Although most of us associate the light summery dresses exhibited in Mrs. Ralston’s bedroom at the Physick Estate as the summertime norm for women, in actual fact, dresses in lightweight materials were not worn until the late 1890s. Prior to their popularity, Victorian women wore the same outfits in the wintertime and in the summer. These outfits, of course, were heavy and hot, resulting in many heat-related illnesses.
Many doctors were confused when it came to summertime fashions and recommended that one wear woolen underclothing, even in summertime, because, they claimed, “wool is cooler than any other material because it does not conduct the heat of the atmosphere to the body.” In a sense this is true; wool is an insulator and would protect the body from the weather. However, what doctors failed to realize was that wool trapped the heat from one’s own body and kept it close to the skin, making a person very warm in a short period of time.
In fact, wool was the only material to be worn while cycling. In an effort to make bicycle riding safer, special riding skirts were available. These skirts had extra buttons on the front, where one simply buttoned the hem of the skirt up out of the way of the bicycle’s mechanics. Coolness obviously, was of no consideration, whether for sport or otherwise. “Fashion has decreed that, by married women at all events, mantles must be worn even in hot weather.” (The Lady’s World, 1887)
In 1880, the Rational Dress Society was founded to promote the adoption of a style of dress based upon “considerations of health, comfort and beauty.” Apart from campaigning against tight lacing, heavy skirts and high heels, the Society aimed to “recommend that the maximum weight of underclothing (without shoes) should not exceed 7 lbs.” Although many women probably silently applauded the efforts of the Rational Dress Society, few were willing to go against the grain of society and actually wear the clothing recommended by the Society. Those that did wear the rational costume were often ridiculed in public.
Brimmed hats were favored in the summer because the brim shielded the face from the sun. In addition to a hat, women frequently carried a parasol or a fan to cool them. Parasols were handy for blocking the sun, while a fan could be used to stir up cooling air.
Although women were doomed to spend the season in misery, men’s fashion did change in the summertime. During warm weather, men wore white or light-colored knickerbockers or trousers for playing tennis, boating, and most other activities. Often a striped jacket was paired with light trousers and the outfit completed with an oval straw hat called a ‘boater.’
It wasn’t until 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, that it became acceptable for women to dress in thin fabrics like muslin, gauze, chiffon, and lace in the summertime. The Queen herself voiced her support of the lighter materials and the world universally adopted lightweight materials for the summertime, much to the relief of women everywhere.