Tennessee Mountain Stories

Was Grandma a Clotheshorse?

Let’s talk about fashion – historical-fashion.  I want to confess right up front that I’m a fine one to be blogging on fashion.  You are more likely to find me in faded jeans than a stylish dress - sneakers instead of shiny pumps, and frankly I do not understand why anyone would choose low-rise-skinny jeans or platform shoes.  However, as I develop characters for historical novels, I find that I really need to decide whether the farmer's wife is trailing skirts through the mud or if she donned a pair of baggy overalls.  Were those women who spent their days beside a spinning wheel or pulling the beater of a loom wearing hoop skirts?

 Fashion has long been advertised.  Women of the nineteenth century didn't have the dozens of glossy magazines that assault us in every grocery aisle, but they did have Godey’s Lady’s Book to inform them of the latest trends, how and when to wear the popular fashions.  The question I've been asking myself was just how much were our neighbors of yesteryear driven by fashion trends?


Today, anything goes.  I occasionally see pictures from the big fashion shows, but I've honestly never seen most of those styles on the street.  I suppose I would assume that we are more influenced by designers and the styles of celebrities today because we are much more exposed to them.  We see them captured by the paparazzi in every phase of their lives.  It wasn't many years ago that unless you happened upon them in Hollywood or New York City, the only face of an actor you ever saw was the one he presented to his public.   So, it's hard to imagine Clark Gable mowing the lawn in a stained t-shirt, or Vivian Leigh grocery shopping in sweats.  But if I write about a lady trying to make her living as an actress in the 1930’s then I need to decide how she spent her off-camera hours, and what she chose to wear in those times.


My time period is usually half a century before that, and fashion changed a great deal in that span of time - which leads me to my second confession of the day.  Try though I may, my image of history is colored by the classic movies that have portrayed those periods.  Hence I turn once again to Gone With The Wind... (Mammy in her full skirts giving Rhett a tiny peek at her red silk petticoat and Scarlett declaring she’ll wear an off-the-shoulder dress to the barbeque at Twelve Oaks despite the scandal Mammy is sure it will cause.)  The beautiful dresses that David Selznick dressed his actresses in represented a fashion trend that lasted only a few years. 


Hooped skirts measuring up to six feet and corsets cinching waists down to eighteen inches were the culminations of several decades of ever-widening skirts.  Initially the look was achieved with layers of petticoats.  The use of a hooped cage allowed the volume without the layers and weight. 


As I read and researched, my question really was how popular were the voluminous garments?  I was just sure that only the very fashion-conscious, higher society folk were wearing them – certainly no one who worked for a living or did their own cleaning would own one, it just wasn’t practical and we know that poor people are always practical, right?  Wrong.  These new crinolines were very economical, allowing all classes of women to afford them.  The invention of the sewing machine in 1851 and the development of commercial weaving through the nineteenth century further allowed less expensive clothing that more women could have access to.


There are no statistics that register how many women in each socio-economic classes bought crinoline cages, so I have to derive popularity from other factors.  One article noted that every week there was a newspaper notice about a fire starting when someone’s skirts overturned a candle.  Additionally, the mills and factories established policies that crinolines were not to be worn to work.  These two stories certainly indicate to me that truly all classes of women were enjoying the hooped skirts.  We should certainly note that for the lady of class, who wore several different dresses each day, the crinoline was not usually worn with her work dress.  This lady would wear a small crinoline with her day dress which she wore after her chores were completed, then larger hoops in the evening with her evening or ball gown.


Certainly the urban environments were more driven by fashion trends.  Rural folks changed their styles far less often and definitely dominated the group requiring serviceable clothing.  Moreover, factory-made cloth was still less available in the country where spinning and weaving were still being done in the home well into the 20th century in Appalachia.  However, periodicals were readily available even in rural America and while there were no glossy photographs with close-ups of details, the details of the fashions were described.  For women skilled with needle and thread, that is all that would be necessary for them to sew very fashionable clothing for their families.  These seamstresses would be able even to alter hand-me-downs or last year’s dress to tailor the previously-puffed sleeves, smooth the front of a full skirt and add a bustle or remove the lace collar that is no longer desired.


And now I am reminded why I have to continually research – the twenty-first century invariably affects my perception of history.  If I intend to paint a reasonably accurate word-picture of the ladies in my books, I have to start with the right image in mind.  So when I picture the hard working, often impoverished women of rural Appalachia in the mid-nineteenth century I know their clothing reflected a necessarily practical way of life but I must also remember that they took pride in their appearance and when they had the opportunity to go to church, a wedding or a party, their clothing would mirror the description presented in last month’s edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the letter from a second cousin who visited the big city or what was in the pattern books at the general store.