From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Keeping Warm, 17th Century Style

Tuesday, January 20, 2009
I know, I know, there's nothing that can be done about the weather, but for most of America, this January has been a doozy. Record snowfalls, ice by the bucket, sub-zero temperatures: if this isn’t the winter of our discontent, then I don’t know what is.

When we’re not talking/whining/weeping about the cold, we’re figuring out the best ways to keep warm. For a ten-minute trip to the grocery, we’re outfitted for arctic exploration. We shroud ourselves in layers of wool, fleece, and down, weigh the various merits of North Face vs. Under Armor, and discourse on the calculations necessary to determine the wind-chill.

All of which made me think of one of my favorite historical prints: Winter, etched by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1643 (from the collections of the British Museum.)

Hollar winter jpg

This lady represents the height of winter-wear fashion in seventeenth century London, prepared to face whatever the weather may bring in considerable style. Here’s the caption:

The cold, not cruelty, makes her wear
In Winter furs and wild beasts’ hair
For a smoother skin at night
Embraceth her with more delight.

What’s she wearing? To begin, she’s layered several mohair petticoats in different colors, looping them over her arm to protect them from the dirt of the streets. Of course that also reveals the lace border on her underskirt and the silk rosette on her high-heeled shoe, the sort of details calculated to drive the gallants wild. She’s tied a quilted silk hood over her hair and a mask to protect her complexion from the cold, and perhaps to hide her identity on her way to an assignation. Certainly some gentleman, whether husband or lover, is supporting her (and enjoying that “smoother skin at night”?), because she’s sporting a costly sable tippet over her shoulders and an enormous sable muff over her arm, all thanks to the burgeoning fur trade with New England. Muffs were also considered erotically enticing, especially when lined with cherry-colored silk.

And if all this early consumerism weren’t clear enough, the artist has shown her walking in the prosperous London neighborhood of Cornhill. The winter sky is filled with the smoke of coal fires and the tower of the first Royal Exchange (one of the earliest enclosed malls, with galleries of shops selling luxury goods)is in the background.

One last note about keeping warm in seventeenth-century London. According to diarist Samuel Pepys, a favorite drink in winter taverns was a concoction called “lamb’s wool”: buttered ale served hot, and garnished with roasted spiced apples. Yum!


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