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Winter Warmers

By Jayne Shrimpton

Keeping warm in winter has been a challenge throughout history. From the earliest times, when temperatures dropped, humans wore extra body coverings beginning with animal pelts, progressing to woven textiles, and, eventually, form-fitting clothes.

Furs and animal skins

When the first hunter-gatherers tracked and killed wild beasts for food, they used the hides to make crude tent-like shelters and protective body coverings. Evidence for primitive man is sparse, but finds in Ancient Egyptian tombs demonstrate that leather tanning was well established by 5000 BC, while the mummified body known as ‘The Tollund Man’ who lived in 5th–century BC Denmark was discovered wearing a pointed skin cap of sheepskin and wool. Roman writers throughout the 1st centuries BC and AD routinely portrayed the ‘barbarian’ Germanic peoples whom they encountered in furs and animal pelts. Cloaks of fur, reindeer hide and other skins were essential in the cold northern European climate and in pagan Anglo-Saxon England fur or skin cloaks and capes were worn.

Fur was widely used during medieval and Tudor eras, heavy winter robes and gowns often edged and lined with fur. The most exotic furs such as lynx, ermine and miniver were overt symbols of exalted status, while ordinary people used common lambskin, coney (rabbit) and cat. By the later 1500s many European furs were becoming scarce due to agricultural shifts and the depletion of ancient forests by the relentless pursuit of wild animals. However, new furs followed the opening up of the vast resources of North America and Canada from the 1600s: marten, elk, deer, seal and, especially, the beaver skin favoured for outdoor hats for at least 200 years. During the Georgian and Regency eras, sable, ermine, squirrel and fox were popular for cloak and coat linings and edgings, stoles and wraps, while pillow-sized muffs of bearskin or shaggy fur were a winter fashion requisite.

In Victorian Britain, winter garments made entirely of fur began to be worn by the affluent, the Great Exhibition of 1851 demonstrating the many furs available, from lambskin and chinchilla to silky sealskin, wolf and racoon. During the 1880s, warm fur accessories – hats, muffs and neck-warmers - became affordable for more people, although full fur coats were beyond most people’s reach. In Edwardian Britain, furs became increasingly closely linked to high fashion - luxurious Russian or Siberian sable, ermine and sealskin fur coats, stoles and wraps worn ostentatiously by elite ladies, while male modes included fur-lined coats.

From the 1910s, cheaper furs like skunk, moleskin and musquash became common winter dress items, entering the mass fashion market. During WW1 well-paid female munitions factory workers reportedly treated themselves to full-length fur coats, to the surprise of their returning menfolk. During the 1920s a glamorous fur coat or garments trimmed with deep fur collar and cuffs were popular, a fox fur stole or shoulder cape a fashionable way of adding another layer during the second quarter of the 20th century. A mink coat was the most prestigious female garment during the 1950s and 1960s, just when fake fur using acrylic fibres was being developed as a more acceptable alternative.

Wraps, blankets, cloaks and shawls

Using early weaving equipment, since prehistoric times unshaped lengths of woven cloth have been variously draped, tied or pinned around the body for insulation. Created using yarn spun from sheep’s wool or goats’ hair containing natural oils, basic woven wraps were both warm and partly moisture-repellent. Square, rectangular or circular in shape, over time they served as outer cloaks and even as blankets at night for ordinary people worldwide, including the Roman soldier in his sagum or hooded paenula, the Scottish Highland shepherd in his plaid and the desert nomad n his burnous, their size and material determined by climatic conditions. With multiple uses over millennia, comforting woollen blankets have been essential at times of war and today we use cosy blankets and throws for camping, stargazing and winter fire-pit gatherings.

Even when inner garments became more shaped and tailored from the Middle Ages onwards, loose cloaks and mantles remained common outerwear. During the Elizabethan and Stuart eras cloaks were essential male items, luxurious versions being fashioned from high quality woollen or deep velvet fabrics, well-lined with warm material or fur.

Protective hooded cloaks for travelling and the frequent journeys made by many people on foot or horseback were especially welcome in winter and many women favoured cloaks right up until the 19th century. A popular variant was the warm hooded cloak called a ‘cardinal’ or ‘riding hood’: fashioned in cheerful scarlet woollen cloth, this was a staple of the English countrywoman’s wardrobe between the late-1600s until the early-1800s, as seen in artworks and memorialised in the folk tale, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.

Shawls have also been worn by generations of women, as fashion accessories, for modesty, and invariably for extra warmth, outdoors and in chilly interiors. The English word ‘shawl’ derives from Persian ‘shal’ – a textile woven from soft wool - and through overseas trade and colonial expansion, the famed Kashmir shawl entered Europe in the late-1700s. Woven from pashmina, the soft, silky fleece of a species of mountain goat, the highly-prized Kashmir shawl was warm, luxuriously fine and patterned with exotic motifs, notably the Mughal buta (pine cone), which grew increasingly stylised, evolving into the ‘Paisley’ design. With Indian shawls in high demand, Britain began producing factory-made shawls in Norwich, Edinburgh, Paisley and elsewhere, until they grew outmoded in the 1860s.

Fashion aside, the urban poor and countrywomen sometimes wore warm shawls instead of longer cloaks or coats. Lengths of cheap fringed woollen cloth called ‘whittles’ or ‘West Country rockets’ were recorded in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall throughout the 1700s – similar to traditional fringed Welsh shawls. A checked shawl became part of Welsh ‘national’ costume during the 1800s and Ireland was also known for its woven shawls, the Galway Shawl even inspiring a popular folk ballad. Short wrap-over shawls and shawl-like head-coverings were worn by many women working outdoors, from pit girls to fisherwomen, remaining in use until the Second World War, later in some areas. Traditional shawls may not be fashionable today, but surely the modern equivalent is the warm, stylish pashmina.

Winter coats

The history of dress reveals many developments in winter clothes over the centuries, reflecting new materials, improved tailoring techniques and shifting tastes and needs. In January 2015 this magazine ran an article called The Winter Coat, tracing men’s topcoats from the Georgian surtout and caped greatcoat through the sturdy Victorian Inverness and Ulster overcoats, turn-of-century Chesterfields and Raglan coats, to more modern duffel coats, belted overcoats and trench coats. We also looked at Victorian women’s mantles, loose paletots and pardessus, slender pelisse coats, female Ulster overcoats and the fashionable ‘dolman’, as well as more recent styles.


Cosy woollen knitted items have also served as practical cold weather protection, since the late Middle Ages and especially from the 1800s. This magazine covered Hand-knitting in February 2017, including items from Tudor knitted caps, through WW1 knitted ‘comforts’ for the troops, to popular 20th century knitwear: jerseys, cardigans, hats, gloves, mufflers and baby clothes.

So what will we wear for warmth this winter? I think Santa’s got it right: fur-lined suit and boots!

Posted in History on Dec 01, 2022