You may recall the story of Snow White and how beautiful she was with her pale white skin. That was a sign of wealth and beauty to be cherished and maintained. It meant she didn’t have to labor in the open fields and be exposed to all sorts of weather conditions. Even windburn can have an unfavorable look.
Skin tone is often lost in our modern culture with the popularity of tanning. Oh, and we must not forget the benefit of natural vitamin D exposure for our health. Actually, with more skin exposure by wearing shorter skirts and shorts, many feel that the tan hides veins, blemishes, and makes the skin look more taught and youthful. On the other hand, our ancestors valued covering up.
As living historians, we tend to want to portray the wealthy because that is what our guests like to see. As an interpreter, I like start where the visitor is and then move to reality. Visitors envision the beauty and romantic style of the upper class and fancy dresses. First there was petticoat over petticoat to add volume. Then early flouncing consisted of horsehair crinolines that reduced the number of required petticoats to achieve the desired profile. They they were heavy, uncomfortable, hot and unhygienic—especially during the summer. Crinoline hoops helped lift and were lighter than earlier years when ladies aimed for similar wide look that took many more petticoats. The crinoline was liberating and lighter. The hoop pulled clothing away from the legs allowing cool circulation (I’ll leave it at that). There was little need to wear them in the home. Maneuvering inside with a hoop was hazardous. Things would get knocked over for sure. Going out was not as casual as today. Leaving the upper bedroom alone was a well planned out donning of clothing and even more if leaving the home’s pediment.
There was no Spandex and no microfiber in the time that we portray. Certain fabrics like silk and linen are breathable and cooler. These fabrics are available today but often shrugged off by the modern world because of ironing and that dreaded “dry clean only” tag. In addition we have warm colors and cool colors to choose from. Many old photos, many seem like our ancestors wore dark colors but the photography technology did not interpret colors well. My favorite interpretation is museum quality pieces for true color and study. This can be rare since a lot of clothing may have been lost in time or even burned for health reasons.
Ah, sweat. Sweat is the sign you are hot. It’s the body’s natural coolant. Therefore you think we should encourage sweat. Certain fabrics are susceptible to sweat stains like wool. You can purchase disposable sweat shields. This is not a new concept. Period clothing used absorbent pads under their arms. Even in modern times, clergy wore them with their dark habits to avoid stains and absorb perspiration. Our sweat and body odor has changed over time due to diet. We eat more salt and that is a major factor. Also the spicy foods before hot days of reenacting can trigger an odor.
I guess the only thing I miss wearing is my loose fitting clothing. However, those clothes have a disadvantage, too. It’s like getting a bigger purse and you find more and more to put in it.
So when someone asks you, “Are you hot in that?” Yes, we all are. But on the other hand, our body temperature is usually the same as the person asking. I may have to get a body thermometer to compare because I know the question will come up. What will you say when asked?
-By Rosemary Connolly