This past week, I was inundated with setting up a local costume exhibit. It has been a project 6 months in the works and it was a sigh of relief and joy to see it all come together. The year 2014 marks the 150th birthday of my home state of Nevada, which was the motivation for choosing to display costumes and vintage clothing starting in 1864. Most costumes were handmade by members of our local Great Basin Costume Society, with the rest being original vintage clothing. The talent our local costumers have is amazing! The display is on par with anything a museum could produce (in my not so humble opinion).
Since I doubt most of my readers will be traveling to northern Nevada anytime this month, I thought I would share some photos and history from the exhibit for you. Enjoy this tour through Nevada’s fashionable history.
In 1859, gold and silver was discovered in the hills of northern Nevada. With that discovery, an influx in mining settlers began. At first, it was mostly all men, with a few ladies of the night providing entertainment to the miners. Wives of wealthy mine owners eventually settled and built homes in the mining cities as well as nearby valleys. While the style at the time was very full, with 150 inch wide hoop skirts, the new residents quickly figured out they couldn’t fit through doorways! Buildings were built my skinny men without any thought to current ladies’ fashion. Out of necessity, women ditched their hoop skirts earlier than their East Coast cousins and took to layers of petticoats that were more flexible through very narrow doorways and winding staircases.
The Civil War broke out in 1861, and a mere three years later in 1864, Nevada was formed as a state in order to provide more votes for the reelection of Abraham Lincoln and the pursuit of freedom from slavery. Although no fighting took place in Nevada, the state’s slogan is “Battle Born” for it’s role is ending the war in 1865.
The trend in reduced fabric consumption after the war and the invention of the bustle was perfectly suited for a rustic life. However, the reduction in skirt width had little effect on formal society out in the Wild West. Louise Palmer wrote in 1869 “We attend the Choral Society each Thursday night. We have club parties and public balls, interspersed with private card and dinner parties. And we are all very gay and fashionable – exhibiting our diamonds and laces to the eyes of rival mine and millmens wives and daughters with as much eagerness as would a New York or Parisian belle.”
By 1882, the silver mining boom had pulled out $305K worth of goods into the pockets of mining owners and suppliers and railway builders. It was an extremely wealthy time, and fashion reflected all its fancy. Large bustles of the early 1880s gradually gave way to more refined, smaller bustles that were less heavy and required less under-layers to maintain the shape. What was saved on fabric was lavished on trim and accessories. Most clothing for the upper classes was imported from Europe or at least New York. Living out west had little effect on high society fashion. However, for day wear, the close proximity to Lake Tahoe and surrounding mountain resort towns produced greater demand for clothing women could move in. The large amounts of dust Nevada’s desert produced also meant clothing was favored in darker colors. White? Only for lawn parties at estate homes who could afford to maintain a green lawn.
The 1890s saw the elimination of the bustle altogether. Hard times in Nevada meant many working classes wore simple cotton dresses (what we image as “Little House on the Prairie” style dresses) for the newest industry – ranching. For the elite, formality continued as much as ever. The above gowns now featured the new fashion obsession — the “wasp waist,” an extra tiny waist leading to large hips and an A-line skirt. This is my favorite decade (the dress on the right was my wedding dress, inspired by an 1893 Worth dinner gown).
The late 1890s and 1900s marked a very important time for women in the all parts of the United States. In Nevada, woman suffragettes fought for the right to vote and won in 1914, 6 years earlier than most other states. Nevada was a progressive state, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. In this case, Nevada supported women’s rights, intelligence, and involvement in local affairs. In Reno, the first female legislator was elected in 1918!
The love of the outdoors and leisure activities brought many travelers to the region. Lake Tahoe was a booming summer destination when men and women took trains, carriages or cars, and finally a boat ride or two to reach the blue waters. While on vacation they swam, boated, fished, hiking, hunted, played lawn tennis, and dined on open air porches. All these new activities created a new wardrobe that was designed for traveling or sporting in the great outdoors. Summer whites were packed in every suitcase and worn proudly by those who could afford a maid to clean them daily.
The turn of the 20th century, after WWI, severely reduced the need for large amounts of fabric or expensive accessories. Luxury on a budget was all the rage from 1918 until after the next World War in the mid 1940s. In the 1920s, dresses were simple slips with minimal decoration. They cast off corsets and chopped off hemlines. Prohebition was mocked by the many saloons and underground speakeasys that never closed. Freedom at last!
The 1930s hit Nevada’s agriculture and the railroad industry even harder. Nevada’s short residency requirement for divorces and the booming Casino industry kept tourism high. The state fared better than many. The late 1940s and 1950s improved in economy and tourism for Northern Nevada. Reno was a booming travel destination as well as a favorite rest stop along old Hwy 40. Dozens of roadside motels make car camping and cheap hotel rooms a thing to enjoy. Many travelers stayed after getting their quickie divorces, bringing with them California’s Hollywood fashions and progressive ideals.
1950s and 1960s clothing continued on trend, following TVs fashion leaders. A new freeway (Hwy 80) in the 1960s bypassed old Hwy 40, nearly killing the traveling tourist industry. Casinos were, however, still big tourist draws. Gambling and the nightlife entertainment with Tiki Bar themes mimicked what was seen on TV in Hollywood. Nevada did well for a while, but has gradually suffered from the decline in destination gambling. Unlike Las Vegas, many small Casinos still have original decor from the 1950s and 1960s. They are nostalgic or rundown, depending on how you choose to see it.
Northern Nevada Today
Today, Northern Nevada suffers from outdated images of seedy rundown casinos, dumpy old saloons, and a hippie artsy fartsy “Buring Man” view on society and politics. While much of this is true, locals are fighting back these negative stereotypes and showing off all the wonderful, livable reasons, we love it here. The beautiful Truckee River runs right through town, offering a nice way to cool off in the summer (104F today!). Lake Tahoe is less than an hour’s drive away for even more refreshing mountain air in the summer and usually great skiing in the winter (not my thing). A revitalization of an area south of downtown called “Midtown” is a happening trendy place, with small local restaurants, shops, boutiques, antiques, performing arts, special events, and some of the cheapest vintage clothes you can find in the Western United States. Compared to nearby California, its cheap to live here, jobs have reasonable pay with a normal 40 hour work week, entrepreneurship is supported, and our laws are not so over-regulated, so you feel you have a lot of freedom here (I am an ex Californian, so yeah, Nevada is a welcome change). I mention all this here because its tough to live somewhere knowing it has so many wonderful features, yet always having to defend it from its negative stereotypes. I proudly announced I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but hesitantly say I live in Reno, knowing there is a lengthy discussion to follow.
I get asked about current Fashion in Nevada. It’s a funny thing. It’s part “Burning Man” boho hippie, part relaxed California urban, part Rockabilly, and part costume. Costume? Well yeah, Nevadans love to dress up. We have costume themed bar crawls all year long, special events in the summer like the 1950s Hot August Nights, and a growing Steampunk and Cosplay presence, too. For history buffs we still love to live the days of the Wild West, Civil War, and the suffragettes. It’s fun to love costumes, love vintage anything, and be here in Nothern Nevada, a city that loves and lives it daily.
I hope next time you hear about northern Nevada (Reno and Sparks) that you remember these good qualities and maybe come for a visit, too. I’ll be happy to take you on a tour of the best. One day here and you’ll see why people can’t leave this place : )
If you are heading to Reno for the month of July or for Hot August Nights through August 3rd, check out the Wearing History: 100 years of Fashion in Nevada exhibit at the A an Art Gallery.
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.