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by Don Ward

Square Dance Dress: Origin and Evolution

by Don Ward

the earliest beginnings were from New England and represented the quadrills and longways dances brought here by early settlers. Most dancing was done in elegant ballrooms with dancers in evening wear. Tux for men and ankle length hooped skirts for the ladies. From a "folk" heritage view point this could be the example of proper dress except these were not truly "square dances", they were cotillions.

As the settlers moved outward, cattle wranglers, farmers and then merchants. The cattlemen lacking ladies took some of the longways dances (Sir Roger De Coverly being the most documented, later to be renamed Virginia Reel) could be danced all men with a fiddle, harmonica or hand clapping for music. The acceptable dress was jeans and shirt, with long sleeves, of course, since this was dictated by the practical need of their tending cattle.

These "cowboy dances" were to be resurrected again later but I don't want to get ahead of our time line. These male dominated dances went north, south and west from their origin in New England and in their migration reflected the culture of their participants. The dance hall girls provided partners for the lone cowboys and the farmers came behind them with their wives. Dances were done in living rooms and of course in the barn especially at the end of a barn raising. The women wore their finest gingham dresses, ankle length since it was improper to show ones leg. Men clean bib overalls and boots, which represented the attire needed for their job. These "folk" had a different dance dress influenced by their daily lives. Anybody for bib overalls and gingham dresses?

The next major revival in our thread comes in the late 20's when Mr & Mrs.. Henry Ford brought Benjamin Lovett, a dance master from New England, to Dearborn Michigan to revive elegant ballroom dancing as a counter influence to the roaring 20's cabarets. These ballroom dances embraced the quadrille or square and rounds done in a circle featuring waltzes, two-steps, polka, etc. This revival and its dances is documented in Ford's own book "Good Morning" (1926) Ford also commissioned a series of recordings to be made for the dances he felt should be preserved. The dress "required" for these dances was ankle length evening gowns for ladies and short tail tux, bow tie and thin soled shoes for the men. Lets see we now have formal evening gowns, tux & bow tie, gingham dress, bib overalls, cowboy jeans and shirt with a scarf tie around the neck, not the collar, to choose from as our "folk" apparel.

But! we're not done yet. This dance scene began to fade into the background with the advent of the big band era of the 30's. Our heritage dances drifted into obscurity except for "Folk Dance" dance groups doing ethnic dances from around the world in addition to our own. Dressing to represent the background of the various origins was considered the "proper" thing to do in reflecting the time and place of the dances. Thanks to a few pioneering record companies these early dances were recorded by Folkraft, Folkdancer, Imperial, Henry Ford and some 12 inch American dances released by Victor. For collectors I have produced a cassette of re-engineered and enhanced recordings from the Henry Ford Collection.

The late thirties found young people at the Cheyenne Mountain School dancing and demonstrating the peasant dances of Europe. In time they became aware of the lack of purely Western dancing of America and began exploring our dance heritage. It was Dr. Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw who set forth to bring back OUR traditional western, folk, "Cowboy Dances" and demonstrated by the Cheyenne Mountain Dancers. His book "Cowboy Dances" if often referred to as the authority on the origin of today's Western Square Dance. The dress deemed as "proper" consisted of ankle length cotton/gingham dresses with high collars and full length pantaloons for the ladies. Men could wear cowboy style shirts with scarf ties around the collar. Western cut (high pockets) jeans or slacks with suspenders and wearing a hat while dancing was acceptable. When wearing boots the pants cuff was worn inside the boot.

Lets see we now have at least half a dozen variations in "acceptable/required" dress for our National Folk dance. More is yet to come.

The end of World War 2 brought thousands of young servicemen home and getting back into society and family life provided an opening for expanded recreational activities including what was simply called Square Dancing. Pappy Shaws Cowboy Dances was the basic text for the activity. We were limited to a few 78 rpm recordings for music and a few callers who had become followers of "Pappy" including attending his callers training courses. One of our most influential leaders is Bob Osgood who through his Sets In Order Magazine influenced and chronicled the activity we enjoy today.

The square dance revival swept the land with easy to do dances, classes lasting only a few hours or as long as 6 weeks to learn EVERYthing. The dress reflected the Cowboy Dancers depicted by "Pappy" Shaw. The mens attire retained the same western/cowboy look. The ladies dresses had crept slightly above the ankle. Many chose to wear blouses and skirts for comfort.

It was an interesting journey I took through my archive of Sets in Order beginning with the first issue in 1948 and observe the changing dress depicted. The 3/4 length, mid calve, dress/skirt remained the preferred style through out the 50's. By mid 60's styles for ladies skirts began to creep upward to between mid calve and the knee. They were full flowing which gave lots of flare and beauty for turns, swings, stars. Mens wear featured more colorful shirts and western styled slacks and jeans.

By the mid 70's our dress style included a broad range of dress fashions for the ladies which now embraced fuller petticoats and knee length styles. Us men had to endure some more of the same old 200 year old style of western pants and shirts with string or bolo ties.

It was an interesting observation looking through 40 years of Sets in Order that the leading square dance dress designers led the shorter dress length and petticoat styles. Ads appeared months before any pictorial reflection of their shorter and fuller designs. This is a facet of our discussion that hasn't surfaced, yet. How much influence do the designers/vendors dictate over our acceptable dance wear?

We continued from the 70's, 80, and now half way through the 90's with ladies dress in particular a far cry from the original functional dress of our "folk" heritage. Some say we now have "costumes" as though we were going to a Halloween parties in place of dancing attire.

What we fail to observe is that our attire has been influenced by life styles and dance styles for 200 years. Today's "in" style is the fashion western look for men and women. Is this any different to dance in than the bib overalls and gingham dresses of earlier days? Both were products of their time and culture.

In light of these accepted changing styles how or who can we point to as reflecting "proper" square dance attire?

"Something to Think About"

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