Archive for the ‘Fashion’ Category

The classic Lewis & Clark Trail highway sign

In our recent post, Powdered Hair and Macaroni, we talked about the clothes and hairstyles that the well-dressed man wore back in Lewis & Clark’s day. Meriwether Lewis was a bona fide dandy (what we might call a metrosexual), while William Clark went in more for the retro look (in his case, the long hair and ruffled shirts of the Revolutionary generation). But it’s safe to say that neither one of them was too concerned about being reported to the fashion police once they hit the trail west. Instead, the primary concerns were practicality and maintaining military discipline.

Over the years, a surprising number of myths have built up about the Lewis & Clark Expedition, perhaps none more persistent than that they wore buckskins and coonskin caps, with Captain Lewis distinguished from the rest by his three-cornered hat. After all, that’s the way that the captains are portrayed in countless artists’ renderings, including the famous roadside marker that lets highway travelers know when they’re on the Lewis & Clark Trail.

Tailor Made, Trail Worn, by Robert J. Moore, Jr. and Michael Haynes (2003)

Thanks to the groundbreaking research done by Robert J. Moore, Jr. and Michael Haynes, we now know better. In their fantastic, heavily illustrated book Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing, & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery, historian Moore and artist Haynes delve deeply into long-lost history to reconstruct the actual physical world of the Corps of Discovery. This book is a must-have for any aficionado of Lewis & Clark or the early American military.

As Moore explains, uniformity of appearance was as important in Lewis and Clark’s unit as it is in any military organization. The captains were known as by-the-book officers, and it’s clear that each of the military members of the Corps were issued the standard uniform clothing of the day: shirts, vests, pants, socks, shoes, blankets, hats, and fatigue coats. Dress uniforms for diplomatic ceremonies with the Indians were also packed away and brought out for special occasions. The clothes were made from either wool or linen and came in three sizes, which the company tailor (probably Joseph Whitehouse) altered to fit.

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. In 1955, at the height of the Davy Crockett craze, coonskin caps sold at the rate of 5000 per day.

Unlike Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone, experienced frontiersmen never wore buckskin if they could help it (and neither did Indians, who traded for woven cloth whenever they got the chance). Let’s face it: leather clothing might look great at the disco, but what sane person would want to wear it for heavy, sweaty outdoor work?

Meriwether Lewis by Michael Haynes

Naturally, as the Expedition went on, they didn’t have a choice. Their clothing wore out and had to be replaced, and it’s safe to say that by the second summer, as they crossed the plains of Montana, that the men were wearing a combination of uniform clothing and Indian-style moccasins, hats, and shirts and pants. By the time of the winter on the Pacific coast at Fort Clatsop, they were wearing almost all leather clothing, a fact which influenced their decision to set up camp where the elk hunting was good. By the time they got back to St. Louis in the fall of 1806, after two and a half years on the trail, they were described as looking like “Robinson Crusoes–dressed entirely in buckskins.”

So did they have long hair and beards like Robinson Crusoe? Not likely. Again, Lewis and Clark were hard-nosed, by-the-book officers. Army regulations stated that the hair was to be worn short and that soldiers were to be clean-shaven. Lewis and Clark packed plenty of soap and razors for the men, and authors Moore and Haynes conjecture that they would have made the men clean up whenever it was practical. The Corps may have gotten scruffy during the most rugged ordeals of the trip, but they would never have had a “mountain man” type appearance as depicted by some artists.

Napoleon Bonaparte and his trend-setting hat

And what about those coonskin caps and three-cornered hats? Never happened, say Moore and Haynes. By the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, tricorn hats had gone out of fashion. Military officers wore enormous, fantastical cocked hats known as chapeau bras, a style made famous by Napoleon Bonaparte. Though they seem totally impractical, it is known that Meriwether Lewis, at least, wore this hat in the field and used it to win the trust of the Shoshone chief, Cameahwait, at a critical moment in which the chief feared that Clark’s approaching party was an ambush:

we now dismounted and the Chief with much cerimony put tippets about our necks such as they temselves woar I redily perceived that this was to disguise us and owed it’s origine to the same cause already mentioned.    to give them further confidence I put my cocked hat with feather on the chief and my over shirt being of the Indian form my hair deshivled and skin well browned with the sun I wanted no further addition to make me a complete Indian in appearance    the men followed my example and we were son completely metamorphosed.

U.S. infantry hat, by Gary R. Lucy

More often, though, the men of the Expedition wore standard-issue round hats. This style, which prevailed so widely on the American frontier, perversely survives today only in the form of the formal silk top hat. As for fur hats, the explorers mention making several animals into caps as the Expedition forged further into the west. Elk, lynx, otter, and mountain sheep all found themselves transformed into headgear, but alas, no raccoons. Sorry, Walt.

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When I was a kid, I was always puzzled by the line in Yankee Doodle, “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.” The only macaroni I knew was the Kraft kind that came in a blue box with a packet of powdered cheese. It wasn’t until later that I finally learned that “macaroni” was 18th-century slang for a dandy, a dude, a sharp-dressed man.

A young macaroni, 1774

"What is this, my son Tom?" - A young macaroni, 1774

The word “macaroni” comes from the Italian word maccherone, meaning a blockhead or fool.  Young British dandies who had been on the Grand Tour of Europe came back in fashionable, foppish clothing, sporting around London in tight trousers, short, form-fitting waistcoats with ruffles and braid, and affectations such as walking sticks, spy glasses, and nosegays. The most extreme members of the “Macaroni club” topped off their high fashion with tall, powdered wigs, often balancing a chapeau bras or a small tricorn precariously on top. Like fashionable youngsters of all eras, the Macaroni caught a lot of flack from their elders. Most Brits were annoyed at the continental high-style, finding it un-British, effeminate and silly.

Which brings us back to Yankee Doodle. The song spoofs the backward, hayseed American, who is so out of touch with European fashion that he thinks sticking a feather in his cap qualifies as “macaroni.” Judging by the Continental Army’s enthusiastic adoption of the song, American soldiers weren’t too insulted to be blackballed from the Macaroni club. Of necessity and inclination, American colonists embraced simpler fashions than their European counterparts.

This included hair styles that were much more down to earth than the elaborate wigs worn in Europe. According to the great website Hair and Hairdos of the 18th Century, short hair was the fashion among American men for most of the colonial period. On a dress-up occasion (such as having one’s portrait painted), a man would brush his hair back and either wrap it in a queue or pigtail, or tuck it into a black silk bag called a bourse or bar-wig.

Older men, who then as now often didn’t have much hair, wore wigs, and generally powdered them and the hair so that they would all be the same color. Both wigs and hair were greased with hair pomade so that the powder would stick.

18th century wigs

A sampling of 18th century wigs

The best wigs were made with human hair, usually sold by young women who needed money, and for that reason were not necessarily white. The white color comes from the powder, which was made from potato or rice flour and a coloring pigment, and perhaps a perfumed oil.

By the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were coming of age in the late 18th century, wigs were going out of style and men wore their hair in a more natural look. Thomas Jefferson eschewed wigs while in the White House and wore his hair cropped, though he continued to wear hair powder. As can be seen from the formal portraits of Meriwether Lewis, the truly fashionable kept the powdered look going.

Meriwether Lewis by Charles St. Memin (1803)

Meriwether Lewis by Charles St. Memin (1803)

Was Lewis going gray by 1807, or was he still wearing hair powder? Only his hairdresser knew for sure.

Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale (1807)

Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale (1807)

By contrast, none of the portraits of William Clark show him wearing any powder.

William Clark by Charles Willson Peale

William Clark by Charles Willson Peale

William Clark by John Wesley Jarvis

William Clark by John Wesley Jarvis

Then as now, the dictates of fashion were hard to fathom. Check out the Thomas Jefferson Wiki for more interesting discussion on wigs and hair powder.

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