A Balmy January Abroad: British Climate and American Fashion
Every January, the first-year fellows of the Winterthur Program and several students in MA and PhD programs from the University of Delaware take part in British Design History: a three-week course on design and material culture with one week at Winterthur and a two-week field study in Great Britain. Traveling to cities including London, Stoke-on-Trent, and Bath, the students have an opportunity to study American Material Culture within a greater global context. Students’ posts in this section are centered on their experiences in England or working with British objects in the Winterthur collection.
There are a lot of things one might try to keep in mind when traveling to England to explore British design history and how it informs American material culture. On the 2018 British Design History trip, I found myself thinking an awful lot about the weather.
The moment when you exit an airport after a long day of travel is always one of discovery. What will the air feel like in this new place? Well, it was cool. It was damp. It felt very British, but not all that wintry – at least to this New Englander. The forecast indicated that this weather was likely to persist for the entirety of the trip (spoiler: it did). Standing there in my lightest of winter coats, gloves left unworn in my bag, I reflected on the nature of winter. Where I come from, winter necessitates a wardrobe completely different to that worn in summer. Coats, pants, shoes and socks migrate in and out of the closet seasonally. On this trip, however, I’d packed some of the garments that came with me on a trip to Scotland this past June.
After mentally comparing the weather I’d experienced in Scotland (temperatures in the 60s and 70s) to these temperate (mid-40s) January days, I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering a little further back in time. I thought back to this time last year, and to sub-zero days of living history at the upstate New York historic site where I working before coming to Winterthur, and then another 250 years back to the era that site recreated. I thought about the eighteenth-century fashions worn then in Britain, and therefore also in her American colonies. Those were the garments I recreated as part of my living history job and whose suitability tourists repeatedly questioned on both cold winter and hot summer days on the shores of Lake Champlain. Standing on the streets of London, it occurred to me that while the climatic extremes of North America meant that a light-weight wool gown over a handful of petticoats and wool stockings was perpetually too warm or not warm enough, it would have been perfectly comfortable in this cool-but-not-cold English winter, or for that matter, the warm-but-not-hot Scottish summer I’d experienced several months before. I’d found the perfect climate for a wardrobe of eighteenth-century garments. The question remained, however: why – in New York – wear clothes that don’t suit the weather? Why let Britain dictate American design?
The answer, of course, is in that historical moment, England was the arbiter of taste, and no one likes to be out of fashion. As a living history professional, I’d learned that this desire to keep up with British fashion often extended beyond practicality. However, experiencing the cause of that impracticality– the very different climates of the colonizers and the colonized – illuminated for me one of the many factors at play when considering how British design played out in colonial American material culture. Though I’d been conscious of the differences between the weather of the British Isles and that of North America previously, this trip gave me a chance to think more viscerally about how climate effects design. The lesson of a temperate London January will stick with me as I continue my study of material culture, and no doubt also as I explore the objects I make and use in the contemporary world, where different and changing climates are never far from consideration.
By Eliza West, WPAMC Class of 2019