How lovely summertime must have been,
for the wealthiest of the population, in the Colonial South! The country houses were large and airy, with hallways straight through that drew the breezes and large windows that were always open. Even the smaller houses in town had large rooms and high ceilings with center hallways and plenty of windows open to the zephyrs . . .
Who are we kidding? It must have been hot. No fans to move the air, no AC to reduce the humidity.
Imagine how hot it would be for the ladies, wearing all those layers of clothes.
Getting dressed, for the daughters and wives of the wealthy plantations, was an affair (ordeal?) that took a considerable length of time and a number of steps. Consider, if you will, the following process taking place on a July morning when the temperature is already approaching ninety and the humidity is so thick your hair is frizzing.
First, if you were over the age of six, next to your skin you would put on your “shift” or chemise. A loose garment made of thin cotton or fine linen that fell approximately to the knees, the shift pulled over the head and may have had a drawstring at the neck. (At this step you were still considered naked. Probably most women slept in their shift.)
After the shift was adjusted, the corset, or “stays,” which held you upright from hips to armpits—no slouching allowed!—would be wrapped around your torso and laced up like a tennis shoe. This undergarment was made of coarse fabric and stiffened with whalebone and a busk—a thin strip of wood inserted into a pocket in front of the corset—and tied at the back, so you needed someone (perhaps more than one someone) to help you get dressed at this point. The corset was cone-shaped and pretty much smashed the breasts, depending on how well-endowed you happened to be.
Stockings were made of cotton or silk, came up to or over the knee, and were held in place by ribbons called garters. Imagine wearing knee socks outside in the middle of summer, and that might give you an idea of what wearing stockings was like.
After the corset and stockings the petticoat, having been created out of about twice as much fabric as the top sheet of your bed, was tied on at the waist. Depending on your level of wealth and your standing in the community, this part of your ensemble would have been made of linen, cotton, or silk.
Now, let me just tell you, silk is hot. It’s not breathable like linen or cotton. What’s more, around the time of the Stamp Act, quilted petticoats were fashionable.
I hope those ladies weren’t wearing a quilted silk petticoat in the summertime, in the Deep South. Talk about slaves to fashion! No wonder they swooned all the time.
After the petticoat came the “gown,” the garment that included bodice and skirt. Depending upon the occasion, it may have been lavishly embroidered silk or plain linen. The skirt was open in front to display the petticoat. The sleeves hung down below the elbows and likely ended with ruffles, to which more ruffles of lace were pinned or tacked on with stitches (the lace would be used for more than one gown, interchangeably). The bodice was covered in the front by a “stomacher,” another adornment that, according to the occasion, might be encrusted with beads, ribbons, or embroidery and which was fastened to the bodice with pins, hooks, or stitches. If the shift didn’t have it already, more lace was pinned at the neckline, to fall over the stomacher.
At this point, it was difficult to bend and your maid would put your shoes on for you as you held onto the bedpost for balance. Now fully outfitted, you would have to crouch or squat to tend to a child. Forget about picking up anything off the floor—you would have had servants for that. And going to the toilet was a group effort, as anyone who’s worn a lavish wedding gown knows (imagine wearing that get-up every day, all day). However, you were a vision of loveliness as you descended the stairs for dinner, as your maid and other assorted attendants waved feathers around you to stir the air and chase off the flies.
Although by this time you’d be exhausted from the exertion of getting dressed, there would be ice cream every day in summer and everybody was boozy from morning ’til night, so there were compensations.
Nowadays we can go outdoors from April to October in shorts and tops or sundresses wearing only panties and bra underneath. We also live in climate-controlled environments where it can be 68 degrees all summer and we sleep under quilts in August.
The next time you’re called upon to get dressed up on a hot summer day, remember your forbears (or their wealthy neighbors) and be grateful for your options.
And for the air conditioning in your car.