Cold-Weather Couture for the Chilly 18th c. Lady

Someone looks coooollldddd.

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

A lady wrapped in a cashmere shawl.

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.

A quilted skirt and caraco jacket with a hood – genius

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.

A great example of long mittens, from the Silly Sisters

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!


  • Madame Berg

    October 13, 2009 at 11:49 PM

    On March 28th this year, I went to an event that partly took place in an old, draughty church; two pics here:

    I had a woollen cloak but no mitts and had only elbow-length sleeves on my caraco… The night was wet and chilly and I remember being very cold both when inside the church, and outside, while everyone gathered to go to a nearby restaurant together. I only had cotton stockings to keep my legs warm and a thin kerchief around my neck. However, brandy was passed around which helped a little 😉 but that's not a good way to keep warm in the long run.

    I really should start working on some warm garments if I go to another such event because it has been really cold here for the last few weeks!

  • The Dreamstress

    October 14, 2009 at 4:13 AM

    I like!

    I can't decide if the woman in the black and white fur outfit is so over-the-top she is fantastic, or just badly over the top.

    Living in Wellington, with its freezing Southerly wind and mercurial weather changes, I'm going to get lots of opportunities for bad weather attire. I had the most fantastic cranberry red hooded cape with fluffy pink lining that was my go-to quasi-historical chilly weather wrap for a while. It worked great except for the 'Little Red Riding Hood' comments (I got very good at snapping 'My what a big mouth you have' back). Unfortunately I had to leave it behind when I moved to NZ, and I'm not sure if there is a single photo of it in existance.

    I can't believe you didn't include that hilarious print of the English dandy in his coat, socks, scarf, hat, etc regarding a lady fashionista in her thin muslin gown and sandals in amazement! That is how I feel on Friday nights in the city…I'm all bundled up in my coat, and these girls are running around in practically nonexistant strapless dresses.

  • Duchie

    October 14, 2009 at 5:19 AM

    I would love to see this red riding hood! Personally I love sticking out like a sore thumb in red winter gear – I have a bright red peacoat that's like a big double-breasted blanket 🙂

    I didn't find the print of the Endlish dandy and Muslin-clad lady. I found a couple charming Regency illustrations of ice skating, but generally speaking the internetular failed me today and I had a bit of a rough time scrounging up these late 18th c images. Have you a link to this print?

    And yes, I know what you mean about the scraps of clothing girls wear to clubs on ANY party night, be it in the middle of Summer or the dead of Winter. Then again, once they get in the club dancing and drinking, they might be thankful for so little. It's the party-girl's paradox…do I take the coat or not?

  • Keith

    October 14, 2009 at 7:26 AM

    The term "frock" was used for a man's work frock in the 18th century, but is it also a term for a woman's garment in that period? I mean I know there were women's frocks in the 1940s-, but did they exist as early as the 18th century?
    If so, was there a way they were normally distinguished from one another? Or when we see the word "frock", could it be either?
    Regards, Le Loup.

  • Abby

    October 14, 2009 at 8:41 AM

    I visited Colonial Williamsburg around New Years two years ago. It's never that cold in Virginia, but I remember it being colder than what I expected. It snowed, which was kind of a big deal…anyways, all I had was what I wore when I was there in the summer months (HOT and HUMID), but I don't remember being that cold…especially since I borrowed a wool broadcloth cape. I have my own pair of modern knit mitts, but other than them not being natural fibers, they work well enough. I probably wore a marsailles quilted cotton petticoat and a cotton gown, I don't know if I had an underpetticoat on or not though. And a kerchief when I went outside to keep my chest and neck warm. However, the cape kept you way warm..that cardinal red broadcloth cape is heavenly. They were also lined with cotton or linen as well, so it was more than one layer.

    Also, you forgot to add quilted waistcoats for women(I think..I didn't see them mentioned..) When I was doing my research for my dissertation I read primary sources from doctors stating that women should wear flannel or quilted waistcoats for extra warmth against the skin, however, it was very important for the skin to be able to breath, because sweating in your layers was not a good thing, causing health problems. (mostly for invalids, however the reccomendations on clothing was fairly generalized). The article and other things I've read seemed to indicate that women would or should wear quilted or wool waistcoats underneath their stays for extra warmth.

    I think that if there are winter events (which there should be..what fun would that be!) a wool or quilted waistcoat for women, a good kerchief, and a broadcloth cape will be your lifesavers. For modern warmth additions, black spandex pants are really warm, surprisingly, and no one would see them anyways…i hope.. 🙂

  • Duchess

    October 14, 2009 at 6:42 PM

    Mr. Wolf, I'm not sure why the term "frock" was used for both men and women. I shall have to look up the history of that word…and then write a blog article on it!

    Abby, you've taught me something I did not know, about women's waistcoats! As I wrote this article, I wondered if ladies did wear anyting betwixt the stays and the chemise layer, but I hadn't read or seen any sources for it, so thanks for the correction! I do know that waistcoats/gilets became popular later in the century, to wear under jackets, but over the stays. Very interesting!

  • Lauren

    October 14, 2009 at 8:13 PM

    We just had an event in the cold a few weekends ago. I wore my warm wool coat with an extra petticoat. We are also having a cometary tour next weekend at night. I will definitely be bundling up for that one.

  • Fiona-Jane Brown

    October 15, 2009 at 12:16 AM

    Although not massively relevant, I have to post a pic of my fabulous police greatcoat. It's part of the police museum collection (me, curator), and a colleague had had it on long loan and realised she ought to give it back! So, I got it, oh wow! A HUGE wool coat that's about 4ft long and thick as the wall of a medieval castle! The police tunics are pretty warm too. I shall have to send you stuff so you can post an article on it! The greatcoat would be 1940s likely.

  • Time Traveling in Costume

    October 15, 2009 at 1:06 AM

    Am I right that women would wear silk mitts for dressy outfits too? I live in So CA and it doesn't get cold enough to wear really warm clothes but I was told that they would wear something to cover their arms to keep from being sunburned outdoors. But would they be a fashion accessory too?

  • AmDuchess

    October 15, 2009 at 1:59 AM

    Other Lauren – I saw the photos from that event, and you all looked divine!

    FJ – the coat sounds AMAZING. do you have pictures of it?

    Time Traveler – yes, women did wear silk mitts, often fingerless, and if they were high class, they were almost always silk and decorative. Here is an example from the Kyoto Costume book:

    There are a couple more examples of silk mitts in the book, as well.

  • Abby

    October 15, 2009 at 9:34 AM

    ADuch- Yeah it was in an obscure chapter of a book of health for invalids. My dissertation was over comfort and stays and so I was digging for anything having to do with support garments, health, and comfort. They're so easy to make….hmm…I think I know what my next project is going to be… 🙂

  • misslesliesprentice

    December 31, 2010 at 1:43 AM

    I do living history part-time at a museum in Fredericksburg. When I was going to school I walked from campus to work. For the mile, in cold weather, I wore all the basics: shift, stays, wool stockings, heftier neckercheif, petticoats, etc. I nearly cried when I finished my woolen gown and knitted mitts and realized how much warmer I would be. I also wear a cloak and I am in the process of making a bonnet from pattern/prints from the 3d quarter of the century.

    All in all I stayed pretty warm, but there were some days in the low 20s where I pulled out a wool flannel blanket and draped that underneath my cloak as well.

    Two other things, Silly Sisters have images of a quilted waistcoat and research on its uses on their site. The other is on stays and comfort. During pregnancy women stopped wearing stays when they got "prodigeous big" but still went out in public with shawls and such to disguise the shape. Eventually someone came up with pregnancy stays which made an appearance in Diderot's encyclopedia. Check out the book What Clothes Reveal by Baumgarten for more info.

  • Lauren Stowell

    December 31, 2010 at 8:29 AM

    Miss Leslie – thank you for your comment! It's great that you have the experience of wearing these clothes in cold weather. I know I'd be very reluctant to step outside in period clothing right now – it's 24 degrees and snowing!!

  • Liz

    December 26, 2016 at 3:38 PM

    Another cold-weather must have is a quilted silk and velvet hood. I made one for recent wear in cold weather and it was very effective! It was much warmer than the regular, single-layer wool hood that I wear with my cloak. Great for blocking the wind and rain alike.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from American Duchess Blog

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading