Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Monday, May 21, 2012

Less Like Shane, More Like Mr. Darcy By Celia Hayes

Welcome back to History Undressed, guest author Celia Hayes! If you missed her two wonderful previous posts they are located here:  True to the Union & Goliad--The Other Alamo. Today she has another great post written for us! Enjoy!

Less Like Shane, More Like Mr. Darcy

I think very fondly of re-enactors when I am working up a book. I consider them as open-air historians. What better way is there to get an idea of how something was accomplished; starting a fire from flint and steel, to learn the heft and feel of an 1836 Colt Paterson revolver and the method of loading it with lead ball and black powder, or how a gentleman of the 1830s on the Texas frontier might have combined the height of fashion with local accessories. Re-enactors do exacting research about every finicky detail, and the results can be viewed in detail and in three dimensions.  Movies and television are a less than satisfactory substitute. This is because of the dimension thing, and often because the movie costumer doesn’t take nearly enough care to be faithful to a specific period. Visualizing the clothing worn on the American frontier may be an especial challenge, since nearly 70 years’ worth of genre movie westerns have fixed a certain image in the imagination – that of the cowboy, who was really only peculiar only to a very limited part and for a relatively short period of time.

Thinking ‘old west’ and most readers and movie goers have the image of form and fashion set in the last quarter of the 19th century, never realizing sartorially speaking, it wasn’t all John Wayne and Shane. Quite often, it was rather more like Mr. Darcy. No cowboy hats or boots, no jeans, nothing like what people are used to think of as "western" dress, which reflects a much later, post-Civil War and industrial era. A movie costumer could fit out a movie set on the early 19th century frontier with costumes taken from a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens movie, and it would be perfectly authentic … but with certain allowances given. Far west outposts like Texas were not entirely cut off from communication and fashion - from Europe or anywhere else - but local influences, economic necessity and custom did add certain rustic touches.

The Anglo-American gentlemen of early Texas and the far west wore the same fashionable tail-coats, neck-cloth, starched shirt-collar and tall top-hats or billed caps as anywhere else in America, Britain and Europe. They indulged in the same ornate waistcoats with the obligatory watch, watch-chain and fob, depending on taste or income. Sometimes they varied the wardrobe with wide straw planter’s hats, or a sash of vividly colored silk around the waist – but that was a very male bit of a splash and most often worn for best. It was also common for work and every-day to assume a hunting coat made of heavy canvas or buckskin, trimmed with fringe. This was a loose-fitting, A-line and wrap-around garment, often secured with a belt or sash at the waist. Such every-day wear was often accessorized with a huge hunting knife, boots and fancy spurs with Mexican-influenced jingle-bobs on them. (Yes, their spurs did go jingle-jangle.) The taste for large hunting knives was also a frontier influence – especially the Kentucky or Bowie knife, which could be almost as large as a small sword. Routinely carrying a single pistol or a pair of them on a belt holster was something which came at a later date, with the invention and widespread popularity of a practical repeating pistol, rather than a single-shot weapon.

Sometimes a gentleman preferred shoes, or brogans, rather than boots, worn with leather leggings – and when shoes were unavailable or an existing pair gone beyond repair, then Indian-style moccasins or buckskin leather served as footwear. There were a small minority of gentlemen – usually fur-trappers and others who spent much of their lives beyond the farthest frontier – who did go all the way toward wearing Indian-style buckskin shirts and leggings, for comfort and utility. But in the main and with the exceptions noted, the gentlemen of the frontier dressed very much in the same style as their contemporaries elsewhere.


Celia Hayes lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is the author of six novels set on the American frontier: To Truckee’s Trail – an account of the first wagon train to cross the Sierra Nevada, the Adelsverein Trilogy – which tells the story of the German settlements in the Texas Hill Country, and Daughter of Texas, and Deep in the Heart, a two-part account of a woman’s life during the years of the Republic of Texas. Visit Celia at www.celiahayes.com

1 comment:

Kenn Knopp said...

Re: ADELSVEREIN... I'm no fan of novels or creative-history. But, Celia Hayes' book is so thoroughly and historically correct that who cares the names and circumstances have been jerrymandered around. What a brilliant and inspired writer. None like her!