It’s cold outside. Really cold. Really wet. Really windy.
It can safely be assumed that back in the 18th c it was also cold, wet, and windy, particularly in countries like England, which are known for this sort of charming weather.
There are some obvious 18th c cold-weather things, such as mittens (and aren’t they cute!), shawls, muffs, and fur collars. However, the protection from the freeze also is in the makeup of the gowns themselves. Let’s start from the inside out…
Dressing A Lady For Rain, Snow, Ice, and General Discomfort…
Underlayers – underneath it all, ladies would wear thigh-high stockings made of wool, to protect their legs. The upper half and the hips were warmed by a chemise, which was commonly made of linen or cotton (if you were rich), but could also be made of a very lightweight wool. Wool works in mysterious ways – as a natural fiber, it wicks away moisture from the body, is warm in the cold, and cool in the warm, and can be spun coarsely or finely.
Petticoats and Stays – next come the foundation layers. Forget one petticoat, in the winter ladies wore MANY. This was as much to keep the legs insulated as to create the fashionable poof of the skirts. When women were still wearing panniers, at least one modesty petticoat would be worn under the pannier, then one or more over the panniers. Stays could be made of silk, another natural magical fiber, and interlined with wool flannel for warmth and stability.
Gowns and Skirts– next came the gown, starting with the skirt. Often the skirts were quilted, which created a lovely texture and pattern, but was also incredibly warm. The quilting was (and still is) created by sandwiching a layer of batting (of some fiber, likely wool fleecing) between two layers of fabric, and stitching the design through all layers, creating pockets of puffs to catch and keep the warmth. If the skirt was silk, it was doubly effective in keeping the lady warm.
Depending on the fashion of the time, ladies would then wear a gown over their skirt – such as a Robe a la Francaise, or a Robe a l’Anglaise – providing another layer for the lower regions, and the bodice layer for the upper. Earlier in the century, three-quartered sleeves were en vogue, so women would don gloves or mittens to keep their forearms and hands warm. Around the neck and exposed bosom, ladies wore a fichu, something like a modern-day scarf, that could be made of hankerchief linen or something heavier, like wool, for winter.
Jackets and Redingotes – Later in the century, jackets became the popular garment. These were long-sleeved, sometimes quilted, and often had a peplum or skirting. Fichus and shawls were worn to protect the neck and chest if the jacket were cut low, though many ladies’ jackets began to mirror men’s fashion, and covered the chest area. Women took to wearing cravats and neck wraps.
For quite cold weather, the redingote, a jacket-skirt combo that took its styling cues from working men’s greatcoats, came into fashion. Redingotes could be opened or closed skirt, were long-sleeves, fastened up to the neck, could be double or single breasted, and often featured tiered capelets over the shoulders, which were utilitarian for keeping the shoulders warm. Made from wool or heavy silk, redingotes were particularly effective in keeping a lady warm while travelling or riding.
Accessories – Just like today, women wore gloves, mittens, used muffs, shawls, and scarves, and relied on hats, wigs (not-so-much like today), capes, and hoods to keep warm. Mitts were wool or silk, the former version being woven or knitted, the latter often embroidered or quilted. Muffs were fur of course, as were some collars and neck wraps. Shawls, particularly towards the turn of the century, were cashmere, a particularly warm, beautiful, and exotic wool that was very thin but very cozy. Capes were often lined in fur, and some jackets featured quilted and lined hoods.
Today, at least in The American West, it seems we are disconnected from wearing cold-weather gear. Most of our costume events happen either in the Summer months, or inside. Occassionally there will be a late-season fair that will be rained or snowed upon, or the weather may be very crisp. It pays, then, to have a few cold-weather accoutrement with you, such as a wool cape or shawl, gloves, or a fur muff…or the more modern long-johns and knee-high socks!
I look forward to these could-be-cold-ish events as a chance to make costuming accessories that are new, interesting, and seldom produced. There’s something exhilirating about bundling up and snuggling into what seems to me a more period version of clothing. That being said, don’t do it just to do it! Keep the special items for those rare, wintry occassions.
Who’s been out in the cold in-costume? Post links to your photos, or tell us some stories, in the COMMENTS section below!