Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hot Women of History: How Women Dealt With Heat and Hygiene.

As I sit in my air-conditioned house and drive my air-conditioned car, wearing shorts, sandals, and a breezy cotton top, I wonder how women of the past dealt with hot weather. Thinking of all their layers upon layers makes me melt.  Where’s my fan? 

So how did women tolerate the heat?

Perhaps part of the answer is simple:  the change in seasons comes gradually, allowing the body time to adjust.  Plus, it’s relative.  Sixty degrees in April feels warm while sixty degrees in September feels cool. The body adjusts and fabrics change weight and color. 

In “Gone With the Wind” the ladies at the barbecue retire to the shade-darkened bedrooms, strip down to their underwear and nap during the heat of the day.  Daily schedules changed to fit the temperature. People often got up dawn, took a breather in the heat of the day, and went back to work in the cooler evenings.

During the late 1800’s, the wealthy families of the stifling east-coast cities moved their entire households to mansions that took advantage of the ocean breezes of Newport, Rhode Island. People with porches or basements slept wherever they could catch a breeze.  Women carried parasols—which I found handy in Rome.  Note my light-colored cotton clothing.

In the middle ages, the church thought nakedness was evil and baths could make you sick.  Eventually logic prevailed. Later, washing the body, washing the face, and eliminating waste were achieved in three distinct areas: a portable bath tub in the kitchen near the heat source, a wash basin in the bedroom, and an outhouse.  Or a chamber pot—which was emptied in a cess pit in the basement or outdoors.  Putting all the functions in one place didn’t come about until the 1900’s.

If women were traveling, where did they relieve themselves?  They could use outhouses at inns, or if in the country walk away from the wagon or stagecoach, lift their skirts and squat in the grass. Sometimes a fellow woman would spread a shawl or skirt to afford some privacy.  There’s a scene in the movie, “Mrs. Brown” that shows Queen Victoria relieving herself in the woods. Pantaloons were often split in the middle which allowed for this amid all the other skirt layers.

Now comes a question we rarely ask.  How did women handle their periods?  Pads and tampons have been around since ancient times. Moss, leather, and other fabrics were tied around waists or even inserted when wrapped around a stick. In some tribal cultures, women were ostracized during their periods.  But for the most part rags were used, washed, and reused.  And women of status often withdrew during that time, keeping to their rooms—which I suspect played into the image of females being weaker and more fragile than men.

People didn’t wash their clothes often either. To cover the stench they used perfume and pomanders. If everyone smelled, did they get used to it? 

I am so glad I live when I do.  Take a look at my Pinterest board:  What a Lady Wore Beneath it All then check out over 2000 links to wonderful historical fashion!
What could you give up:  Air conditioning, a bathroom, or modern clothing?//Nancy