We received a special request, in light of this recent cold snap, to talk about winter clothing for women of the 18th century and figured what better time than now as we thaw out from these -22 temperatures we’ve been having here in the Midwest. So sit back, grab a blanket, and think warm thoughts as we share some of the best ways to stay toasty for those upcoming chilly events.
Layers are the name of the game when it comes to staying comfortably warm in the 18th century. So let’s start with those toes! Silk works as a great insulator and is still used today for base layer garments. It’s lightweight, easy to layer, wicks moisture away better than cotton and can help you regulate your temperature which makes it perfect for winter events. When getting dressed don your silk stockings first before putting on those wooly ones and your toes and legs should stay reasonably warm.
If you know you’re going to be heading to a handful of winter events I’d recommend investing in a flannel shift and flannel under/modesty petticoat. If you tend to run hot, overheat easily, or know you’ll be frequently indoors/near a fire you may want to consider if a flannel shift is needed. If you’re on a march or doing demos outside exposed to the cold you’ll probably be ok with that flannel shift. Overall, soft, warm base layers can be the difference between shivering at an event and being comfortable.
Speaking of petticoats, layer those up to help keep your thighs and legs warm. Adding a quilted petticoat can help keep the warmth in, it almost creates a pocket of warm air especially when layered with other petticoats on top. On any given day I wear at least two petticoats, sometimes three, but when expecting an event to be chilly I may wear up to five petticoats if that’s what it takes to keep my butt warm.
Next I’d consider adding a quilted waistcoat before putting on my gown. There are a few surviving examples of these waistcoats, which may have been the inspiration behind that mythical (and terribly inaccurate) “bodice” so frequently worn to 18th century events. Sharon Burnston has written a great amount of research on quilted waistcoats for women and has graciously provided a pattern for making one of your own. This garment, like jumps and stays, is meant to be worn underneath your gown or jacket. This is not an outerwear piece like our modern down vests, but more like an 18th Century long john/ long underwear style top.
So now you’re essentially dressed, you have your gown on and the next layer to help keep you warm would be your cap. I’d opt for a cap with long lappets that I could tie under my chin or otherwise use to cover my ears. Atop my cap I’d tightly tie a handkerchief to help block out the wind, again silk would be my top pick because of how great of an insulator it is without adding bulk. Speaking of silk handkerchiefs, I’d be layering my neck handkerchiefs to help keep my bosom warm. First I’d start with silk before adding a heavier handkerchief like one of those nice linsey-woolsey ones from Burnley & Trowbridge. Aside from a hooded cape/cloak/mantelet I’d afix a bonnet, preferably silk or wool to help block the wind from head and face and keep in all that heat.
So now we’re left with exposed lower arms and the upper body to keep warm. Mitts are the most obvious answer for keeping the lower arms warm. We see mitts made of silk, leather, wool, and even repurposed from old worn out stockings. We’ve previously shared a DIY pattern for making your own 18th Century mitts which are a serious must have item for any event. They’re great at keeping the cold and bitter wind away during the winter and perfect for sunburn prevention in the warm summer months (ask Hayley how we know this!). For keeping hands and lower arms warm we’d also consider a muff, depending on the event and what we were doing. Muffs of fur or silk made with a wool or silk lining are perfect at keeping hands warm. They’re great for events when you’re not doing much of anything but seem, IMO, impractical for any event where you’re actually needing to use your hands.
Last layer we’re going to mention is the cloak, mantle, cape or what have you. These often had hoods and were commonly made of wool, most popular color seems to have been a pretty shade of red which earned them the name cardinals. A nice close fitting hood can help keep the heat in around the head and neck area. The cloak itself could be made in different lengths and works the same as a modern coat by acting as the outermost layer to block the wind and trap the heat close to the body. We are working on cloaks of our own using the research and pattern graciously made available by Sue Felshin. We definitely recommend a cloak as the bare minimum for winter clothing.
So there you have folks! Layering up is about the best way to keep warm for chilly events. As with anything we recommend using your best judgement when preparing for an event. If temperatures are in the negatives or with severe wind chills we’d highly recommend the use of modern base layers and hand warmers. These kept out of sight are a compromise I’m willing to make since they don’t outwardly affect my overall interpretation, but that choice is a very personal one to make.
Stay warm and happy sewing!