Thursday, November 19, 2015

How to be Happy in Costume in Winter

With winter right around the corner here in Minnesota, I've put together my tips for being happy in the cold while dressed up in costume.

I originally thought to title this post "How to Survive the Cold in Costume," but I realized that we don't just want to get outside in the cold, snowy weather and survive, we want to be comfortable enough to have fun! We're not talking simply walking from your car to an event, but events where you'll be outside for a long period of time.

Most of the tips below were written with Victorian-era costuming in mind, but can definitely apply to other eras.

1.) Wear layers. If you are dressed in historic costume, you are probably already doing this, right? But you can add layers to your already-existing ones: narrow under-petticoats for warmth, long-sleeved corset covers or combinations, coats, capes, and hoods. Air trapped between layers of clothing insulate your body from cold and wind and keep you warmer. More layers = more air.

Layers also allow you to make adjustments throughout the day as your body temperature or activity level change. You might take off your shawl or hood while ice skating, but when you stop moving you're going to cool down again. Layers = flexibility.

2.) Wool is your new best friend. Truly, wool can do anything. Smooth, fine wools make stylish dresses. Thick, soft wools are perfect for outerwear. Felted wools like Melton can be almost wind-proof. It's historically accurate for almost all periods. And nothing is going to provide breathable insulation like wool.

Wool will continue to insulate even when it gets damp, and wet wool dries faster and feels much less heavy than wet cotton or other plant-based fibers. It breathes well, and wicks away sweat and moisture. Plus it's beautiful and so dreamy to sew on.

If you find wool itchy, you have a couple of options. First, did you know that wool feels more itchy at warmer temperatures? That prickly, unbearable wool you rejected in summer might feel perfectly acceptable in December. Try it when you actually feel cold and it might feel different to you.

Second, you can look for cashmere. Yes, it's much pricier. But it insulates wonderfully and is very, very, soft.

Finally, you can use wool for outer garments only. By keeping a barrier of cotton or silk between your skin and the wool, you can reap all the insulating benefits and avoid the scratchiness.

A lot of folks mistakenly believe they are allergic to wool, when in fact, they have just never experienced good-quality wool that doesn't scratch. Keep an open mind. However, if you truly do have a wool allergy, a polyester or acrylic suiting is still better than cotton for keeping you warm.

3.) Wool socks are non-negotiable. I know, I already covered wool. But socks deserve their own comment. Even if you keep your trunk warm, cold temperatures can be dangerous for feet. My favorite wool socks are made by Smartwool. They are warm, breathable, machine washable, and made of super fine non-itchy Merino, blended with nylon for strength and elastic for stay-uppiness. The solid knee-high or over-the-knee socks are usually best for costumers.

Liner socks give you extra insulation without the bulk of wearing two pairs of socks.

Make sure you buy your shoes, boots, or ice skates large enough to wear thick socks and liners. You may want to go up a half size, or try a wider width. You want a little bit of air inside your boot to help insulate.

As above, if you are truly allergic to wool, acrylic is your next best bet.

4.) Cover your extremities. Mittens are less stylish than gloves, but warmer. If you wear gloves, leather or faux leather are going to block more wind than cloth or knitted ones. And don't forget about muffs!

Winter hat, coat, and muff 1886

If you're a knitter, check out the historic knitting group on Ravelry for ideas and sources for knitted accessories. Felting, double knitting, and Fair Isle (stranded colorwork) techniques can all make knitted accessories warmer and more windproof.

5.) Headwear. There are plenty of fancy winter hats depicted in fashion plates, but if you are outside for any considerable period of time, you will be much, much happier with your ears covered. Hoods, close bonnets, and fine woolen shawls or veils are quite practical.

Fur-trimmed winter hood 1870
Lady on the right has a hood or shawl softly wrapped around her head. Lady on the left is jealous.

You can also comb your hair over your ears as this provides a surprising amount of insulation. Hair worn this way is seen between about 1845-1870.

Hair dressed over the ears 1860

6.) Protect your skin. Cold air holds less moisture, and cold, dry air sucks the moisture out your skin. Cold, hard winds can give you a windburn. Cover as much exposed skin as possible, and use lotion on any skin left exposed. Creamy, fatty lotions are the best. If you shudder at the thought of putting a thick lotion on your face, just know that dry skin can soak it up like a sponge. It probably won't feel as greasy in cold, dry weather as it may have in warm weather. Ditto lip balm. Crusty lips are no fun.

7.) Eat a lot. I like this one. Just standing around outside, keeping your body warm burns up calories, so make sure you are well fed! Warm drinks are also a plus.

8.) Bring handkerchiefs. Cold air makes for drippy noses. Not fun, but it's true. Plain cotton hankies are functional and pretty ones with lace and embroidery make a great accessory!

Lady with handkerchief
Embroidery pattern for pocket handkerchief, Godey's 1861

Hankies for everyone!!

9.) Stay active. Nothing is colder than sitting still. Get up, take a walk, run around. Skate, sled, jump up and down!

Skiing with composure

10.) Take breaks. It's not a marathon. Go inside and warm up every now and then.

11.) Enjoy it! Instead of thinking about the cold, focus on the fun you're having: skating, walking through a snowy wood, or just being dressed up with friends!

12.) If all else fails, cheat. Above all, you want to be happy and safe. If that means you wear modern long underwear, then do it! Modern boots are much warmer than historic repros, which are typically made of leather with no insulation at all. If you do wear repro shoes, then absolutely use beeswax or a silicone waterproofing spray on them.

Do you have any other tips for cold weather happiness? Let me know!


  1. Several years ago ebay had a lady's early 1900's vellastic underwear union suit made from sweatshirt fleece. I imagine those ladies were toasty warm outdoors.

  2. Here in Queensland Australia we have the opposite problem ... how to not collapse from heat stroke. We keep Victorian and Colonial for winter (such as it is - usually a week or two) and wear Regency in summer. Sadly the men prefer it the other way round.

  3. I am allergic to wool so I wore thick velvet for my 1850s dresses. When it was cold, we ladies in the Victorian caroling group wore tights and black jeans under our bell hoops and thin tee shirts under our bodices and corsets. We all had capes with hoods and muffs for our hands.

    1. Oh, and as the costume coordinator, I required hats for daywear, which kept everyone's heads warm.