As the seamstress for Jones Park’s Redbud Hill Homestead, I’m often asked by new homestead volunteers for advice on creating historically accurate clothing. For men, the task is simple. Their fashion has stayed the same for 200 years, with only slight variations in the cut of the coat and the shape of the hat. But for women, standards are stricter: skirts should not drag in the mud; aprons must be tied above the natural waist; sleeves should cover shifts (but may be rolled up for comfort), and necks and shoulders may be protected from harsh sunlight with a light shawl and wide-brimmed straw hat.
Even after eight years of portraying early Texans, I’m still perfecting my wardrobe. In the early days of volunteering with my family for Second Saturday Settlers and Pioneer Day, my clothes either didn’t fit right or were so inaccurate that I am surprised I was allowed in the park. Thankfully, I did my research and my wardrobe has improved since then. In the summer of 2012, my sister made my first 100 percent accurate, handmade 1830s dress, and I’ve never looked back. Since then, I’ve hand-stitched almost every piece of historical clothing I have, except for one 1860s dress that I just had to use the machine to sew those sleeves on!
While it took me several years to learn how to properly sew a garment, there are steps new volunteers can take to put together a believable garment in time for this year’s Pioneer Day or An Old-Fashioned Christmas. First, new volunteers should think twice about trying to purchase their garments. It’s almost impossible to purchase historically accurate clothing or even hire a seamstress with the knowledge and skills to produce them. Instead, focus on what someone your age, gender, and culture wore during the portrayed time period and impart that to patrons.
For example, residents of Mexican Texas, called Texians, all had unique styles depending on their culture. Texian women of German descent usually wore a light-colored blouse; a dirndl, which is a type of vest ending a few inches above the natural waist; a skirt reaching down to the ankles; a kerchief around the neck; and an apron. Texian men of German descent typically wore a light-colored shirt; lederhosen, leather knee-length breaches with suspenders; a vest; and a necktie. Whereas Mexican men wore a light shirt, leather or cotton breaches, and a jacket usually decorated with embroidery. Mexican women wore a light colored, embroidered blouse; a decorative, colorful skirt; and a shawl.
Families of every culture often decorated their garments with natural dyes extracted from leaves, bark, mushrooms, seeds, and berries. Even the poorest, most remote families wore beautiful, colorful, and personalized clothing. Every layer of clothing on both men and women was often embroidered with small pictures of flowers, insects, and scenery. According to Betty Mills, author of the Calico Chronicle, “The frontier witnessed a blending of diverse cultural patterns and backgrounds that was clearly reflected in the mode of dress.”
Embroidery and mending were tasks often taught to the entire family. Every child needed to know the basic methods of repair. It was very common for embroidery to appear on every layer of men’s and women’s clothing. However, since embroidery is such a tedious and time-intensive project, historical re-enactors shouldn’t worry about decorating every piece of clothing. The key is having the knowledge to convey what would have been worn.
Anyone interested in creating their own 19th-century historical costumes should check out the following books, blogs, and patterns:
• Calico Chronicle
• Victorian Secrets
• Hands to the Spindle
• The Culture of Fashion
• Period Sewing Techniques
• The Young Sewphisticate
• American Duchess
• Before the Automobile
• Jas. Townsend & Son