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Image Backcountry Dress Ways: Border Origins of Country Western Costume

Travelers also expressed surprise at the costume of the backsettlers. Men, women and even children tended to adorn themselves in a manner that seemed fundamentally alien to other English-speaking people.

Backcountry women dressed in what Anglican clergyman Charles Woodmason called “shift and petticoat,” which were its nearest equivalents in the south of England. But in fact it was a different style of clothing altogether—a full bodice with deep décolletage, tight-fitted waist, short full skirt and a hem worn high above the ankle. The Anglican missionary thought it scandalously revealing.

Married women covered themselves more modestly in long dresses, with heavy woolen shawls draped across their head and shoulders. Elderly women wore heavy-hooded bonnets made of what was called “six or seven hundred” linen, and covered their feet with coarse shoes or heavy “shoepacks” as they were called in the eighteenth century.1

Backcountry women of all ages normally wore homespun linsey-woolsey garments, often of exquisite beauty and refinement. Even the acidulous Anglican Charles Woodmason was moved to admiration by the sight of fifty Presbyterian ladies, “all dressed in white of their own spinning.”2 These dresses were not shut away in closets but draped upon the cabin walls as a form of decoration. A backcountry writer remembered that in the eighteenth century:

The coats and bedgowns of the women … were hung in full display on wooden pegs around the walls of their cabins, so that while they answered in some degree the place of paper hangings or tapestry, they announced to the stranger as well as neighbor the wealth or poverty of the family in the articles of clothing. This practice has not yet been laid aside among the backwoods families.3

Male backsettlers also had a style of dress that startled strangers. They commonly wore shirts of linen in the summer and deerskin in the wintertime. Kercheval recalled,

The hunting shirt was universally worn. This was a kind of loose frock, reaching halfway down the thighs, with large sleeves open before, and so wide as to lap over a foot or more when belted. The cape was large, and sometimes handsomely fringed with a raveled piece of cloth of a different color. The bosom of this dress served as a wallet to hold a chunk of bread, cakes, jerk, tow for wiping the barrel of the rifle, or any other necessary for the hunter or warrior. The belt, which was always tied behind, answered for several purposes. … The hunting shirt was generally made of linsey, sometimes of coarse linen and a few of dressed deerskins.4

This upper garment was cut full in the chest and shoulders, with broad seams that ran horizontally across the front and back, and was drawn or “cinched” tightly at the waist. The effect was to enlarge the shoulders and the chest. Much as female costume created an exceptionally strong sense of femininity, male dress in the backcountry put equally heavy stress on masculinity. The dress ways of the backcountry were designed to magnify sexual differences.

The men of the backcountry also wore loose, flowing trousers or breeches or “drawers” as Kercheval called them. The lower legs were sometimes sheathed in gaiters called “leather stockings,” which writers such as James Fenimore Cooper in his Leatherstocking Tales made the hallmark of the backcountryman.

Children in the backcountry also dressed differently from youngsters in other parts of British America. They were allowed great freedom in articles of clothing. “No shoes or stockings,” Charles Woodmason wrote, with his accustomed air of disapproval. “Children run half-naked. The Indians are better cloathed and lodged.”5

These backcountry dress ways were often compared with those of the Indians. But in fact the costume of adult backwoodsmen and women was very different from the breechclouts, tight leggings, and matchcoats of the eastern tribes. It was also highly impractical in the eastern woodlands—“very cold and uncomfortable in bad weather,” Kercheval remembered, and was put aside in time of military campaigning, when according to Kercheval young Europeans tended to copy the more functional clothing of their Indian counterparts.6

Later generations remembered this backcountry costume as aboriginally American—the pioneer dress of the frontier. But it was not worn on most frontiers, and was not invented in America. It was similar to dress ways described by travelers in the north of England, the lowlands of Scotland and northern Ireland. This male costume in the British border country was very similar to that which would be worn in the American backcountry—the same linsey or leather shirts, the same broad cut across the shoulders and chest, the same horizontal seams, the same heavy stress on masculinity, the same “drawers” and trowsers, the same leather stockings. Leather shirts and leggings were not frontier inventions. They were commonly worn throughout the borders in the eighteenth century. The account books of one Cumbrian yeoman recorded the cost of covering his legs in sheepskin leggings.7 Another bought gaiters which he called “leather stockings” at Carlisle in 1742. That phrase, which American writers such as Cooper tied to the frontier, was in fact a common north border expression. The distinctive dress of the American frontiersman was adapted from the customs of the British borderlands in all respects except the moccasins and coonskin cap.8

Equally striking were the similarities in women’s costume. One English traveler from Cheshire noticed on a trip to the lowlands of Scotland in 1639 that older women wore a “garment of the same woolen stuff whereof our saddlecloths in England are made: which is cast over their heads, and covers their faces on both sides.” He also observed that “young maids not married are bareheaded,” and “ancient women” wore “a broad boungrace coming over their brows.” A boungrace was a cloth shade or curtain attached to the front of a woman’s bonnet. It was also worn in the northern counties of England, and called an “Ugly” in Northumberland.9

Children’s costume on the borders was also much the same as in the backcountry. On the borders, children normally went barefoot, just at they did in the back settlements. One observer wrote that they tended to leap “as if they had hoofs, but it is almost the same all over the north.”10

These various dress ways spread through the southern highlands and onto the southwestern frontier. Many elements survive to this day, in the clothing style that is called “western dress” in the United States. Derivative forms also appear in the stage costumes of country-western singers, and in the wardrobes of back-country presidents such as Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. They may still be seen in the ordinary dress of men and women throughout a broad region from Nashville to Dallas. The whirl of fashion has modified this costume in many ways with the introduction of Spanish elements in the nineteenth century and a touch of Hollywood glitz in the twentieth. But strong continuities linked the costume of North Britain in the seventeenth century to backcountry dress ways in the eighteenth century, frontier fashions in the nineteenth century, and “country western” clothing today.

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