Twenty plus years of outfitting re-enactors for theater presentations and events has built a considerable collection of historically accurate reproduction clothing. We have clothing for frontier era explorers, botanists, mountain men, Native Americans, missionaries, pioneers, miners, military, and settlers. Most of our re-enactors portray farmers, small business owners, and professionals crossing the plains in a wagon train, but we also have a outfits that represent the social occasions, the ball gowns and frock coats and the more civilized and settled west.
We accommodate a lot of different sizes, ages, and physical make-ups. All the costumes are custom – made for correct construction methods, materials, styles, to represent different social and economic situations that happened in the frontier west. Challenging? Yes!!! Finding suitable fabrics, fasteners, and patterns takes a lot of research. Most of our clothing was made by volunteers and staff, with a few special pieces commissioned from specialists in the field of historical reproductions.
And then…there’s another issue. How hard is it for a re-enactor to entirely put aside modern fashion preferences and get into authentic historical styles? Some of our re-enactors enthusiastically embrace the complete picture – down to 1800s underwear and constricting foundational garments, or outerwear that fares poorly compared to modern wind and rain proof gear. Scratchy fabrics, tight styles for women, baggy styles for men, two dozen hook and eye fasteners; it can be difficult to forego the modern conveniences of stretch fabrics, Velcro and zippers.
But all agree there is a lot we learn about people and technology and economics through the study of historic clothes. Why were only certain materials available in 1850? When did new methods and materials such as plastics and zippers and sewing machines change styles? Health, safety and social mores impacted fashion.
We have approximately 150 outfits to fit infants and everything in-between up to big and tall. Surprisingly, every season someone comes to volunteer who doesn’t fit anything we have on hand, and we have to research and create something new.
Our interpreters learn how to tell visitors about the clothing; it’s an easy portal into a historical time period. After all, everyone has clothes, and has to wear clothes, so we can all understand this part of being human – no matter what era.
Here is some typical information we might share about men’s shirts in the mid-1800s:
Americans today might own multiple outfits and many shirts, but due to the cost and labor intensive effort of making textiles and clothing, Americans then may have owned only two or three outfits.
Men’s shirts filled multiple purposes. The typical workshirt or undershirt may have been made of linen, cotton or lightweight wool. For the most part, white or dyed with natural dyes. Plaids and checks were widely available, printed fabrics somewhat available.
Short sleeves or sleeveless for men? Unlikely in the 1850s. Most people can identify social morals of the time; however, practical reasons for always having long sleeves included protection from sun, insects, and scratches and cuts in an era before sunscreen, bug repellent, and antibiotics. For a working man, a cut or scratch that became infected could be deadly.
The sleeves were loose enough to allow movement, but not so loose to snag or catch on equipment. Shirts were usually considered an “undershirt”. Early versions were made of rectangular pieces that made best use of the fabric, and could be cut and shaped without pattern pieces. Open at the neck, they were fastened with a neckerchief or necktie. They were usually worn with a vest, jacket, or a second over shirt or smock depending on what kind of work. The shirts were long, and for many men, underwear was an unaffordable luxury, so the length tucked into pants provided a bit of a protective layer between skin and scratchy pants’ fabrics.