Period Clothing 101

Welcome to Period Clothing 101

Your instructor for today is Judy Bridges, who has been doing historical recreation for a while now, with additional information from Barbara Smith, and photographs from Judy Bridges, the nice folks on the ChatAboutFortNisqually email list, and Lisa Peppan.  The clothing discussed here is appropriate for the Pacific Slope (aka the west coast of Oregon state, Washington state, and the lower mainland of British Columbia in the mid-1800s).

Judy is a descendant of Hudson's Bay Company employee Amable Arquoitte and his Aboriginal wife (amongst others) and a skilled basket weaver.  She and her silversmith husband Bill regularly attend reenactments and historical recreations.

Barbara is a reenactor who has been to many events at Fort Nisqually, Fort Vancouver, Fort Victoria, and Fort Langley, portraying both Métisse and Upper Class women (though rarely both at the same time).

Lisa is the webmistress/ringleader of the Children of Fort Langley, and great great granddaughter of Hudson's Bay Company employee Etienne Pepin and his Aboriginal wife Isabelle Kwantlen, and a reenactor who portrays both a Métisse who is a composite character (Mary Isabelle Huston) and the historic Mary Scales, wife of Royal Engineer Sapper John Scales.

There's a lot of information here, so this page will take a little time to load (the 28.8 dial-up load time is now at 198 seconds), thus it is time to do some re-organizing.

The long range plan is to have individual sections for Métis, Ladies, Gentlemen, the assorted flavours of labourer, and children of all classes, from cheap and simple to the top end of elaborate.

Part of this re-organizing has happened in the form of a page discussing the Canada Dress, a garment favoured by the Métisse and Native wives of the fur trappers.

Please Read

This page is intended as a reference for those who wish to explore the possibilities of historic re-enactment.  The photographs herein are the intellectual property of those who made them available for use on this web page.  If you would like a copy of any of any of the below photographs, please email Lisa Peppan for details.

Thank you

Q: Where exactly is the Pacific Slope?

A: You'll find it along the western seaboard of North America: Oregon state, Washington state, British Columbia, and the panhandle of Alaska.

Q: What is Period Clothing?

A: It is clothing that is recognizable as belonging to a specific period in history.  Poodle skirts and saddle shoes are Period Clothing for the 1950s; full skirts and moccasins are Period Clothing for the 1850s.

Q: What is Period Correct?

A: Refers to an item being correct -- as in they might have something that looked quite like it -- for the time period being re-enacted.  Also referred to as "Period".

Q: Is Period Clothing for the 1850s expensive and does it take long to make?

A: That depends upon the character one chooses and how handy one is with needle and thread.

One of the fastest/simplest to put together for a Woman would be a long gathered cotton skirt with a man's linen, muslin, or calico shirt over it, tied with a sash/belt/apron, bare feet/ moccasins, and some beads or dentilium.  For Men, a pair of corduroy pants with a long shirt belted on the outside of the shirt and old biker boots/bare feet.

Q: What is this Métis/Métisse word mean?

A: Pronounced (mostly) may-TEE, it comes from a Cree word meaning "of many nations", and pertains to the mixed blood offspring of a European parent and an Aboriginal parent.

Dentilium, genus Dentaliidae"Dentilium: the type genus Dentaliidae comprising a number of widely distributed tooth shells."

--Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary

These fragile, tooth-shaped shells were used in earrings and other personal adornment.  The ones shown here are Lisa's.  She has a few more--and a couple broken ones--but none are more than 1 inch/2.54 cm long.

(They were carefully placed on the glass of the flatbed scanner, then covered with a piece of black velvet, and scanned, that's how.)

For the Men

On the right we have Jim Weatherford wearing an example of men's period clothing.

A quick and inexpensive look could consist of wide wale corduroy or black denim pants with the zipper well covered by a long period linen or muslin or calico work shirt.  Belt the shirt on the outside with a wide leather belt or brightly coloured sash.  

Brightly coloured = red, blue, yellow, green, and if it clashes with your shirt, so much the better.   Stick with natural fabric, like cotton or wool.

Add boots, moccasins, or go bare foot.  Older motorcycle enthusiasts might have an appropriate style boot waaaay in the back of some forgotten closet; road-scarred works; duct-taped does NOT.  And we recommend going barefoot ONLY for those who do so on a regular basis.

A belt knife with a horn or wood handle is a nice finishing touch.  But, please, those camouflaged, saw-backed survival knives will just plain make you look silly.  Really.   Even if you dress it up with a leather-fringed sheath.  Same goes for your Swiss Army knife and your indispensable Leatherman.

Add a period correct hat, perhaps Granddad's derby or even the hat that went with last Halloween's hillbilly costume, and two or three fringed leather pouches; natural tan is preferable (the colour would be fairly close to the background of this page), no extreme colours.  NO baseball caps.

Beards, moustaches, and sideburns are okay, as is long hair, so long as you bear in mind a couple things.

1.  If your character is a fur trapper who's been in the bush for the last several months, historically he's been busy trapping fur and/or hasn't had the time nor inclination to shave.  He's also going to have long hair -- if he has hair -- and any facial hair will be unkempt.

2. If your character is of the upper classes, any hair, moustache, and/or beard will be well-groomed.

DO BE AWARE: some historical sites have strict no smoking policies, most especially the ones with lots of wooden buildings.  Please be a smart and courteous tobacco consumer.

Tobacco was most commonly available in rope form, molasses-cured leaves twisted into greasy, wrist-thick ropes.  There was no such thing as a ready-made cigarette on the Pacific Slope, filter cigarettes were unheard of.  Says Lisa, "Unless an unfiltered Pall Mall is too mild for you, you really don't want to hand-roll rope tobacco.  I speak from personal experience."

Wooden kitchen matches, flint-and-steel, or a burning glass ONLY.  Use a long thin sliver of wood, called a spill, to lite your pipe from a handy lamp or fire.  NO paper matches, NO cigarette lighters of ANY kind. 

For the smoker of modest means there were penny pipes (acorn shaped bowl with a long slender curved stem, all made of thin white clay, and, at the time, cost one penny; they retail today starting at right around $700 US).  Most any cigar or cheroot will work, provided it doesn't have a plastic mouth piece.  If in doubt about the band, remove the band.

Chewing tobacco works, provided it is kept in a period correct container.

Tattoos were around then, but mostly on older sailors.  If you choose a persona whose people traditionally tattooed, triple check your information and proceed with caution.

If a member of the upper class had a tattoo, it would scarcely be spoken of, and never in polite company; they were not in vogue in the mid-1800s.

And if you should have a partial plate, leaving it home adds that little extra something to your character . . . but we leave that choice entirely up to you.

Calico shirts, pants, patterns, sashes, etc. can be ordered from various sources such as:

=Dixie Gun Works, Inc.: Early American Work Shirt about $25.00  Click here to go to their link on the Links page.

=Jas Townsend and Son, Inc.: 19th Century Trade Shirt, $40.00  Click here to go to their link on the Links page.

=Crazy Crow Trading Post: Authentic 18th-19th Century Shirts about $35.00  Click here to go to their link on the Links page.

Or >click here< to go straight to the links

Fort Nisqually Brigade Encampment August 2000

(Pssst, don't tell any one but that's Barb up there, with the wheel barrow)

A Word About Firearms . . .

Laws governing firearms vary not only from state to state, but across International Boundaries as well.

Before packing up great great granddaddy's heirloom rifle, personally check the laws of:

1. Where you live regarding transport of firearms as well as the gunpowder and shot for your firearm

2. The area you will be encamped

3. The area(s) you are passing through to get to the encampment.

Firearms of the mid-1800s were muzzle loaders--flint lock and percussion cap--and some places in North America still consider them weapons.  Not many, but enough that you could be in for an extremely unpleasant surprise.  While you're at, it ask about the gun powder you use by preference.  Make sure your paperwork is in order before crossing International Boundaries.

~Know Before You Go~

One place to check would be

Brian aka Kicking Owl at Fort Nisqually


For the Women

Judy has a long gathered cotton skirt that was made from a blue sheet that she picked up second hand.  Says she about it's creation:

"I cut it to length, sewed up the sides, turned over the top to form a casing, inserted some rope, string or strong ribbon to tie it on.  The sheet was already hemmed at the bottom.  Blue works well with my blue man's calico work shirt.

"I have a finger woven sash to tie it.  However, a large apron tied at the waist eliminates the need for a sash or belt.

"My beads are simple strands --no plastic-- I added a period key to one, a period cross to another, or you could use a silver piece such as kissing otters.

"Earrings are optional during this time period.  However, I wear dentilium or shell or a pair of earrings I made from brass thimbles and beads.  I also wear copper bracelets.

"Here I am in one of my fur trade outfits.  The skirt in this case is a second hand wool skirt that I added ribbon to the bottom and decorated it with some of Bill's trade silver.

"The sheet skirt I described would be more appropriate, or a cotton one done similarly."


"My hair I wear down or tied back with a red ribbon in a low ponytail or braided down the back.

"Some women wear their hair covered with a bandana.  The sash was made by my daughter Jeanifer.

"If you want to spend the big bucks, you can order clothes made for you.  I have an address of a woman who makes period clothes.  She lives and works in Oregon."

If you choose to go this route, we strongly recommend that you start shopping for next year's costume this year.

On the left, "Here is another photo of me in period dress.   The dress/skirt is a cotton calico, the apron is blue, same shirt, the blue blanket I sit on is perfect for a cloak or cover."


Group shot taken at Fort Nisqually 2001

For Lisa's first event, Fort Nisqually Brigade, 2000, she wore a one-piece 1850s work dress done in, borrowed for the occasion from Barbara Smith.  The white apron, and single petticoat were also courtesy of Ms. Smith.  Lisa accessorized with a copper-tube choker she made some years ago and a string of malachite beads, and her hair is worn in a single braid with a center part.

Her blanket is a cow-elk hide.  The toe of a moccasin peeks out from under the skirt.  Yes, the dress is a bit long, but Lisa is a bit short and the dress was made for Ms. Smith, who is a taller woman.

Ideally, when portraying a Native or mixed-blood woman, the skirt should fall somewhere between mid-calf and the ankle, because, says Barbara, "Only girls hanging out with the upper class wore their skirts to the floor."  A big hem --about 6 inches-- gives weight to the bottom of the skirt and makes it move nice.  And one or two petticoats at the most; they were famous for not wearing them (OR corsets).

LLisa at Fort Langley Brigade & 175th Celebration 4 Aug 2002isa attended a few more events, and talked to other more experienced re-enactors, resulting in the two-piece outfit she wore to Fort Langley Brigade 2002.  

The top is a t-tunic made from a natural fibre (linen) upholstery fabric found at a thrift store which gives this all-purpose work shirt a homespun look.  The skirt is made from left-over material from an 1850 work dress she made in 2001.  Under the skirt is  a single petticoat made of a tiered, black cotton thrift store skirt trimmed with tattered black lace.  And, yes, her feet really are bare.

Accessories include a thrashed leather belt with a plain brass buckle she found in the back of a closet.

On the belt are a antler-handled belt knife & a brown leather pouch containing her sewing kit.  Over her shoulder is a possible bag* made of some scraps from the t-tunic; the wooden & glass bead trim on the flap were salvaged from a scrapped blouse.  The earrings are abalone shell, wood & brass beads on a french hook Lisa has owned for a number of years.  

The necklace, made of donkey teeth, wooden beads, & a small soapstone frog, strung on artificial sinew was found at a garage sale a few years ago.

Her tump** basket is the finishing touch, the basket rescued from the trash & the embroidered strap bought at thrift store.  Total cost of this outfit was under $25.

Says Lisa, "As you gain confidence and knowledge, you can add to your wardrobe, either with accessories, or with new garments. 

"On the left is a variation on the T-tunic with a skirt, accessorized with a (gift) vintage top hat, (vertical) striped apron, and a borrowed (for the day) firearm, worn at Fort Nisqually Brigade 2003..

"Below right, is the second version of a garment called the Canadian Dress, or Canada Dress, which was popular with the wives of the fur trade.  With the first version, the red top was more like a jacket, but additional research suggests that it had long front "tails" that were tucked into the skirt, while the gathered, peplum-like back was left out.  I made this dress red and scarlet because it was a popular colour combination.  I will probably be making at least one more version, using another color combination.  For more on the Canadian Dress, click on the picture."

*Possible Bag: an over the shoulder bag used by men, women, and children, generally worn with the strap across the chest.

Also known as Necessary Bag. It is called a possible/necessary bag because it holds anything the wearer might possibly need or find necessary in a readily accessible way.  Made of heavy cloth or leather, its decoration depends upon the whim of the owner, but can include (glass/shell/metal)bead work, quill work, embroidery, and/or ribbons.

**Tump: as in tump basket and/or tump line.  Used by voyageurs and some Native peoples of North America.

A tump basket has a handle strong enough to attach a tump line to.  The tump line is then placed over the forehead, so the basket rides just above the small of the back so that the neck and back share the load, leaving the users hands free.  The tump line is a padded leather strap with long ends used by the voyageurs, enabling them to carry incredibly heavy loads.  The long ends were fastened to 90 pound/40 kilo fur/merchandise bales; each bale weighed the same, making it easy to tell if anyone was pinching from the load.  The diary of one Hudson's Bay Company clerk contains an account of a voyageur who successfully carried 8 bales at one time.

The use of the tump line led to exaggeratedly developed neck and shoulder muscles, and an early death due to ruptures and hernias.  If you chose to use a tump basket/line in your interpretation, GRADUALLY work your way up to heavy loads.

Here we have a couple good examples of women's clothing.

Fort Nisqually, 2000

Though you can't see the people real well, this picture does give you an idea on colors.

Fort Nisqually, 2000

Badger and Peggy make historic re-enactment look so very easy.


Fort Nisqually, 2000




Then again, they've been at it for a couple of years.
Fort Nisqually

  Fort Nisqually, 2000

Now this doesn't show much clothing but it does show one period camping option, recommended on the Pacific Slope only when you're sure it's going to be dry . . . or you don't mind getting a little damp.

Fort Langley Brigade 2002

Please Read

This page is intended as a reference for those who wish to explore the possibilities of historic re-enactment.  The photographs herein are the intellectual property of those who made them available for use on this web page.  If you would like a copy of any of any of the above photographs, please email Lisa Peppan for details.

Thank you

For links that are of interest to re-enactors, please >click here<.
For a closer look at the Canadian Dress, a garment popular among the First Nations and Métisse of the Canadian Frontier, please >click here<

The real magic happens after the Public leaves.

The re-enactors still dressed in their 19th century clothing ride herd on children who are all still mostly dressed in their 19th century clothing.  99% of the visible camp gear is of the type that would most certainly have been used in the mid-1800s, even if most is of modern make.

Children are rounded up.  Dinner is served from kettles and skillets over cheery camp fires, often simple fare of beans or stew.  And as the western sky colors with the setting sun, candle and/or lantern light appears below while stars twinkle on high.  As parents bed down the smaller children, snatches of lullaby waft through camp co-mingled with the solitary strains of fiddle, parlour pipe*, recorder, and/or guitar.  Ghost plumes of smoke rise from the camp, small winged insects congregate round candles and lanterns.

As the night deepens and the stars fully take the sky, some kindle and gather round a large central fire with the musicians and dance.  Others gather in small groups at individual camp sites, gentlemen taking their ease with cigars and working men light their pipes, quaffing glasses and mugs of cheer.  Older children found --taken unawares by exhausted sleep-- in colourful bundles of calico, corduroy, and sweet smiles, and are gently covered with plain blankets and left as they are.  Laughter bubbles up here and there from gently lapping pools of conversation.  Couples stroll out into the deepening dark, arms round each other, for a few stolen moments of private time.  Some bid others a good night and take to their tents.

When the moon rises, and the central fire has burned down to a slow wheeze of red coals, the musicians lay down their instruments, dancers collect their cloaks and wraps, and by ones and groups, disperse among the tents.

Tents glow amber with candle and lantern, some darkening after a few moments, others are but dimmed down.  If a light wind comes up, there's the silken susurrus of the flags flying from the tops of some tents, the more leathery soft flap of canvas ties on canvas tent flaps.  Here, from a camp fire round which a half dozen men sit, comes the silvery chime of crystal on crystal . . . the faint, hollow rattle of camp fires being banked comes from over there.  A parent says gently, "It's time for bed, sweetheart."  A merry crunch-crackle of another log thrown on, and the low rumble and purr of male voices, punctuated by genuinely amused laughter.

And after the gentlemen have smoked the last cigar and taken leave of their fellows, a silence falls gently over camp, broken only by the sounds of sleeping, night creatures going about their night time business, and, perhaps, the late night winds playing in the forest.

Through the course of the entire evening, the only conflicts are those generally associated with overly-tired children, and are gently resolved.  Everyone looks out after everyone's children.  There are no fights, or even strong language.  Men tip their hats to women, and most often heard words are "please" and "thank you" in their assorted period appropriate forms.  No sirens.  No honking horns or squealing tires.  No intrusion of 21st century life, save discrete bottles of sun screen and insect repellent.

It's truly like stepping back in time.

copyright 2002 Lisa M Peppan

*a parlour pipe is an indoor version of the bag pipe


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moved 28 July 2002
updated 21 July 2013