Weatherwatch: fashion shines a light on climate change

Jeremy Plester
Portrait of Thomas More wearing a fur-trimmed cloak, from a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527. Photograph: Stock Montage/Getty Images

The history of fashion can give a fascinating glimpse of how climate has changed. Medieval times were notably mild and illustrations in manuscripts show people wearing light and loose clothes, without capes, fur or hats. That changed in the Little Ice Age, roughly spanning the 1300s to 1800s, which included some bitterly cold times.

Fashions responded, especially in the 1500s, when heavy textiles in clothes were used more widely. In Hans Holbein’s famous painting The French Ambassadors of 1533, the two courtiers wear thick dark velvets, fur-lined overcoats and fashionable caps. And some of the oldest surviving gloves, hats, capes and coats in museums come from those times. By Charles II’s reign in the second half of the 1600s, ladies’ gowns used layers of heavy fabric and gentlemen wore long coats, large breeches and wigs. And the muff handwarmer became popular, as Samuel Pepys noted on a bitterly cold day in November 1662: “This day I first did wear a muffe, being my wife’s last year’s muffe, this serves me very well.”

Other fashion accessories reflect the wet British climate – the Burberry, the Barbour, the wellington boot, and of course the umbrella, a foreign invention originally designed for keeping cool.