One of the more common questions for our museum guides wearing period clothing is, “Aren’t you hot in those clothes?” As August temperatures climb, now is a good time to get some perspective on that question.
Chief Period clothing seamstress and Millinery supervisor, Laura P. wears some of the most fashionable 1875 era clothing at the museum, including many layers of period correct underpinnings. Here’s her answer to, “aren’t you hot in those clothes?”:
There are many possible answers to this question, but this exceptionally humid summer the one I use the most is, “Yes. It’s a very warm day. You’re hot, I’m hot, we’re all hot.” And then I try not to mop my face on my sleeve, because A: it’s unladylike, B: that’s what handkerchiefs are for, and C: I wear glasses, which get in the way. Of course, unlike my questioners, my sleeves are long, my skirt is long, and it’s worn over a corset and bustle. And that’s better than a tank top and shorts for summer, in the Victorian view.
It’s all in the materials used, and how they’re cut. In the 1870s, we had no Spandex and no microfiber. Our best material for wicking was linen, so that’s the fabric that was used for the base layer of clothing from shoulder to knee. The rest of the clothing was designed to get air movement to that base layer as much as possible without sacrificing the line of fashion.
The bustle was a problem in the heat. In the 1870s, most of the bustles were pillow pads, masses of horsehair ruffles, or lobstertails of fabric stretched over spring steel. Air does not pass through these, and it barely passes under the hollow arches of the lobstertail. “Heating to the spine” only begins to describe the effect of a pillow bustle worn on the back of the hips for an entire day. The lobstertail at least had the benefit of lightness, and any bustle would keep one’s skirts from sticking to the legs in back while standing. In 1875, the bustle was crucial for the fashionable line, so it was still a necessity.
One petticoat was necessary, especially if the dress was of a thin summer material, to ensure that the skirts draped properly and did not (urgh) stick to the fair wearer when she rose from her chair. It was of a fine, translucent muslin, with batiste ruffles that were finer yet.
The dress itself was made of thin or even transparent material: barred muslin, cotton or linen lawn, batiste, nainsook, airy wool grenadines, and bareges. A decent breeze would go straight through such fabrics. Unlike heavier dresses, the bodice could be made unlined and “loosely” fitted, rather than tight at the waist. White and ecru were popular colors, but navy blue trimmed with ecru lace was also fashionable, along with all manner of prints and plaids. High necks and long sleeves were de rigeur for daywear, protecting the skin from hot sunlight and concealing the inevitable perspiration. Separate cuffs and collars, starched until rigid, protected the dress at neck and sleeve; a cheaper option in 1875 were readymade tarlatan frills, cheap enough at 25 cents a dozen to throw away when they got grimy.
Altogether the clothing shaded the body, created air movement around the lower limbs, and removed perspiration from the skin before it could bead up and drip (sorry for that image). If we’re going to sweat this much, we might as well look good doing it.–Laura P, LHF Period Clothing Manager and Millinery Supervisor.
The photos of Laura and her underpinnings were taken during a presentation on Victorian Fashion–you can see this presentation on September 30, 2015 at 11 am in the Church of the Land during our Hat Day event, as part of our annual Historic Textile Show!