A Minor Ancestral Interlude
It’s a delicious zero degrees outside and I am loving it. Every morning, when I get up (after I have tea and sort myself into a grumbling consciousness), I go outside and greet the Gods and spirits. Because it was so cold today (and because I’d started the laundry, so all my warm pants were being washed), I put on (over thin leggings so I’m not breaking my taboo against dresses) a thick woolen skirt. It’s actually period clothing, made in the style of the 18th century, so in truth, it was a woolen petticoat. I only put one on (women would often layer them), and then warm woolen socks and Lobben boots (what my god-daughter once called my “troll shoes” – she’s fascinating by the slightly upturned toes lol), a flannel shirt, and a hat. I gathered my gear (incense, lighter, cup of water, and drum) and went out to work. The whole rite takes about 15 minutes, and I was perfectly warm. I could have stayed out there with no trouble for hours.
All of this got me thinking about the way we dress. My ancestors, and certain ancestral groups that I honor, often ask me to incorporate aspects of how they dressed during their lives, into my daily garb. It’s comfortable and not an issue for me for the most part, plus, it allows a means by which I can better connect to my dead. It’s like I’m wrapping myself in their attention and blessings. But I’ve learned some very practical things through this as well.
My usual at-home gear tends to be very, very simple: black pants of a light, synthetic fabric (1), a ratty camisole top or t-shirt, and felted wool house slippers. That’s it. I’d live in it if I could. When I teach of course, I dress professionally (but I’ve started trying to replace any clothing made of synthetics with bespoke clothing of natural fabrics – it’s expensive but it lasts so much longer). One thing that I realized is that it’s only due to central heating and air that we can dress as we do (2). I don’t think it ever really hit home before that so much of how both men and women dressed was a matter of keeping the body’s core warm when, even inside, temperatures were much, much colder than what we are generally used to today. Here’s a fascinating video that shows all the parts to an upper-class Dutch woman’s dress circa 1665 (working class women would wear most of the same underwear bits and stays, but the quality of fabric and the number of layers would be less than what we see here).
Up through the turn of the 20th century, there was no central heating. I spent a very cold and snowy January in a house without central heating a few years ago, getting up in the morning to light the huge wood stove, the only source of heating in the place. I’m going to be very blunt: it sucked (though not as much as having to trek through knee high snow to the outhouse or haul water). The way one managed was by layering one’s clothing and of course, there were chores to be done throughout the day (including cutting wood and keeping the fire going) that helped to keep one warm. It was a really good lesson in physically comprehending a tiny bit of how our ancestors lived. These experiences build—at least for me– respect for how our ancestors lived, survived, and even thrived. I always through the way early modern women dressed – in multiple petticoats and stays– was foolish but you know what? Those petticoats keep one perfectly warm (probably warmer than the men, given that the style, at least in the 18th century, was for men’s pants to stop at the knee. Calves on a dude were viewed as sexy. Lol. So, they wore white stockings and showed that shit off) and the stays, and later corsets that women wore protect the core, adding a significant layer of warmth. What I’d dismissed as frippery and foolishness had a very practical purpose. This is also the case with head coverings. Yes, modesty for women was one of the reasons hair and head were covered, but there was also the question of warmth. Both men and women tended to keep their heads covered and both wore nightcaps. I’d always thought this absolutely ridiculous but when there’s no central heading, and the weather can drop to zero or below, covering the head makes perfect sense for keeping body heat in.
It reminded me yet again that our ancestors knew things. They were smart. They engaged with their world in practical and insightful ways. They understood their world and how to make the technology and crafts to which they had access work for them. In some ways, they understood better than we do today (3). They moved in their world in ways that made sense to them, and that took into account the available technology, the climate, and the work that they had to do. I think there’s a tendency to think that we are better than our ancestors, that they were somehow less sophisticated than we are now. This is a mistake, and this is where living history (in ways large and small) can teach us to reconsider how we treat our dead, how we approach them, and how beneficial it can be to approach our ancestors with a willingness to learn all the lessons they have to teach.
- I’m moving away from wearing any synthetics. Most of them are made of plastic and they are terrible for the environment, pick up body odor much faster than natural fabrics, and don’t last. They’re garbage fabrics. I have a colleague who, like many spirit-workers, has clothing taboos. In her case, she’s not permitted to wear synthetic fabrics. While that’s not one of my taboos (I have certain color taboos, and I’m also not generally permitted to wear skirts or dresses – unless it counts as ritual garb), I’ve started copying her because the fabric is just so much better. Silks, cottons, woolens, even rayon (which is made from plant fibers), linens, hemp, bamboo all allow for a broad choice of clothing.
- This was further brought home to me when my assistant and I were traveling back from a funeral at which I’d officiated. I was dressed in an 18th century men’s suit (but with long pants), and she was in a sun dress and sweater, since this happened in the spring. I’m not usually sympathetic when women complain about office temperatures and such being too cold. My attitude, since I tend to run hot – my ideal house temp is 68 F—is put on a sweater. I’ve never worked in an office or classroom that I didn’t find swelteringly hot. My friend had a sweater on though but still begged me to turn down the ac in the car (I did). I was perfectly comfortable though – in three layers around my core: linen shirt, wool vest, wool jacket. It really got me thinking about male versus female garb – it’s not all bad though, as I note above in my article.
- As a complete aside, I have a theory about why women’s clothing today tends to lack pockets. I don’t think it’s simple female vanity (I know some of the problem is concern over the line of more form fitting dresses, but I don’t think that’s the only thing happening here). Until the early 19th century (??) women would wear pockets as a separate part of their attire. You could have huge pockets, but you tied them around your waist, underneath your petticoats. They were accessible via openings in the sides of the petticoats. They could be as large or small as you wished. You were in charge of your pockets. In the 18th century, panniers were …. ginormous pockets. I seriously wonder if the dearth of pockets in modern female clothing isn’t some unconscious holdover from this earlier, multi-century trend. Here’s an article on decorating pockets. Here’s a site that shows traditional pockets on a mannequin.