Prepping Your Historical Wardrobe for Cooler Weather

I have several friends who do not look forward to the change in weather from summer to fall.  They dread it and often refuse to admit that there is even the slightest chance that summer is ending.  I am not one of those people.  Seasonal change has never bothered me, although I definitely wish February and March along as quickly as possible.  Perhaps people have always felt this way, or perhaps it is a luxury of modern life, but regardless of feeling, preparing for winter was a necessary and important part of life pre-furnaces and thermostats.

Living outside of Buffalo, NY, one is very used to experiencing all four seasons, snow, and a lot of wind.  So when I know that I will be attending an event between the months of October to May, I need to be prepared.  Perhaps you think that with so many layers to historical clothing, one will be warm enough.  And while there is some truth to that, the types of layers really make a difference.  Therefore in this post, we are going to look at various ways to stay warm and comfortable during those chillier months.  Disclaimer – not all of those options are 100% historically accurate.  But they work and if carefully concealed, will not be noticeable.

Here I am at an event on a chilly April day.  A thick cotton Sontag, finely woven linen/cotton blend fabric gown, AND a full set of cream long Johns underneath!

To begin, lets talk about the right types of fabrics.  Depending on what type of reenacting you are doing, you may be inside or out.  For those working inside a chilly building, your first thought should be to the fabric your gown is made.  Materials such as wool, a strong and tightly woven cotton,  some heavier linens, and mattelasse are all great choices.  The material you pick will depend on what you are doing, who you are portraying, and the time period.  For example, late this fall, I will be working in an 1880’s house showing examples of gown construction.  I am portraying an middle class woman.  I have decided to create a gown made of a heavy cotton which has both a lining and flat lining (an extra layer attached to the main fabric to create stability) in the bodice and a lined skirt.  This, without any additional pieces will give me some warmth.  In comparison, another living historian I know attending the same event will be portraying an outdoor cook.  She will be opting for wool for its fire resistant properties and warmth from chilly winds.  Once you now where and what you will be doing, you can better decide the right materials to wear.  And of course, layers of the gown construction make a big difference.  Avoid lightweight cottons, batiste, lawn and any other sheer fabric.

In addition to the gown itself, your undergarments play an even bigger role.  When the weather tips to freezing or below, this is not the time to focus on your waist size.  Think warm layers like quilted petticoats, long sleeve chemise, or wool stockings/socks.  I have also worn, and know many others who do, long johns underneath my gowns.  Not having access to full woolen underwear, long johns do the same thing and really make a difference in keeping your body heat.  Just be sure that your bodice neckline is high enough so as not to offer a peek at your thermals.  In addition, quilted petticoats have been used for centuries and are one of the easiest ways to add both volume and warmth.  Matelasse fabric is relatively easy to find and since it doesn’t require quilting, a petticoat in the proper shape can be constructed rather quickly.

Examples of Ladies Woolen Goods from an 1890 H. O’Neill Catalog

There are also outer accessories a person can find or make to help keep in the warmth.  A heart warmer or Sontag being one of the most common, is great for keeping your arms free and your core warm.  While I am, unfortunately, not a great knitter, I have actually created a heart warmer using quilted cotton and heavy twill(see top picture.)  It is not the most coziest thing, but it definitely keeps in warmth.  Regular triangular shaped shawls and lap throws are also great choices.  Fingerless gloves work well for those who want to keep their hands cozy, but still need to be working on projects.  Full gloves, mittens, and muffs are, of course, great choices as well.

Example of a Sontag or  Heartwarmer. C. 1860’s

A triangle shaped shawl c. 1860’s

A large triangle shawl pinned and worn in the style of a mantle or paletot.  C. 1860’s

Moving on from accessories, outerwear (i.e. coats etc) should be decided based on decade of interpretation and location.  For those focusing on Regency Era, items like Spencer jackets, Redingotes, bonnets, and large muffs are appropriate.  1860’s calls for paletots, mantles, smaller muffs, and knitted caps. Cloaks, while worn through out the 18th and 19th century need to be tailored to fit the time period and skirt silhouette.  Personal note –  if you are choosing to add fur to your outer items, please stick with faux fur.  I understand that this is not historically accurate, but it is more humane.

Examples of Regency Outerwear.  Image from Cincinnati Art Museum

Examples of ladies’ outerwear.  C. 1860’s

Now on to my most needed and favorite modern cheat….hand warmers.  I have Raynaud’s Disease which basically means when the temperatures dip anywhere from 50 degrees or lower (or if I take something out of the freezer) my capillaries in my hands close and I lose feeling and blood circulation to my fingers.  Which can be quite painful and reduce my ability to use my hands.  All in all, it really isn’t a big deal in my life, and with modern conveniences I am able to keep my fingers warm…but at outdoor or cold weather events where I need to be demonstrating a skill or sewing something, it is a big problem.  Enter hand warmers.  You know, those things you use on the ski slopes tucked into your boots or mittens?  I will open a package at the start of an event and place them in a small drawstring bag that is large enough to hold my hands.  Then, as needed, I simply stick my hands in and grasp the warmers.  These are truly a life saver and another reason I am glad to live in modern times.


When it comes to the cooler weather, there are many ways to stay warm and comfortable.  I actually really enjoy those cooler days as it gives me a chance to wear all those fun accessories and layers….and another excuse to make more things.  Like I really needed another excuse… 😉


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