Of the many perils of pioneer life in the Oregon Territory, hoop skirts are rarely mentioned. Yet after crossing the country in covered wagons, braving storms, stampedes, raging rivers and wild animals, many pioneer women died horrible deaths at the hands — or hems — of their giant skirts.

The skirts “took up a lot of space and women were prone to knocking things over with them,” said Kay Demlow, a fashion historian who speaks on “Pioneer Clothing” next Wednesday, April 17, at the Washington County Museum.

by: COURTESY PHOTO: KAY DEMLOW - Kay Demlow brings the 19th century alive through clothing.Worse, she said, some women lost their spatial awareness and accidentally dipped the (highly flammable) skirts into their cooking fires. This hazard killed women across America, including the second wife of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Around the same 19th-century period, said Demlow, there may have been more silk dresses on the gritty streets of Oregon City than anywhere else in the world.

Demlow doesn’t remember where she heard that fun fact, but she knows the reason why: “Early pioneers were arriving from a six-month camping trip,” she said. “They had walked the length of the United States and had worn out their everyday clothes in the process. All they had left to wear to town were their best dresses.”

Demlow — who also owns Lavender’s Green Historic Clothing in Hillsboro — says clothes can provide not only warmth and fashion but cultural insights.

Take the role of women in America, for example. By the 1850s, men’s clothing had already settled into a formula — shirt, vest, coat, tie and pants — that remains familiar today.

By contrast, the frequent and dramatic changes in women’s fashion reveal a great deal.

The 1850s style of petticoats, corsets, bonnets and hoop skirts lasted only a couple decades, Demlow said. “A small waist, a big skirt and a little, round head — that was the feminine ideal.”

That culture drew a strong line between male and female, Demlow said. “Women were expected to be virtuous, discreet, modest, et cetera and they were trying to dress the part. But the women’s movement started in Seneca Falls in 1848, so at the same time, they were trying to get their legal rights.”

That may be why women’s clothes continued to change, she said. “Men had found their role and were quite comfortable in it, while women were still looking for their place in the world and trying to define it.”

Demlow’s love for both history and fashion started around age seven. “I spent several summers at my grandparents’ farm in southwest Ohio,” she said. “In the attic my grandmother had a trunk full of funny, old garments. I distinctly remember a pair of black bloomers and we would play dress up with them. It was bad for the clothes, but good for me because I got to see the care with which they were made. That planted the first seeds.”

The second magical moment came when Demlow was 12. Her parents packed her and her four sisters her sisters into a Coleman camper and traveled to a living-history museum in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

“We arrived on the commons and there were soldiers marching in full uniforms,” she said. “It was like being transported to another time and place. I got excited about living history the way most kids got excited about Disneyland.”

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