Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Ever wonder why Abe Lincoln wore such baggy pants?

A friend of mine who’s quite a Western writer in his own right tipped me off to a great book, and a snippet of information in that book actually discusses clothing and fashion in the Old West — with a clever explanation of why old Abe Lincoln so often appears in photos wearing baggy pants obviously in need of a good pressing.

Old Abe wore the baggy pants because he was in style for the mid- to late-1800s in men’s clothing and fashions.

The book I’m referring to is an absolutely delightful work, “The Look of the Old West” by William Foster-Harris. You might have problems finding it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, Borders, or any of the other stores’ shelves, as it was originally in 1955 by Viking Press. The copy I found was a 1960 edition printed by Bonanza Books. (I bought it on eBay — try searching the “eBay Stores.”) It’s a treasure trove of everything about the “look” and “feel” of 19th Century life in America in general, and in the Old West in particular. Which, of course, explains the title.

But back to Abe Lincoln’s baggy pants …

Foster-Harris explains that only “cheapie” store-bought pants came with carefully pressed creases in the legs. To wear such in public was considered beneath the dignity and quality of a true gentleman of any standing. He said this on page 94:

“If you were anybody at all, back in the sixties and seventies [1860s and 1870s], you had your Sunday go-to-meeting garments made for you by a tailor. If you didn’t, you rushed home, preferably by a dark back street, and carefully pressed all the creases out of your store-bought garments so that the legs looked like old elephants’ trunks and the sleeves like sausage covers. It was not until the nineties that creases in trousers were accepted in polite society as evidence of cleaning and pressing rather than of bargain hunting. Now you know why Abraham Lincoln was always pictured in those awful baggy pants.”

The Foster-Harris book is chocked full of such gems and insights into the way people actually lived and acted in the Old West. I strongly encourage you to find a copy for yourself. Meanwhile, I’ll grab some of his tidbits and share them here from time to time.

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