Joanna Cunningham shows you a glimpse into how our ancestors would have dressed during the winter months through the past 800 years! 

Over the centuries, fashion trends have chopped and changed constantly. Even today, fashion is always changing, and the clothes I wore growing up are completely different to the clothes we see in stores nowadays. As the Autumn and Winter months approach, and our coats, hats, scarves and gloves come out of hibernation, I thought it only fitting to explore the coldweather garms our ancestors would have worn throughout the ages…


During these times, simplicity and uniformity prevailed across the continent. For men, the cyclas was all the rage; a simple tunic made from a rectangular piece of cloth with a hole for the head. Later on, its sides were sewn together, and a sleeves and hood were added. For women, a similar item called a mantle was worn, which was just a cape or shawl acting as a wrap to shield from the cold. This would have been tied together using a cord across the chest and, for the wealthier, might have been lined with fur. As you can imagine, these items of clothing would most certainly have done very little to shield the workers from the cold, but those luckier to use more expensive and thicker materials would have really benefited from these clothing items during the colder seasons.


Characterised by extremes and extravagances, due to Europe’s increasing prosperity, these centuries were poles apart from the previous two. Bright colours and rich materials were used, and the practice of slashing – slitting material on the top of a garment to reveal more vibrant colours beneath – was a very popular fashion trend. The Houppelande was the outerwear of choice; a long cloak with sleeves cascading to the floor. Otherwise, a sideless, pleated gown, like a tabard, was worn, loose or belted. For women, a high-waisted silhouette was preferred. In particular, cloaks were very popular, and were perhaps a little more sophisticated than those of the previous centuries. Additionally, military boots became a great winter shoe for men.


During this time, fashion was rapidly on the move, but was mainly characterised by long, lean lines, with low waists for both men and women. One very popular design, following the restoration of Charles II to the throne, was the baroque style, which we actually still see today throughout highstreet stores. This is a very ornate design inspired by the baroque architecture of the time.

In general, Perwigs were essential. These were curly, long-haired wigs, ironically reminiscent of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel! For men, clothes were much more relaxed and loosefitting during this period, and were decorated with hundreds of yards of ribbon, but were then superseded by the more formal long coat, waistcoat and cravat. For women, hunting and riding dresses were all the rage, consisting of mannish coats, doublets, hats, and periwigs also. This meant that no one could tell men and women apart during the hunt. Hats also became a fashion statement during this time, varying greatly throughout the period; brim sizes and styles varied, and feathers were very on trend.

Late 1700-1800s

Numerous coats hit the scene during this period. Men certainly had an array of choices: justacorps, which were knee-length coats fitted to the waist with flared skirts; frock coats, also knee-length; morning coats, tailcoats, smoking jackets or cutaway coats, worn as formal wear; military coats called coatees; lounge coats or sack coats for less formal occasions; or duster coats, for riding horseback. Women also had a number of choices, including basque coats, which were tightly fitted and knee-length, and spencer coats, which were waistlength and frequently doublebreasted, alongside redingotes for riding. This was another period wherein women wore masculine outfits for riding, and they also wore elbow-length capes, lined with fur.


During the Edwardian era, men often wore suits similar to today, including sack suits, which were long, plain, loose fitting, and wide, with lapels, and a high-closure neckline. These ranged in colours, from dark, to navy, to grey, to green, to ivory, to brown. Blazers and Norfolk jackets were also popular, whilst women wore tailored suits for their white collar jobs. Huge, broad-rimmed hats, as depicted in the Hollywood blockbuster, Titanic, also started making an appearance, with feathers, ribbons, and artificial flowers for decoration.


As Hollywood movies depict, this decade saw the modernisation of clothing, from the restrictive garms characteristic of the previous millenium, to more loose-fitting outfits, for a more boyish figure. For men, small bowler hats were worn, depending on class. They also wore long, smart coats with lapels, similar to the shorter lapel coats we wear today. Alternatively, women wore loose coats and jumpers, and fur was a particularly popular choice for these straight, long coats. Gloves were also prominent during this period; short gloves for daily wear, and longer gloves, reaching past the elbow, were popular for nightwear. Overall, this period was revolutionary for fashion. 1930-45s During the wartime decades, attention to the shoulders, using butterfly and banjo sleeves, and exaggerated shoulder pads on coats, was popular. This meant the return of hourglass waists to further accentuate the shoulders. Women wore cloche hats, whilst men wore gangster-style homburg or fedora hats, and manufacturers introduced coordinating ensembles of hats, scarfs and gloves, often in striking colours and geometric designs. Moreover, this period saw the introduction of man-made fibers, due to the lack of available animal materials during rationing.


The 50s saw the domination of youth fashion, which meant that young people started wearing different clothes from their parents, in a rebellious style. Leather, denim and bomber jackets were certainly the top choices for these young people, as reminiscent in Grease. In addition, the introduction of suits for the new working women taking the scene after the women’s experience during WWII meant that men’s and women’s outerwear was not too different. This marked the beginning of clothes which began to be worn by both sexes!


This period was defined by more boxy shapes and thigh-length hemlines, alongside bright colours. Furthermore, PVC and polyester became very popular, with plastic raincoats and swing coats adding to the look. The Nehru jacket also became a staple piece for men and women, with its high neck and Indian-style collar, as modelled by Jackie Kennedy on numerous occasions.


With the overproduction of clothes due to the increasing use of synthetic materials at this time, fashion became much more free,
with less rules. Sweaters were particularly popular, with items such as sweater coats and dresses becoming perfect for those autumn/winter months. Layering was also key, with suede coats, peacoats, and blazers topping these outfits. Turbans also became very popular, and the cloche hats from the early 1900s came back in.


This was another period of bright colours and expensive clothes. This extravagance led to faux fur coats and velvet blazers enjoying the spotlight. Trench coats and reversible coats, with leather on one side and fur on the other, were also introduced.


Coming to more recent decades, the 90s were a time of minimalist fashion, with less bright colours, and more pastels making a mark. Trench coats continued into this period, reaching all the way to the ground, alongside collarless coats, leather jackets, and turtleneck sweaters. We can certainly start seeing a real recycling of fashion trends within the recent decades, and these are certainly apparent within this period.


Finally, we reach our current century; the 2000s, which contains a real mixture of clothing from the previous 50 years. Indeed, if we take look through the outerwear fashion from the previous century, we can see trends from throughout these times littered across the past 18 years, reaching today.

This just goes to show how cyclical fashion can be! The development of outerwear throughout the ages, and the merging of fashion to create unisex choices, really shows us how far we have come. Indeed, these days, our outerwear almost hasn’t changed since the 1950s, and we have simply picked up other clothing items along the way to create a diverse array of outerwear choices for the modern population.

You can keep up to date with Joanna’s work on her blog, itstartedwithrebecca.wordpress.com, or follow @itstartedwithrebecca on Instagram, and @iswrebecca on Twitter.

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