Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Politics of Fashion

This has been the most difficult move I've ever made. It was determined to throw every obstacle in my way that it could. Despite having to make several more trips between states than we had planned on I managed to complete my entry for challenge #11 just in time. I went to pick up my camera to photograph it and it wouldn't turn on at all. Dead battery. Looking around the mess of half empty boxes I realized I had absolutely no idea where the charger for it might have ended up. There were still half a dozen boxes sitting in the car that we hadn't even unloaded! I gave up for the time being and decided to search for the charger once everything was finally unloaded.

The evening after, still unable to find my camera charger, I sat down to at least type up some of the blog post so I could add the pictures in later. The power cord to my computer started to smoke, giving off an acrid smell. Burnt out completely, and I only had ten percent battery left on my laptop. I was able to find a fairly cheap replacement online but I would have to wait for it to be delivered. Luckily I stumbled upon my camera charger a couple days later. The power cord for my laptop arrived right on schedule and I could finally try and write about my entry!

Since I was in the middle of moving I picked what I thought would be a fairly simple yet still very interesting entry. I've been rather enamoured with the Wild West ever since I was a little girl reading Little House on the Prairie and the rest of the books in that series. Recently I acquired a book called Cowgirls: Women of the Wild West. It was all about women who made new and better lives for themselves out west, starting at about the 1880's and working it's way up to more modern times.

Out west women were a little more freed from the restrictive gender roles of traditional Victorian society. It was a hard and dangerous life but many women made quite a name for themselves. At first most women remained in the traditional types of clothing that women in the east and in Europe were wearing. In a world where every pair of hands was needed to carve a living out of the wilderness women were wrangling cattle and working the ranch in long skirts, corsets, and high heeled shoes. 

It was still traditional at first for women to ride side saddle and they still wore long riding habits to do so. Some women were not happy with this arrangement however. The long skirt of most riding habits would catch easily on brush and a side saddle was not a steady perch if one wanted to rope a steer or herd cattle as many women did. One female rancher lamented that she could not ride a high spirited bronco on a side saddle. Women began to challenge traditions and ride astride, but this brought up the problem of how to do so in a skirt. 

One of the first solutions to this dilemma was a split riding skirt. It was a long skirt that was split in the middle like pants. There would be a flap over the front that could be buttoned to cover the split, making it look like a regular skirt so a woman could walk about looking proper after dismounting her horse. The book has an interesting passage on these split skirts and why I felt they would be proper for the Political challenge.

On the advice of the ranch manager, Evelyn Cameron sent away to a well-known Chicago firm for what was called a California riding costume, which cost her one hundred dollars. The skirt was long but split like pants to allow her to ride like a man. When she rode the forty-eight miles from her ranch into Miles City, Montana in her California riding habit, folks were shocked. "It created a small sensation," Cameron said. "so great at first was the prejudice against any divided garment in Montana that a warning was given me to abstain from riding on the streets of Miles City lest I might be arrested!"

Thoroughly fascinated by these skirts now I set out to figure out how they were made. At first I thought that they were basically baggy pants with a separate panel that buttoned over the front, but it seemed a bit impractical to just have a loose bit of fabric flapping around as you rode. Folkwear carries a pattern for them but I didn't have time to order it and wait for shipping. The description gave me a clue about a better construction method however. The pattern said it had a front closure that buttoned one way for a skirt and the other for pants. After studying the line drawing of the pattern for a bit I figured out about how it should go together. A picture from the book was my inspiration for a fairly plain model of skirt.

The description of this skirt says it is a heavy twill style that was popular in the 1890's. Though I would have loved to make a flashier version with fringe and other embellishments as became popular amongst rodeo girls later on, I was on a tight budget. The simple version would have to do.

Unable to find any twill in the fabric store with more than a yard left on the bolt I settled for a similar fabric called cornstalk rodeo. Pretty perfect for this project after all! It's a poly/cotton blend but it's fairly impossible for me to find accurate fabrics in the store any more and there was no time to order online. It has the proper weight and color that I wanted at least.

And here is the split skirt with the split covered up. I accidentally drafted my pattern just a touch too large for me, but I'd rather too large than too small! The front panel is an extension of the right pantleg. When buttoned to the row of buttons on the left, it covers the split to make a skirt. 

Flip the panel over to the row of buttons on the right side and the split is revealed with the extra fabric safely fastened down. There is a small placket under the left row of buttons for getting in and out of the skirt.

The back has two large double box pleats to disguise the split as best as possible. All the seams are sewn flat-felled for extra strength to hold up to the rigors of riding. I even placed a small pocket in the right side seam.

And here's a side view with the front flap completely unbuttoned. All in all it was quite the brain teaser trying to figure out the patterning for this skirt! It came out better than I could have hoped for but still in need of a bit of tweaking, but first drafts rarely come out perfect anyway. It's always a lot of fun trying out something a bit different from the normal skirts and blouses I usually make, and especially such an interesting bit of history!

The split skirts were not relegated completely to the wild west and wild women however. By the 1900's they were fairly normal wear for a ranch woman and had even made their way back east. I've seen examples of very similar front buttoning skirts used as part of a bicycling outfit after the turn of the century.

The Challenge: #11 The Politics of Fashion

Fabric: 4 yards Rodeo cotton/poly blend

Pattern: Self-drafted

Year: 1890's

Notions: 6 large buttons, 2 hooks and eyes, thread

How Historically Accurate is it? Around 60%, fairly accurate pattern and construction but inaccurate materials.

Hours to Complete: 5 or 6

First Worn: Just for pictures

Total Cost: $26


  1. What a clever concept and wonderfully executed! Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Hello again, the more I think about this the more I like it. I ride horses and would love this pattern. Might you be willing to sell a copy of yours? I can length it, I just am not good at drafting from scratch. Please advise!

    2. I have a bad habit of drafting patterns directly onto my fabric, so I don't actually have a copy of my pattern. It came out a little wonky too, needs some tweaking that i just don't have the time for. I did base my pattern heavily off of the diagrams of a pattern from folkwear that you could purchase though. is the link to the pattern, it's about $17. I've used their patterns before and you'll get a much better result than if I tried to give you mine! Thanks for your interest.