Colorado Pioneer Clothing
Was Functional, Not Fancy

photo of functional Colorado pioneer clothing worn by members of wagon train courtesy of Time Life Books

Buckskins, gingham, calico, canvas, heavy cotton, these were the fabrics used to make the clothing of the Colorado pioneers who traveled into the new territory.

drawing of mountain men clothing photo courtesy of the National Archives

The pioneers on their way to Colorado and beyond, were usually people from the east coast and mid west of the U.S. 

Their clothing in everyday life then, differed greatly from what would be worn on the long trek westward.

Garments needed to be functional and long wearing.  Light clothing for the heat of the summer months, heavy and warm for the winter snows were required. 

Men, women and children dressed themselves in fabrics that would hold up along the trail.

Colorado Pioneer Clothing Needed Constant Repair

No bustles or silks for the pioneer women who had to uphold their duties on the wagon train.  Top hats and tails would look ridiculous for the men who drove or walked alongside the dusty wagons.

Colorado pioneer clothing was the most important of the supplies needed for the long journey.  This could be bought at the staging areas and general stores of Independence and St. Joseph Missouri. 

Those financially unable to purchase items needed from the store, found the wives making the clothes for herself and her family.

For instance, let’s say that a man would purchase a few cotton and flannel shirts, a couple pair of pants made of canvas, wool or corduroy, long john underwear, at least one pair of sturdy leather boots, cotton socks, a hat, gloves and winter coat.

Women’s wear would be plain and simple.  The dresses and bonnets were made of calico or gingham, cotton and flannel undergarments including stockings, boots, winter coat and gloves or mittens.

pioneer woman's handmade dress, bonnet and cape courtesy of Time Life Books

The children were dressed as their parents, wearing the same type garments.  Children usually rode in the wagons, but on many occasions, such as during the summer heat, kids and adults alike chose to walk instead of sweltering in the canvas enclosed wagon.

It took months to cross the plains and mountains of the new west.  General stores and trading posts were few and far between on the trails so purchasing new garments was out of the question.

Therefore, when clothes became torn, threadbare or just falling apart, the women would bring out their sewing kits and start the repairs to make the fabrics last a little while longer.

Boots and socks wore out quicker than clothing.  Rapid repairs to the soles would only last so long before the leather fell apart. 

Summer traveling allowed homesteaders to go barefoot, but when winter came along, the pioneers would wrap their feet in rags or canvas sacks to keep from freezing.

Ladies longed for the fancy dresses and bonnets they used to wear when they lived back east.  Many on the trip had brought along catalogs from Sears and Roebuck and the popular Godey’s Ladies Book and dream of the day when they could wear finery again and throw away their pioneer clothing.

Finally reaching their journey’s end, these rugged pioneers spread out to homestead land or settle in the few towns along the trail.

Homesteading families had to make their own clothing.  So among the items brought from home were looms, spinning wheels, thread, needles, pins, scissors, patterns and buttons. 

Pioneers lucky enough to have brought sheep and cattle with them would have handmade clothes of wool and tanned buckskin, sometimes deer hide.

Spinning wheel and woman's long johns photos courtesy of Time Life Books

The working men and women of the new territory were dressed in functional garb, basically the same pioneer clothing as they wore on the long trek west. 

If the homesteaders had to go town for supplies, and most of the time it took a couple days to reach the town and back to the farm, each family member had a set of clothes for Sunday best and wore these to town.

Fancy Clothes Were Worn by City Folk

Those who settled in towns had the advantage of buying clothes from the general store or by mail order.  The finery these people longed for could be theirs in the “big city”. 

Silks, parasols, cute hats, stylish shoes, the ladies of the town wore these items with pride, glad to shed the grimy, threadbare garments of the wagon train.

Items of ladies clothing and mother and child clothes courtesy of Godey's Ladies Book

Typical city family's clothing photo courtesy of Time Life Books

The men were just as well turned out as their women, wearing top hats, fancy dress coats, pants, vests, and shiny shoes.

Hats, shoes, winter outerwear for men photo courtesy of Time Life Books

Proper dress for a famous city dweller, Bat Masterson, photo courtesy Time Life Books

Colorado pioneer clothing differed between the homesteaders and townspeople as far as their dress and homes. 

But on the long journey by covered wagon, the new Colorado pioneers all dressed in very plain clothing and reacted the same to hardship and danger.

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