not yet common, and purchases were generally wrapped in paper, either brown or striped in colors, and tied with string. A few packages in a basket make good props.


We have little documentation for women's glasses, as most did not wear them to have their portraits made. Simple round or oval wire rims are best. Reproduction period glasses are available. Some very grand ladies made a style statement out of their vision problems by using a lorgnette, a pair of lenses with a folding handle. Pince-nez were lenses that were held to the bridge of the nose with a spring clamp. Since they often fell off, they were usually attached to a ribbon or chain around the neck. Some pince-nez came with a matching hook which pinned to the dress, to hang them on when not in use.


Jewelry for day was simple and restrained. It was thought vulgar to wear imitation jewelry, so poorer women wore very little, probably only a brooch . Brooches were used to fasten the collar at the neckline, rarely worn off to one side.. Watches were pendants worn on a long chain. Lockets could be worn either on a chain or on a ribbon. Earrings, if worn, were either small rings or pendants with a wire hook, not post earrings.

For evening, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and tiaras were all made of every possible kind of precious gem. Of course these were very costly and unlikely to have been common in the Gold Rush.

Semiprecious stones such as garnets were also worn for evening. Pearls were popular, and a favorite ornament for young girls.

The most fashionable jewelry of the decade was the classically styled, either actual Greek and Roman artifacts or replicas. Cameos, in particular, were stylish, and were set in bracelets, brooches, rings, necklaces, and even tiaras.

Many Gold Rush photographs show people wearing jewelry made of gold nuggets. Earrings, pendants, watch fobs, and belt buckles seem to have been most common.




Hair was "put up" at marriageable age and was never worn hanging down loose. It was almost universally worn long and parted in the middle. Back hair was worn in a bun, braided or not, on the back of the head, not the nape of neck or top of head, while the front side hair was puffed back over the ears in a style known as "bandeux". Often these bandeaux were waved or crimped in the "Jenny Lind" style.

Bangs were not worn, and concealing them for costume can be difficult. good results can be gotten by soaking them with hair spray, bobby pinning them in place, blowing dry, and spraying, then drying again. Let hair dry completely before removing pins. It feels awful, but looks good and stays in place for a long time.

Short hair was worn only by those who were so impoverished that they had sold it, or by the recently ill, as it was believed that cutting hair would break a fever.

Buns, or chignons, were fastened with metal or tortoiseshell hairpins Ribbons or thread were used to tie ends. Combs were worn to hold side hair in place, or as decoration. "Rats" were made of combings from hair, used to pad out side puffs or augment buns.

Hair nets of very fine thread or hair were worn, as were decorative ribbon nets for evening, but hair was dressed independently under them, not "stuffed in a bag". The chrocheted snoods often seen are incorrect.

As is the case now, women tended to retain the hairstyles that were popular when they were young. During the 30's, the front hair was braided and looped around the ears. During the 40's, the side hair was curled into shoulder length corkscrew curls, 3 or four to a side. Ladies in their later years might wish to wear these styles.

Hair was washed very seldom, as little as twice a year. This is not as disgusting as it sounds, because hair adjusts its level of oiliness to suit how often it is washed. If you stop washing your hair, it will take about a month for it to adjust and stop being oily.

Also, the light, fluffy look we value today was not fashionable at the time. Hair was supposed to be sleek and shining. Many ladies actually added oil to their hair to dress it. It was removed at night by rubbing it with a cloth, and brushing those all important 100 strokes, which serve to carry the oil from the scalp down to the dry ends of the hair.


The indoor bathroom was not yet reality for most people. they bathed in front of the fire, after heating the water to do so. Consequently, the full immersion bath was a rarity. Decent people bathed on Saturday night, and it was usually what we would call a sponge bath today.


perfume and cologne were worn, mostly by married women. Light floral scents were popular.


That Time Of the Month

While this is not precisely a costume question, it is one many people are curious about. Disposable menstrual supplies didn't start to become common until the 1940's the sanitary napkin of the time was a folded and stitched piece of absorbent cloth, with loops at the ends that were threaded though a belt that tied around the waist. They were soaked, washed, and reused. . It is also possible that some women used an internal device formed from a piece of sea sponge with a string attached. There is some evidence that the same device, soaked in vinegar or an herbal preparation, was used as a birth control method.


It was universally accepted, in America, that decent ladies did not wear make-up, with the exception of rice powder and lightly tinted lip salve after one was married. However, the reality was that many of them probably did, at least to the extent of using a few homemade and improvised methods. Some of these included using candle soot as eyeliner, rubbing geranium petals on the lips and cheeks to redden them, and other methods. Modern makeup is preferable, but should be very lightly and subtly applied.

For women who were not ladies, rouge for cheeks and lips was available, as were hair dyes in various shades. Theatrical cosmetics included greasepaint foundations, which some women may have worn for street wear, and kohl for eyeliner/shadow. The only form of mascara at the time was a stage cosmetic only: It consisted of black wax, melted over a candle flame. A drop of wax was applied to each lash with a needle. Some women took belladonna--opium--to dilate their pupils.

When attempting to simulate period cosmetics, look for products that don't have a pearlized or shimmer finish. Lip and cheek color should be in red and coral shades. eyeliner shoud be black and smudged looking, not a clean line. Real kohl can be purchased at Middle Eastern stores in most good sized cities. Rice powder can be found at many health food stores.

While make-up was unacceptable, caring for one's complexion was very important. Many ladies made their own herbal treatments and face and hand creams, or purchased them. Suntans were unfashionable, and skin bleaches were used, often made of lemon juice and other substances.


Hats and Headwear

One of the most striking differences between the past and now was the widespread wearing of head coverings.. In the 1850's, all adults and most children wore some form of head covering when out of doors. Married women also covered their heads indoors.

The most common form of head covering worn outdoors by women was the bonnet. A bonnet is a head covering that covers the top, back, and sides of the head, and fastens under the chin. Later in the Victorian period, the line between a bonnet and a hat was more blurred.

Hats were worn for very casual occasions by very young girls only.

The 1850's bonnet was what is called a low bonnet, meaning that the edge enclosed the face in a circular form, but does not stand up vertically from the top of the head. Unlike the straight sided "coal scuttle" bonnets of the previous decade, however, the 50's bonnet was beginning to show a slight flared shape from back to front.

For winter, bonnets were made of buckram, a heavily stiffened fabric, reinforced with wire, and covered with fabric to coordinate with clothing, or more often, made in a basic color such as black or brown, with trimmings that were changed to match or coordinate with different dresses or the seasons. Buckram bonnet frames can be purchased today.

The fabric used was most often some form of silk, either shiny or matte. Velvet was popular in winter. They were not made in the same fabric as the dress, although small bits of trim or binding might be made from the dress fabric.

Modern pressed felt was not used for bonnets, despite what the suppliers selling them say. Occasionally felt fabric was used to cover a bonnet.

Straw bonnets were only worn in warm weather. They were made of strips of straw braid stitched together. Many pioneer women braided their own straw braid, but it was also available through mail order, and still is. Place mats made of straw braid can purchased, unstitched, soaked in warm water to soften them, and reused. It is time consuming to sew by hand, but can be machine stitched quite rapidly. If fine matching thread such as silk is used,. the machine stitching barely shows.

Elaborate straw lace bonnets were also available, mostly imported from Switzerland.

Bonnet trimmings ranged from simple ribbons to lace, feathers, flowers, fringe, braid, etc. They were almost always lined with "quilling", a shirred or ruffled silk lining. Often there was an inner wreath of flowers around the face. they tied under the chin or under one ear with very broad (3" and up) ribbons or milliners folds (turned strips of fabric), usually a yard or so long so that the ends hung down in front.

All bonnets at this time had a curtain, or brevolet, hanging down at the back to conceal the neck. These are most often simple ruffles of fabric, long enough to reach the shoulder. When the famous designer Worth first made his wife a bonnet without a brevolet in the late 60's, people said she was indecent because she was showing her neck!

Often you will see pictures of bonnets with ruffles of lace framing the face. Even though the fashion plates refer to these as inner caps, they are not separate caps, but part of the bonnet.

The hair went in a bun in the back of the bonnet, never hanging down below it.

Bonnets were held on not only by the ties under the chin, but by long hat pins inserted through the back of the bonnet and the hair inside it. If you don't have enough hair for this, the bonnet will want to either fall backwards, or slip forward. to keep it in place, make a large flat pin curl at the crown of your head, and sew a comb to the inside of the bonnet. When you put it on, slide the comb under the pin curl to secure it.

To prevent the bonnet from sliding forward, make a false back to fill in where your bun should be. This is easiest done by cutting a piece of 2" foam rubber to the proper shape and putting it into the bonnet before attaching a lining.

later period bonnets can be made by using straw or felt hats as forms, pleating and cutting the brim to the right shape. Unfortunately, the 1850's shape is nearly impossible to achieve this way. However, a woven straw flowerpot cover is exactly the right size and shape, with a bit of trimming. You can either cover it with fabric, or leave the straw to show. It's not quite correct as the straw is woven rather than being sewn in strips, but it's a reasonable compromise.

Replica bonnets can be purchased, but due to the handwork involved, they are quite expensive.

Several suppliers sell buckram forms and straw bodies of the correct shape



The other common bonnet type is the sunbonnet. Sunbonnets were made of fabric, and usually, but not always, worn for casual and work wear. They usually had a soft, gathered crown and a deep brim stiffened with buckram, pasteboard, or slats of wood (slat bonnet). The crown often had a drawstring at back so that it could be flattened for ironing. They always had a deep curtain falling at least to the shoulder, sometimes as far as the elbow. this would have been very practical as sun fading often shows first on the shoulders of a dress. The sunbonnet should not match your dress. They were often made from other worn out garments.


Caps were the common indoor head wear. There were basic types: nightcaps, morning or breakfast caps, day caps, and dress caps.

Nightcaps were plain, warm caps which tied on to keep the head warm while sleeping.

Morning caps, or breakfast caps, were worn for breakfast and morning chores. It was usual not to arrange one's hair until noon, after the morning work was done. Therefore morning caps were cut to contain the hair, which was probably in braids or even curlers. They were usually decorated. They didn't tie under the chin, that was an older style only worn by elderly ladies at this point. they could have lappets, which were long streamers of fabric, lace, or ribbon, or even shaped lace pieces. Lappets were a vestige of the older style, developed from untied chin ribbons.

Day caps were usually cut to show the bun in back. they were often cut in a style called "half handkerchief," a half triangle with the straight edge worn across the front. They could have lappets, too. trim was lace, needlework, ribbon, etc. Often they were made by tacking the various laces, etc., to a headband or frame of wire. A buckram frame for a bridal "Juliet cap ', which can be purchased at a fabric store, works well.

Dress caps were worn with evening dress and were very trimmed. They ranged from full caps to small wisps of lace and flowers attached to the very back of the head.



Then as now, children's clothes reflect the social status of their parents.


Diapers of soft linen or cotton were simply squares of fabric, which were folded into the proper size with each wearing. They were usually folded triangularly. Since safety pins didn't have the protective guard around the clasp, they weren't very safe, and many mothers kept threaded needles on hand and basted the baby in with each change. Some diapers had loops and ties to keep them on. Diaper covers of wool, often knitted soakers, were used to keep the baby dry.

Infants wore a band around their abdomen, which was thought to ensure that the umbilicus healed properly, and that their abdominal organs didn't rupture. The band was also basted or pinned into place.

Babies wore long undershirts, which could be made of soft fabric or knitted of very soft wool. The shirt, a bonnet or cap, and a swaddling blanket of soft flannel constituted a poor infant's wardrobe.

Babies from families in more comfortable circumstances wore dresses. These were invariably white, because of ease of washing (boiled, not scrubbed), and were usually trimmed with embroidery, laces, and ribbons. They were quite long, often as much as a yard past the baby's feet. This ensured that the baby would not kick his covers off and catch cold. The style has survived in the modern christening gown.

Wealthy babies were burdened with elaborate dresses, skirts, shawls, cloaks, shoes, hats, and even a version of a corset: a bodice stiffened with cording that was supposed to support their backs. Mrs. Hale, the editor of Godey's Magazine, tried to speak out against these styles, but met with little success.

When a baby reached crawling age, the dress was shortened to just above the ankles. This was known as "shortening the baby". Once the child began to walk, dresses were shortened to knee length.

Until around the age of five, both boys and girls wore dresses. This was for ease in diapering and toilet training, and because a dress will dry faster than trousers when a child has an accident, an important consideration in the days before waterproof pants.

Boy's dresses tended to be more masculine in decoration, using braid rather than ruffles, etc., but not always. There are many portraits showing boys in low necked dresses, necklaces, and curls. A page of children's dresses from Godey's has dresses identified as being suitable for a boy, a girl, or either sex, but I can find no identifying differences. Boy's hair was usually parted on the extreme left side, while girls wore the center part.

There are many myths about boys in dresses, the most common one being, "They dressed boys as girls." Boys were not dressed as girls, they were dressed in dresses. There is also a myth that this was done to fool the fairies/gods/evil spirits, a rather preposterous suggestion in a 19th century context.

At five, a boy was considered to have ended his babyhood and began wearing traditional male clothes. If he had long hair, it was cut. This tradition goes back for centuries.

Older boys

After five, poor boys wore miniatures of their father's clothes. These were usually handed down through families, and often were too large for the child. Cloth caps were worn more than hats, and boots were often replaced by leather shoes or even Indian moccasins. Wealthier boys often wore a "skeleton suit" consisting of long narrow trousers buttoned to a shirt with a wide collar, and a short open jacket matching the trousers. For very best wear, there was a fad for dressing boys in Scots kilts, a fashion started by Queen Victoria's children. . Short pants do not seem to have been worn until the 1870's.


Most poor children went barefoot whenever weather permitted. In winter, knitted socks or stockings were worn, with leather shoes or laced ankle high boots. Some boys had high boots like their fathers.

Poor girls wore the same round dresses their mothers did, except that they were shorter. Very small girls wore knee length dresses, which gradually got longer as they approached their teens. Girl's dresses could have short sleeves (straight, not puffed), and often the skirts were trimmed with several "grow tucks" which could be unstitched to add length. Necklines were often a wider boat neck, sometimes with a chemisette or tucker worn underneath. The fan front bodice was popular for young girl's dresses, probably because of its forgiving and concealing fit for a growing girl. Dresses usually fastened up the back with buttons. Some little girls would fasten their back buttoned dresses with the buttons turned inwards to keep them from snagging on their braids.

Girls wore these dresses over a chemise and short petticoats, and drawers. It's a good idea not to use split crotch drawers for little girls. They probably began to wear the open crotch style when they began to wear corsets. The drawers were usually cut a few inches longer than the dress, so that tucks or ruffles and lace showed. At around twelve years of age, a girl started to dress in transitional styles. The drawers were ankle length and worn with a calf length skirt and corsets would start to be worn. At around fifteen or sixteen, she would put up her hair, lengthen her skirts, and was considered to be grownup.


Poor girls went barefoot when possible. For everyday, sturdy leather shoes or ankle high laced boots could be worn. For dress, flat leather or fabric slippers. Some girls on the trail wore Indian moccasins purchased along the way.


Girls wore their hair down, usually in braids for everyday practicality. Braids were usually fastened with wrapped thread, although some had hair ribbons. For dress, hair could be curled in long corkscrew curls, and ribbons were worn. Girls who didn't have naturally curly hair could have their hair set with rag curlers.

Head wear

Hats were sometimes worn, although sunbonnets were the norm on the trail and for everyday, and often even for church. Hoods of quilted fabric or fur were worn for winter warmth.

Coats were uncommon. Most girls wore the same shawls or capes that their mothers wore. Parasols were sometimes used, and Kit Reed of the Donner Party is said to have carried one while riding her pony sidesaddle across the plains, which would seem to be an impressive feat of horsewomanship.

Girls, and boys still in dresses, usually wore pinafores over dresses. These were sleeveless smocks, buttoned or tied at upper back. For dressy wear they had ruffles, or even lace and needlework. Everyday pinafores were likely to be solid dark colors or white, and usually had pockets. Older girl's pinafores were more likely to have a waist belt.

Jewelry was rarely worn by children and was considered vulgar, with the exception of strands of coral beads. Since antiquity, coral has been considered protective for children. Although the modern Victorian mother would not have considered this, the tradition remained, and still does, among the upper classes. Children from Mediterranean Catholic or Orthodox countries sometimes wore strings of blue beads, blue being the color of the Madonna, for the same reason, although this was probably practiced only by recent immigrants. A wealthy girl might have a locket of gold or silver, worn on a wide ribbon or a chain, or a strand of tiny seed pearls. Ears were not pierced until adulthood.

In the gold fields, there was a practice of miners celebrating a strike by giving presents of costly jewelry to women, and even to little girls, especially if the latter were performing in a recital or concert. It is unlikely, though, that children were permitted to actually wear these gifts.



I hope this nformation proves helpful to you. As you can see, it's a large and complex subject, on which I have barely touched. If you have any questions or comments, please email me at