Pioneers traveled through Wyoming along the westward trails clothed from head to toe, even in the scorching summer heat. Civil War soldiers, many of them stationed along the Western frontier, wore wool year-round, Casper educator and historical reenactor Bruce Berst said.
Berst will show examples of clothing from the era in the “Pioneer Clothing: Flairs and Fashion” Patio Talk with historian Kylie McCormick at 1 p.m. Sunday at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center. The Patio Talks continue most Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 7 with a variety of presenters adding to the center’s exhibitions and events spotlighting the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express trails.
“Well, I guess what I hope people get out of it is an appreciation for the fabric and the design of clothing, shoes hats, etc. that we have today,” Berst said, “compared to 100, 150 years ago.”
Pioneers traveled west during the Victorian era, when it was the custom to keep skin covered, Berst said. Clothing was often handmade — down to spinning the yarn from cotton, wool or flax to make linen, McCorkick said. Anything store-bought was very expensive, Berst said.
He’ll show examples of men’s fashions from the 1850s to the early 1900s, from hats to shoes and everything in between and underneath, he said. Among them is a red “union suit” with long sleeves and legs that replaced men’s underwear made from muslin. The coarse muslin sticks to skin and starts to sand the outer layer when it’s saturated with sweat. Berst knows of the chafing firsthand from marching on historic battlefields in layers of wool. His 30 years as a living historian includes Civil and Indian war reenactments as well as miles on pioneer trails. He’s a docent at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center and the current president of its board.
Berst was a history teacher for 39 years and currently is the dean of students at Roosevelt High School. He’s spoken at national events, including the national Women Involved in Farm Economics convention in Montana, and has given many talks and demonstrations at museums and events around the state. He was post commander at Fort Laramie for its 150th anniversary.
His talk features the period clothing he’s collected from reenactments and school programs. The patterns, styles and fabrics of his clothing are all authentic to the era and range from a gentleman’s suit to a child’s shirt. He’ll talk about Civil War military clothing and the difference between what soldiers wore in the North and South.
Casper native McCorkick, who has worked for the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, will show women’s clothing, which often featured floral and calico patterns popular at the time.
“They didn’t much worry about whether things matched or not,” McCorkick said. “In fact, if you mismatched, the more you mismatched, the more fashionable you were.”
Families often matched, though, because the mothers would make as much clothing as possible from a bolt of cloth, she said. They’d usually choose dark colors, because washing clothes was a lot of work, especially on the trail.
Even on hot summer days, women wore bonnets, long sleeves and often gloves, because pale skin was considered a sign of beauty and wealth, McCorkick said. The trail itself affected fashion as pioneers turned their skirts into early versions of pants for women, she said.
“The shirts are getting a lot shorter, especially by the time that they are walking through here with all of the sagebrush and the cactus and everything that catches on those long dresses,” she said. “They’d still be wearing their stockings and still have their legs covered, but the skirts are getting a little bit shorter on the trail just as a matter of function.”
Women wore layers of undergarments often made from linen and topped with a whalebone corset women would never be seen without in public, she said. But the six-month journey wore most clothes to rags and McCormick suspects necessity affected that as well, like one corset artifact with the whalebones clearly removed, she said.
“It was a different time period,” Berst said. “I mean, you got a pair of socks and you darned those socks, and you darned those socks and you darned those socks until there was nothing left of them. Today you get a hole in a pair of socks and you throw them away.”