Prairie Chic Is Back, Even if the Past Wasn’t So Pretty
The ‘Urban Prairie Girl’ is stomping over the streets and runways in long dresses with high, ruffled collars and boots. Her real-life inspirations in history weren’t so liberated.
Are bonnets the next Dad hats?
For some, the New York fashion world has begun to resemble a sewing circle. Prairie chic is in enough for the New York Times to declare that 2018 has birthed “a whole new breed of pioneer woman. Call her the Urban Prairie Girl (U.P.G?).”
You can spot a U.P.G. toughening up her high-neck collar, lace hemline, and floral printed frock with Fila sneakers or combat boots. Though she would find Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description of Native Americans in Little House on the Prairie offensive, the U.P.G. can’t help but cave to the nostalgia she feels watching the ‘70s television remake.
Jonathan Simkhai, Dôen, and John Galliano all took inspiration from the “prairie” for their fall 2018 runway shows. But the ubiquitous leader of this millennial wagon train is Batsheva Hay, whose namesake clothing line has earned famous fans such as Gillian Jacobs, Lena Dunham, and Amandla Stenberg.
“There is something about the idea of a frontier woman that’s so interesting to me, because it’s so tough and adventurous,” Hay, a former lawyer, told The Daily Beast. “I love mixing that strength with styles that are covered-up, dainty, and restrained. There’s some inherent tension in that I think is pretty cool to play with.”
“It’s an escape into nostalgia,” explained Terese Wadden, costume designer of the much-buzzed about production of Oklahoma! at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. “It’s the things you used to wear and know when you were a little girl—the familiarity of the prints, the basic cotton, the shapes.”
The hat tip to girlhood celebrates feminism without making a woman literally having to wear it on her chest. “I feel like you can put on a prairie dress instead of wearing a ‘Future is Female’ T-shirt,” Wadden said.
As designer Christopher Niquet told The New Yorker, “People said these were ‘Don’t fuck me’ kind of clothes, but it was said like an insult. I think it’s a little bit more of a badge of honor.”
While red-robed costumes from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale are less frilled than Batsheva’s creations, for some, the silhouettes are too similar for comfort.
“I wonder whether people are interested in channeling Willa Cather, which makes great sense, or if they’re anticipating Margaret Atwood,” said Stephen Warren, Associate Professor of History and American Studies at The University of Iowa.
While modern women may find strength in the idea of a frontier woman, they might be sorely disappointed with the historical context. For all the independence our American west mythology projects, the reality was less dramatic and more drudge-y.
“Women in the frontier in the 1830s would probably have been more tied to gender roles than women out East, because they were so very many tasks for men and women that had to be done just to stay alive,” explained Jenny Sherrill, historical interpreter at Conner Prairie, an open-air museum in Fishers, Indiana.
In between rearing children, frontier women were responsible for tending to their own kitchen garden, which fed their families. Warren described forgotten, "more arduous" household tasks left to women, such as making soap and mending clothes.
While men went into town to sell their goods at market, wives and daughters stayed behind. It was a lonely life, with little opportunity to socialize with other women.
According to Warren, “The tragic part of it—at least in the 19th century—was that women had so many responsibilities that they often led private, parochial lives that centered around the home.”
This year's retake on prairie dressing gives the women who inspired it the hoedown they never had. The trend, which gained steam thanks to Instagram word-of-mouth, is nothing if not social.
But, for some, the bright golden haze on Batsheva and friends' meadow has the potential to fade into something darker.
As Warren mused, "I wonder, given the religious climate of today and the obvious evidence of patriarchy in society, whether this movement will be co-opted by men in order to create some retrogressive kind of dressing."