Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Some Thoughts about the Clothing of the Past


Believe it or not, spring is just around the corner.  I suspect that following it will be a hot, hot summer here in the US.  Which got me to thinking about what we wear today and what they wore years ago. As a writer of historical romance, one of the things I've needed to know is who wore what and when.

Because we live in the south, I couldn't help think about clothing in the south. Today, here in the south, nearly everywhere you go, we have air-conditioning - our cars, our houses, our churches, our stores. But stop and think about it! There was no such a thing as air-conditioning one hundred fifty years ago. So how on earth did the men and women keep cool?

Simply truth - they couldn't. The wealthier, the more clothes they wore. Farmers and the common laborers were far luckier. The fashions of the day meant little to them, However, the gentlemen wore shirts, ties and jackets at all times. The garments were made of wool, cotton and it you where very wealthy, you might have silk shirts. The amount of perspiration had to be excessive. Add to that the fact that bathing a lot was not a common practice. Imagine a gentleman binding over your hand, the air filled with his fragrance. Or even worse, the gentleman in question, taking him in your arms to hug or kiss you.

Of course, men could always removed their jackets but what about the women. Again,  the commoners, as they were called, were not stuck with an excess of clothing. First they couldn't afford all the cloth necessary for the fashionable garments, and there was too much hard work for them to do than be so restricted. But the wealthier women wore clothing made of  wool, cotton or if they were very wealthy, silk. There were and are some thin weaves of fabric, especially cotton. I can name several which by today's standard are considered cool. And cotton does absorb moisture much better than our synthetic cloth. However, we are back to the concept of smell.

Most people are familiar with the corsets worn by women in the nineteenth century. They were construction of cotton (again silk if you were lucky) and full of whale bones. they were not the light weight girdles of 30  or 40 years ago.  These garments were laced tight to give women that desired figure. It's no wonder they had fainting couches in a ball room. I can just imagine what dancing next to an unwashed male would do to you if you wearing one of those corsets laced as tight as they were.

During some of that time period, women also wore several petticoats, starched stiff to hold the gown away from her feet. The hoop skirts were also full of the same whale bone as in the corset. Some even contained metal. Heavy, cumbersome, and hot, hot, hot. Even toward the turn of the century the garments were heavy and the bustle added weight. Can you imagine walking around in ninety five degree weather with tight, long mutton shelves?

My mother had a swimming costume worn by a great, great grandmother after the turn of the century. It was two piece, made of wool, consisted of pantaloons, which were from the waist to below the knee, and a top which had three quarter length sleeves and was a blouson top and cover the pantaloons to the knees. Can you imagine swimming in wool and a two piece wool dress? What happens when you wash a 'wool sweater'?

A fan was an essential part of a woman's wardrobe for a whole lot of reasons. And, she too, didn't have the luxury of a lot of baths. So, she'd have her own fragrance with which to contend. Remember, indoor plumbing was still to come during most of the 19th and a good part of the 20th century. We had an outhouse on the farm in the 40's. the 1940's that is.

If we go back to the homes of wealthy southerners we find, the only cooling was the tall ceilings, huge windows, and open doors. There were no screens on the windows so on top of the heat, you also had the bugs. Sometimes you find a type of fan in the ceiling of the dining room pulled back and forth by a servant. Those fans were not to cool but to keep the bugs off the food. Nothing in other rooms.

And think about northern climates. They have hot days too, but their homes were built with low ceilings and smaller windows to help with the cold winters. They had no screens on those windows either, so the houses had to contain a few bugs, in fact maybe a lot of bugs.  Can you tell I don't like bugs?

Next time I'm inclined to complain about how hot the weather is I'll have to remind myself about the conditions of years ago. At least today if I get really hot I can strip off my shorts and top,  jump in a shower or take a cooling bath.  Thank goodness I live today and not then.
Allison Knight


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

You make it sound really miserable. It's hard to imagine a romance under all that sweaty clothing.

I think I'll go jump in the pool!