American Clothing – 1800s

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American boys at school (1800s)

American boys at school (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.

Enslaved people planting sweet potatoes (1862)

Enslaved people planting sweet potatoes (1862)

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

Boys in overalls doing chores on the Oregon Trail

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. 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

Comanche women (1800s)

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

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 | 2017-08-10T22:59:48+00:00 August 10th, 2017|Clothing, North America|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. American Clothing – 1800s. Study Guides, August 10, 2017. Web. February 22, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
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 Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. 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
      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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