Britain is known for its bad weather and, with the recent wind, rain, and flooding bombarding the country, people have been reaching for their raincoats, umbrellas, and wellington boots to protect themselves from the elements. Unsurprisingly, finding ways to shelter and protect the body, and preserve precious or delicate clothes, has always been a preoccupation for sufferers of this inclement climate. This post provides a brief snapshot of how people used clothing to protect themselves from blustery and drizzly weather at either end of the eighteenth century.
John Gay’s Trivia; or the Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716) provides an amusing insight into how the inhabitants of early eighteenth-century London dealt with the weather. The poem showcases the functionality of men’s garments. The writer asserts that the shoes of the “prudent walker” should not be made of flimsy leather, nor have heels or a “‘scallop’d top”, instead favouring “firm, well-hammer’d soles”. The poem also provides advice about suitable coats, warning against “silken drugget”, an inexpensive wool and silk mix, “frieze”, a coarse wool with an uneven nap, or “camlet”, another woven silk and wool mix. Instead, “true witney broad-cloath [sic] with its shag unshorn” is recommended. This was a fabric produced in Oxfordshire and commonly used for blankets.
When the narrator of Trivia turns to “implements proper for female walkers”, he depicts women dependent upon accessories to shield them. The clothing of a woman was considered to be figuratively at one with her body, meaning that both the body and the clothing together must be defended. A “riding-hood”, the “umbrella’s oily shed” and the “female implement” of the patten, a protective overshoe consisting of a carved wooden sole raised above the ground on an iron ring, are the only accoutrements mentioned. The woman and her clothing are encased in protective garments, sheltering her from the weather.
A century later, famed caricaturist James Gillray published a series of seven prints mocking the pride of man in the face of nature. The example pictured here, Sad Sloppy Weather, centres on the state of the streets after a rain shower. Having stepped on an uneven paving slab, the man has splattered his legs with dirty water from a gushing drainpipe, covering the intricate clocked design on his white stockings. His wet umbrella, useless to protect him, is instead being used as a walking stick. The flaws and impracticality of his clothing are emphasised by the impotent, wet, ripped shirt and stockings hanging from the wall behind.
In the eighteenth century, as now, people strove to find protection from the elements in clothing, with varying degrees of success. Cloaks, shoes, pattens, coats, and umbrellas were all advocated as effective shields against the stormy elements. Yet, like the character in Gillray’s print, even though we may acquire all the recommended clothing to protect ourselves, our coats and umbrellas are no match for the British weather