American Clothing – 1800s

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American boys at school (1800s) - American clothing - 1800s

American clothing – 1800s: American boys at school (1800s)

What did people wear in the 1800s?

By the 1800s, most of the people living in North America were of European or African origin. Kids still often wore clothes that had been cut down for them from worn-out grown-up clothing.

Most kids, and many grown people, went barefoot whenever it was warm enough, even to school. Women usually wore shirts and long skirts down to their ankles, or even brushing the ground.

More about American people in the 1800s

Enslaved people planting sweet potatoes (1862)

American clothing – 1800s: Enslaved people planting sweet potatoes (1862)

Clothes got cheaper

Sometimes women wore steel hoops under their skirts to make them rounder. Under their dresses, they wore petticoats, and shifts (like a nightgown), and corsets to support their breasts.

More about the history of cotton
Who invented steel?

They could afford to use more cloth because people were making clothes of cotton, which was cheaper. Many people now had both an everyday dress and a special dress for holidays or to wear to church.

Boys in overalls doing chores on the Oregon Trail

American clothing: Boys in overalls doing chores on the Oregon Trail

African styles came to the Americas

African women living in slavery tried to keep dressing the way they had at home – wrapping their heads with cloth, for instance. Some African styles, like the kerchief, became popular with North American women, white and black and Native American.

More about African clothing
Slavery in the United States

But enslaved women usually only had one dress, and even that was usually an old dress that a free woman didn’t want anymore. Sometimes these women had to sew their dresses out of old flour sacks.

Farming women who had to work hard on their farms, or women who were hunters or gold miners, sometimes wore pants (especially if nobody would see them).

Comanche women with a baby

American clothing: Comanche women (1800s)

Jeans were invented

In the 1850s, men began to wear jeans, made first from hemp cloth by a Jewish man named Jacob Davis. Soon Davis started to make jeans out of cotton, along with his partner Levi Strauss. Now we call them Levi’s. They also wore denim or cotton corduroy overalls.

More about hemp cloth

Men started to wear their pants down to their ankles instead of their knees. By this time, even most of the Native people were wearing mostly European clothes. But clothing styles changed again in the 1900s.

Learn by doing: try walking around barefoot for a while
More about the history of cotton
More about the cotton gin
More about sewing machines
More American clothing styles – 1900s

Bibliography and further reading about American clothing:


North American clothing before 1500 AD
North American Economy
American History home

By |2018-12-12T07:00:54+00:00August 10th, 2017|Clothing, North America|7 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. American Clothing – 1800s. Study Guides, August 10, 2017. Web. December 15, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. Jane December 11, 2018 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    I am doing a skit on the life on an Irish- American woman, any tips for how to dress the part?

  2. Oleta Edwards March 29, 2018 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    Our county in central Missouri is celebrating its bicentennial this year
    I am on the planning committee and would like to dress appropriate to middle classes as possible. Where cam I get information?

    • Karen Carr March 29, 2018 at 11:12 pm

      I really think the Godey’s Lady’s Book would work for you too – just use printed cotton instead of silk, and not too much lace or fancy buttons.

    • Karen Carr March 31, 2018 at 11:32 pm

      Um, upon further consultation, I now realize that Godey’s Lady’s Book only goes back to 1830, so that won’t work for you. The styles of 1818 were loose, tunic-like dresses modelled on Greek vases. Watch any of the Jane Austen movies, like Pride and Prejudice, to see the kind of thing ladies were wearing at that time.

  3. Karen Harris February 9, 2018 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    I am a part of a Wild West themed corn maze that is in the planning stage for this upcoming fall season. Could tou please di rect me pictures of the dress of ladies who loved in towns and were more affluent?

    • Karen Carr February 9, 2018 at 10:58 pm

      Wow, that sounds like fun! You might look at these: . Godey’s Lady’s Book was a catalogue of ladies’ fashions that many women used to see how to make their own dresses, or have them made by seamstresses, all throughout the 1800s.

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