Layers of Clothing
There is more to surviving the colds of winter than sitting around our lonely coal fire. Before you ask, it was definitely not still the end of the last Ice Age! Weather and climate were more or less the same as today. Now is not the time to discuss Global Climate Change. Maybe later.
We managed, with the help of warmer clothing and warmer beds. I don’t want you to think it was easy. Of course, we suffered hazardous temperatures without complaining and kids nowadays don’t know how easy it is for them! I have to get my Grumpy Old Man bit in sometimes.
Imagine me, as a boy of seven or eight, emerging from by bed in the morning into a cold room. Until I left home to go to university at twenty, I shared a room with two brothers so you have to imagine a room with three beds in a row. Mine was the middle one. We dressed as quickly as possible, starting with the warm layer of white, woollen underclothes. There were no boxer shorts then, just standard Y-fronts and matching vests. In those days people wore vests.
I am having some difficulty with translation here. ‘Y-fronts’ are a specific type of what we call ‘pants’, now sometimes called ‘slips’ in shops. In the US, they are ‘jockey shorts’. A ‘vest’ is not what we call a waistcoat. In the US, it is an ‘A-shirt’. In Australia it’s a ‘singlet’. The ubiquitous vest and pants were simple but warm underclothes, top and bottom. In those days, underwear was not designed to be seen, it was to keep us warm. For those interested, Wikipedia have a number of pages about underwear and its history!
For what came on next, I think it will surprise younger readers when I say that we always wore short trousers. [US readers will have to keep up. ’Trousers’ are ‘pants’ to you.] Not the summer shorts of today but sturdy, woollen trousers with creases, cut short well above the knees. All boys wore short trousers until the age of at least eleven. I never saw anything like denim or jeans until I was a bit older.
This is the best picture I can find of short trousers. School uniforms tend to retain styles of fashion a bit longer than home life. The socks in the picture are similar to what we wore but our shoes were polished black leather.
We wore shirts and, for school, ties, but I need to describe our shirts, which were not open fronted like modern shirts. We put them on over our heads and only the top half could be buttoned and unbuttoned. For school they were plain white.
But, on top of that we always had woollies, pullovers, jumpers or jerseys. These variously described warm woollen garments always went over the top of shirts. They are known as sweaters in the US. (We used the term sweater, generally for something even thicker and warmer.) I write this almost on Christmas Jumper Day, a modern invention, which highlights one of the remaining uses of the term. Sometimes they were sleeveless but they were always worn over a shirt – not instead of a shirt.
So, before leaving the house we already had three layers – vest, shirt and jumper – warm enough to handle the day.
At the same time, girls always wore short skirts. This is not the place for the history of fashion but at that time women and girls virtually never wore trousers. While the fashion for short skirts in women did not come until the sixties, schoolgirls at home and at school always wore short skirts or dresses. (It was not until this century that girls moved towards trousers as an option for school uniforms.)
Jack Frost is a friendly spirit, sometimes mischief-making, the personification of crisp, cold, winter weather, found in many stories of old. We always blamed him for the frosty, fern-like patterns on our windows on cold winter mornings. Frost settles in tiny crystals outside to make the white layers that cover grass and the ground. When it’s very cold it builds up on trees. On glass, it spreads to make pretty patterns. We often found frost on the windows when it was cold, normally on the inside of the windows. Perhaps it was the water vapour as we breathed at night. It wasn’t colder inside than out but it was cold inside!
The best we could do downstairs was to have a warm breakfast, cereal with warm milk. The fire, if it was lit yet, was in the other room.
All we needed to prepare us to go out was some more warm clothing – jacket, gloves, scarf and sometimes an overcoat. We walked to school in all weathers. It was never so bad that anyone considered closing the schools. To be honest, I don’t think we ever had to walk to Junior School in snow, but we were not deterred by the cold.
At the end of the day the house would be warmer, at least downstairs. I don’t remember ever feeling too cold. I can remember the process of trying to find the optimum distance from a coal fire. Too near was too hot, but further away was too cold. I will say a little more about house heating in the next blog, but I will end this one with a little about the end of the day.
We did not have duvets but the beds were warm. We had sheets and blankets – two or three warm, woollen blankets. On top in the cold, perhaps a patchwork quilt, the warm precursor to the duvet. But what really kept us warm were pyjamas, warm, flannel pyjamas. Remember, we dressed for warmth, not fashion. (They were ‘pyjamas’, not ‘pajamas’, but as for so many words, the US spelling has now crept into usage in the UK. We most definitely did not have onesies!)
By way of a postscript, a few words about unusual, hard winters. They come every few years. There was a hard winter a few weeks after I was born, in 1946-47, something my mother sometimes talked about. She had to trudge through the snow to see two very sick children in hospital. (The doctor once said to her, pointing to my twin: “We may be able to save him, but the other one doesn’t have a chance.” Fortunately, he was wrong about me. We both made healthy recoveries.)
Then there was 1962-63, when I was courting. (You may have to look that up. People don’t do it now. They just leap into bed. Grumpy Old Man mode again!) At the time, it didn’t seem that exceptional to us, but it may have been the worst winter of the last hundred years. It snowed on Boxing Day, leaving a few inches of snow on the ground. In some places, the snow was cleared from pavements [sidewalks], which just meant moving it to larger piles. It stayed around for another two or three months, as snow, ice or slush, as the nights stayed cold. We just accepted it, sometimes walking in the road when the pavement snow was deep.
The next blog may continue on the theme of winter heating …