Unusual Frontier Fashion

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I’ve never been much of a fashionista myself. Comfort trumps style in my life except for a few special occasions. But there is some part of me that still loves to play dress up, at least where my characters are concerned.

Researching time-period clothing is one of my favorite areas to explore when starting a new novel. I’ve collected quite a few reference books and bookmarked dozens of websites where one can find full color fashion plates or scans of 19th century fashion magazines. It’s rather like playing paper dolls or having unlimited outfits for Victorian Texas Barbie.

My latest novel, Full Steam Ahead, took me to a time period I had not researched before. The early 1850’s. While many aspects of antebellum fashion mimic that of the hoop skirts so famous during the Civil War era, there were some notable differences. One of those most interesting to me was a staple of women’s clothing that was an outer garment and at the same time an undergarment. It was called simply, an undersleeve.

Undersleeves 2Undersleeves 1












As you can see from the arrows in these pictures, the undersleeves consisted of white or off-white fabric that extended beyond the bell-shaped sleeves of the formal garment. They could be plain or decoratively embroidered. Not only were they stylish, but they served a practical purpose as well. Since they were a separate piece and not sewn directly into the dress itself, they could be easily removed and laundered, thereby saving the dress from the wear-and-tear of excessive washings. A sleeve was less likely to be soiled by everyday activities such as eating, cleaning, or even writing letters when an undersleeve was worn.

I discovered these beautiful examples of undersleeves on an historic costuming site called Maggie May Fashions. The one on the left is a more plain, everyday example, while the one on the right has intricate needlework for a more sophisticated look. The undersleeves were often held in place with a series of ties or could be basted loosely by hand into the inner sleeve of the dress itself. Some ladies used an early form of elastic around the upper casing and kept them completely separate from the dress.

Undersleeves 4Undersleeves 3










1850s Dress


Since my heroine worked as a secretary for the hero, she was always around ink, and was certain to wear her undersleeves. This is the dress that I pictured Nicole wearing  when she first met Darius in his study. I changed the color to a deep wine red instead of the green, but the rest of the description fits.

I was a little disappointed that the dress featured on my book’s cover didn’t have the deep bell sleeves and white undersleeves that were so typical of this era, but since the cover itself was so lovely, I didn’t complain.

FullSteamAhead Cover Final

So what about you?

  • What is the most unusual fashion item that you found yourself falling in love with?

I was a child of the 80’s and while I never went in for the leg warmers or ripped t-shirts, I will admit to owning stone-washed jeans and having big 80’s style bangs.

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

18 thoughts on “Unusual Frontier Fashion”

  1. I think I have fallen for every trend there was (whether it looked good or not). I’ve become more sensible over the last 5 years or so and try not to buy them.

  2. Thanks so much for this post as my w-i-p is 1850’s!
    As far as fashion goes, I can remember begging my BFF to get me a pair of “hot pants” for my birthday one year since my mother would never have bought them. Back in the early 70’s, hot pants weren’t as short as some of the shorts girls wear today.

  3. Hi, Janine. So you’re trendy, huh? 🙂 Some of those trends are fun, so I don’t blame you a bit. The older I get, the more afraid I am to follow trends. I’d hate to be one of those moms who tries to dress like her teenage daughter. But then, my teenage daughter wears jeans and t-shirts most days, so maybe that wouldn’t be so awful. 🙂

  4. Janie – An 1850’s manuscript? Wonderful! I bought two fashion books to help me study this era. If you are interested, they are EARLY CRINOLINE ERA FASHION PLATES compiled by Mandy Foster and Danielle Perry. They have two that I purchased. One from Godey’s Lady Book: 1850-1854 and one from Peterson’s Magazine: 1850-1854. I tended to like the fashion from the Peterson’s volume a little better.

    So – did you get that pair of hot pants? 🙂 When my daughter and I go shopping for shorts, we shop in the boys/mens department just so we can find ones that are long enough for us to feel decently covered. I’m ready for the skinny jeans, low-rider pants, and short shorts to go out of style.

  5. I think those under sleeves are great. It would have helped keep much of my clothing clean, as I am left handed.

    I did by leggings and an oversized sweatshirt, during my high school days. I also had “big hair.” However, now I am all about being comfortable. No heels–I like to stay upright. No hose–not fun to put on and itchy. I like the idea of a short petticoat under dresses, no need for hose. However, I am glad to not need all of the layers that the women wore in the 19th century.

  6. As I went to high school in the late 40’s my favorite was when the Gibson girl style made a reappearance. The skirts were a few inches above the ankle and the blouses had the bib insets. we wore ballerina style shoes with it.
    In the early 50’s when poodle skirts were all the rage I made my 2 year old daughter & I matching skirts.

  7. Hi, Maureen.

    Love the matching poodle skirts! How adorable that must have been. When I got married, I had my hair styled in Gibson Girl fashion. I always thought that was so elegant!

  8. Hi Karen,

    I love to dress up and recently a friend said that I didn’t dress: I costumed. Guess that pretty much sums it up. I’m mad for accessories; belts, jewelry–anything that can turn a plain outfit into something unique. I’m not sure that all those fancy dresses of the 1850s left much room for accessorizing.

  9. One thing I have always loved about the covers for your books are the dresses they have used. I have wanted to own every one of them.
    I always did costumes for our family and enjoyed making them. I have lots of patterns I haven’t gotten a chance to make and now everyone is grown. My job as a children’s librarian gave me an excuse to dress up and I used every opportunity (or created them) I could to include a costume. One of our daughters and her family are involved in Civil War reenactments. Now I have a good excuse to make more outfits. Unfortunately, I am out of practice and the elaborate ball gown my daughter wants is not a good starter piece. Once I get a bunch of other prijects cleared away, I will do a day dress for her and then we can tackle the ball gown.
    My favorite fashion trend/item was the switch from miniskirts to long skirts and dresses in the mid-60’s. I made myself a few and wore them around town and to class. Unfortunately it was a small town and college, so for a long time I was the only one wearing such a thing except for a band of hippies that lived outside of town and were seldom seen.
    People wanted to know why I was wearing my nightgown. It took a year or so before the area caught up with the trend, but I love the long skirts and dresses and still wear them. I am so glad they are popular and there is such a wonderful variety available.
    Thanks for an informative post. The day dress my daughter wants does have undersleeves. Now I have a better understanding if why and how I shou do them.
    I have enjopyed all your books and look forward to reading FULL STEAM AHEAD. I am certain it will do well.

  10. Wonderful, Margaret! I think those 19th century women accessorized with hats and fabric choices more than jewelry. But I must say I’d rather have the simpler styles of today with a few accessories than having to lug around 15-20 pounds of fabric like they did back in the day.

  11. Patricia B – I’m a big fan of the longer skirts, too. Love them, especially with boots. And I adore the fact that you are a costume seamstress! I’ve always had this private fantasy of getting my family to dress up in Victorian costume at Christmas time and hiring out as professional carolers for parties and events. We all sing (well, my youngest prefers not to, but he can). I even thought about getting some kind of light post prop to carry around with us. LOL It will probably never happen, but I can dream.

    You’ll have to let us know how the civil war costumes come out. I would love to see pictures! I have very limited sewing skills and am too afraid to try anything that complicated, but I bet you will do a fabulous job!

  12. Great, informative post! Thank you so much! I remember wearing a halter top to orientation when I went to college back in’73 with my flare legged hip huggers. I thought I was hot stuff!!!! Boy, was I wrong!

  13. Love the information you shared! I love poodle skirts and can-cans! Now you all can guess how old I am!

  14. Karen, like others, I have loved your covers! Not only are the characters fabulous but I love the outfits they wear! Fantastic! I can’t wait to see your next cover! I know it’ll be worth the wait!!! I have also never been a fashionista. I have a daughter who is and one who isn’t! Night and Day those two! Even when I was younger, I tried to look nice but never trendy! I wanted comfort, like you! I did wear bell-bottoms but it was hard not to in the 70’s! The only other thing I can think of is mostly the fabric or prints that I wore – the flower type prints or something like that. I didn’t go for wild colors or big prints but just normal stuff!

  15. I have never heard of undersleeves, but what a smart idea for that time! Makes so much sense! I remember that it was a big thing when I transitioned to high school and they changed the rules from wearing dresses and skirts for the girls, to it being okay to come in pants. In junior high, we even had a special day at the end of the year called “pants day.” We all looked forward to it. No jeans allowed though. Just nice slacks. And this was the city of San Diego! Wow–makes me feel old! What a different world we live in now!

  16. Melanie – What a picture you paint! I can just see you now, strutting your stuff. 🙂

    Connie – Poodle skirts were just so iconic. Gotta love ’em!

    Valri – I’ve been so thrilled with my covers. I think my two favorite dresses from the covers are my first with A Tailor-Made Bride and the the pink and chocolate brown one from Stealing the Preacher. I’d love to play dress-up in those!

    Kathryn – You are so right about how dress codes have changed (or completely disappeared). I keep waiting for the pendulum to start swinging the other way, so there is less skin showing.

  17. You have THE most amazing covers of any author I know. They just reel me in, hook, line and sinker! One day I’ll get to read this one.

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