Bringing A Nation Together – Fashion And The American West

…Tombstone becomes queen of the boom towns where the latest Paris fashions are sold from the backs of wagons…

The above quote is from the opening narration to the movie Tombstone and while it might have been an exaggeration, it raises an interesting question in regard to how current fashion was in the American West.

Fashion, loosely defined, is a style that is accepted and used by the majority of a group at any one time, no matter how small that group. As applied to women’s fashions of the 1870s and 1880s, one could easily argue that the bustled dress was a major fashion that underwent a series of evolutions during this period. For men, the same thing could be said about the sack suit and there is a  large body of documentation to support this ranging from photographs, magazines, illustrations, and, most significantly, paper sewing patterns.

As it relates to the American West, the short answer is that by the 1870s, people in the West were pretty well informed about events in the rest of the nation (and the world) this also to fashion. The longer answer is that the dissemination of information was dependent on the speed of communications. People living closer to railroads were more well informed than those farther away and a lot depended on where the railroad was located. With the railroad came a more certain delivery of mail and that meant the shipment of books, magazines, catalogs, and ultimately merchandise.

People are often under the impression, no doubt spurred along by film and television, that it took months, if not years, for mail to reach people and that fashion styles ran at least five to ten years behind those in the East (sometimes referred to as “The States”). This might have been the case before the American Civil War but with the end of the war, railroad construction rapidly expanded from 1865 through 1873. With the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the United States was brought closer together and along with it an increase in freight and passenger volume.

In terms of fashion, the 19th Century saw the growth of various mass-market publications such as with Godey’s Lady’s Book (1830 – 1878), Demorest’s (which published under a variety of names from 1860 through 1899), Peterson’s Magazine (1842 – 1898), and The Delineator (1869 – 1937). Fashion news, along with fashion plates, advice columns, and patterns, made up a good part of each of these publications and often reflected the latest styles from Paris. While it could be argued that much of the information may have been of limited utility to those out in the west, especially in more isolated areas, the fact that such information was published signify that there was interest. Moreover, all of these publications contained practical information deliberately aimed at the home sewer.

Closely related to the publications was the development of printed paper sewing patterns. In fact, Demorest’s Magazine originally started in 1860 as a catalog for marketing a line of printed paper sewing patterns developed from the 1850s on by Ellen Louise Demorest.  One of her accomplishments was devising a mathematical system for sizing patterns up or down. Another major innovator was Ebenezer Butterick who in 1863 started selling tissue paper sewing patterns that were graded in multiple sizes. As in the case of Demorest’s, Butterick started publishing The Delineator as a vehicle for promoting his patterns.


By the late 1890s, the ready-made pattern industry was a thriving multi-million dollar industry in the United States and patterns were available in retail locations as well as by mail order.

From The National Garment Cutter Book Of Diagrams

With the growing availability of fashion information throughout the nation, people were able to stay abreast of fashion in a timely manner (often just a matter of weeks). Combined with the mass production of sewing machines, the home sewer was well positioned to take advantage of this proliferation of fashion information. If people were not able to precisely imitate the latest Paris fashions, they at least were aware of them and often imitated them to the best of their abilities and resources.

One small demonstration of this spread of fashion information can be seen in this picture taken in the town of Kingston, New Mexico in the late 1880s:


Here we see women dressed consistent to the 1880s. The dresses are fairly plain except for the woman seated in front of the dress making shop- it’s presumed that she is the proprietress. Interestingly enough, Kingston was founded in August 1882 when silver was discovered in the area. Soon there were a number of mines in operation and Kingston thrived as a boom town. In many respects, Kingston was similar to Tombstone in that both were boom towns at roughly the same time (Tombstone started a few years before) and here we see that while fashion may have been a bit more subdued than back east, it was still fairly up to date.

While admittedly this is only a small sample, it still demonstrates that contrary to popular belief, the American West was not “years” behind the rest of the nation nor the world in terms of fashions, or at least fashion information. Combined with the growth of mass market publications and printed sewing patterns, now any home sewer could participate in fashion.

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