Now that summer is in full swing and we are basking in the sun and the relative cool of the beach, we are reminded of the torture that our Victorian predecessors went through during these months.
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 who did wear the rational costume were often ridiculed in public. Culottes, or some other version of trousers were widely attacked on grounds of appearance, but were also attacked from the pulpit as contrary to God's will. Saint Paul's injunction against cross-dressing was the text/excuse for declaring this or that article of clothing un-Christian. Never mind that St. Paul didn't wear pants. They weren't invented for another 1700 years after his lifetime. Attacks against Rational Dress were also thinly veiled attacks against Lesbianism.
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 themselves. 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.’ We call a lightweight "nautical" jacket a blazer and the flat straw hat a boater, while the English call the same jacket a reefer and the hat a skimmer.
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.