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Thursday, March 24, 2011


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. This 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 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 men and women keep cool?

Simply truth - they couldn't. Gentlemen wore shirts, ties and jackets at all times. The garments were made of wool, cotton and, if 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 you in his arms to hug or kiss you.

Of course, men could always remove their jackets but what about the women. Again, their clothing was wool, cotton or, if they were 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 20 years ago. The 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 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, full, 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.

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 go home, strip off my shorts and top, and jump in a shower or take a cooling bath. Thank goodness I live today and not then.

Award winning author, Allison Knight began her writing career like many others. She read a book she didn’t like and knew she could do a better job. She took classes, joined a critique group and wrote, rewrote and wrote some more. Allison has published seventeen romances and because she loves to share her knowledge often blogs with other authors. She also loves to talk about the growing digital market.

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Carol said...

I can't imagine putting up with the stinky odors. In spite of our present complaints we are lucky to live in a time when the air isn't revolting. lol. Carol McPhee

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

High ceilings and good ventilation were a godsend. Gamble of Proctor and Gamble has a winter home around the corner from us in Central FL. (Port Orange/Daytona) His house has an open-ended hall though the middle and every screen door or window opens onto the shaded hall. But in the clothing of the day, one didn't move fast.

Now ya'll know why southerners talk slowly!


Kathy Otten said...

I went to a presentation a couple of weeks ago by some Civil War reenactors. As part of the program one of the young women in in audience was dressed in costume, (over her clothes)piece by piece the way a woman back then would dress. I did learn that the hoops came in different sizes depending on everyday or ballroom wear. And that air did move around under them. Good for summer, bad for winter. And after a day of reenacting in the summer sun, the chemise was completely soaked from sweat under her corset. And not all women laced their corset like Scarlett O'Hara. Most did it snug enough for posture and to hold their breasts in place.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Very interesting, Allison - we take so much for granted these days, including the easy clothes and plumbing!

Marja said...

Very interesting post. At one time I had an antique store, and I included some vintage clothing. Very interesting, and very cumbersome.

Linda Swift said...

Very interesting and informative, Allison. I guess the people then were used to conditions and didn't have anything better to compare them with, so they were content. But I'm grateful I'm in the here and now and not there and then!

Christine H said...

Wow, I never thought about all that. Your right! This summer when I to am inclined to complain it's to hot. I will refrain and be thankful for all the things I have to keep me cool. :)