During the 19th century, women were expected to dress and behave according to certain social standards. Though dresses were generally fashioned with high necks, long sleeves and long skirts to maintain a woman’s modesty, the types of dresses worn depended on class. A woman’s wealth was apparent from the clothes she wore, and farmers’ wives generally donned simple dresses practical for the work demanded of them.
Unlike their urban contemporaries, women in rural areas -- including farmers’ wives -- wore simple dresses made from wool or linen. A white collar was usually the only adornment, over patterns of gingham checks and small flowers known as calico. City ladies, by contrast, predominantly wore paisleys, florals and wide stripes. Moreover, farm wives usually owned just one work dress and one better dress, both of which featured straighter skirts than those worn by upper-class women. These dresses composed a country woman’s wardrobe until they fell apart, at which point they were converted into children’s clothes or household rags.
Affluent women often accessorized with gloves, jewelry, muffs and parasols, but farmers’ wives wore only cloaks or shawls with their dresses. Cloaks, prominently worn in England, were often red and sometimes had a hood of cloth or wool. Farmers’ wives wore these during the week when visiting with friends. Shawls were common adornments on Sundays. Between 1820 and 1840, during the cloak’s waning years, this garment was worn primarily by elderly women. Farmers’ wives also wore aprons over their dresses to protect them from the dirt that accompanied daily housework. In addition to helping with farm work, they were conscientious about their homes and did a lot of cooking and cleaning. They donned clean aprons, similar to shawls, on Sundays for a more flattering appearance.
In step with 1800s traditions, farmers’ wives usually had long hair worn in a simple bun for daily activities. Traditional hats included the bonnet or sunbonnet to protect a woman’s face from the elements. Bonnets had deep brims and tied under the chin. In England, farm wives wore straw hats they made themselves from wheat.
Farm wives in the 19th century wore undergarments very similar to those of upper-class women. These clothing articles included a chemise to protect the dress from perspiration, drawers that reached just below the knees and a corset or stays. Stays and corsets were worn over the chemise to provide the desired hourglass figure of that time. The greatest variance in undergarments between farm and city women was visible with petticoats. Farmers’ wives usually wore only one or two; upper-class women wore more. Stockings completed the list of undergarments, reaching above the knee with a knitted or crocheted garter to hold them in place.