Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cold Weather Vintage: Skirts & Dresses

I've been asked how I stay warm when my wardrobe consists entirely (or almost entirely) of skirts and dresses. To me the question is the other way round - how can you stay warm in trousers, with only one layer of fabric between you and the cold?

Wearing skirts might not seem like the obvious way to keep warm, but think about it...

You can wear skirts in heavier fabrics than trousers and still look chic - compare gabardine with heavy wool tweed or nubby boucle. A lined wool pencil skirt (take it 30s or early 50s length for extra coverage), worn over opaque tights gives you three layers. In fact since I don't own jeans, this was pretty much my 'uniform' for early morning car boots throughout last winter, with boots, sweaters and an overcoat.

Plaid & tweed dresses, Everywoman magazine, 1943

Variety in tweed skirts, Sears & Roebuck, 1956

Tweed & plaid co-ordinates in Sears & Roebuck, 1957

Go one step further in a wool tweed or plaid jumper dress (a.k.a. pinafore dress), layered over a cashmere sweater - perfect 1950s casual chic.

Butterick 7432 jumper dress sewing pattern, 1955

Full 50s skirts with multilayer petticoats are surprisingly insulating. Explorers on early Arctic and Mountaineering expeditions always wore many thin layers of clothing; multiple thin layers can be warmer yet lighter than one thick layer, because the air trapped between layers serves as thermal insulation. So when your boyfriend asks if you really need another froufrou crinoline, tell him it's for warmth!

Petticoats in Florida Fashions, 1959 (source)

Quilted circle skirts are both classically vintage and wonderfully cosy - after all, you're basically wearing a duvet! Wear with layered petticoats (see above) for super insulated vintage style.

Circle skirts, Sears & Roebuck, 1955

Search quilted circle skirts on etsy

Another option is to choose knit dresses, though they're generally not cheap to buy vintage. My wardrobe has a gap here - every autumn I take up the search once again for the perfect knit dress (at the right price!).

1935 knit dress patterns, Vintage Pattern Place on etsy

1940s knit dress patterns, Dair on etsy

Knit dresses in Sears & Roebuck, 1955

And what to wear underneath? Well it's not strictly vintage, but I like good opaque tights (you'll probably need a petticoat or slip if the dress/skirt isn't lined) Marks & Spencer do a line of Merino wool tights which are very warm (you have to get there quick though because they usually sell out early). For the purist, knitted long socks or wool stockings are very vintage with a tweed skirt. And how to keep the draught off the tops of your legs? Why, with frilly bloomers, of course!


  1. What a nice selection. I´m looking forward to wearing my wool skirts and scarfs finally :).

  2. I love tweed skirts, but sadly I DO feel extremely cold in them - for the simple reason that bar maxis, my calves and ankles are explosed with only tights or stockings in betweem them and the elements. My upper legs are well padded enough that with a petticoat and tights they are toasty.

    So I wear trousers - with knee high men's socks! Although I'm not one-period-vintage it's quite an authentic solution ...not to be found in any fashion magazines but I picked up the tip from my Grandmothers - one a wartime wife, the other in the army at the time! They switched to 'slacks' in winter and long socks were a must.

  3. Sounds like wool stockings is what you need! I must admit that I've never found cold ankles a big problem. I feel the cold terribly (I would pretty much either hibernate or migrate for the winter, given the choice), but as long as my upper body is well wrapped-up, my calves cope pretty well.

    xx Charlotte

  4. Pretty skirts. I made pink polar fleece full circle skirt trimmed in tinselly faux fur for my 6 yo niece and oh my, she loved it! Not exactly historically accurate, but spin worthy, and lots of blankety cosy skirt to snuggle into. I guess quilted skirts are the grown up equivalent :)

  5. I love those vintage winter outfits but they are so hard to find in good condition and in my size... always 26'' waist!!!! Why????
    Hope to learn how to sew very soon...

  6. Well here's one question that very cold weather climate folks such as myself can answer: secret to warm legs under trousers? Long underwear! But thin ones, in keeping with your smart advice about more but thinner layers. I wear thin silk long underwear under trousers as I just can't bare (no pun intended, lol) to have cold legs when it gets truly frigid.

    That being said, I'm determined to introduce more wool skirts into my winter wardrobe and will definitely take some of your advice. I'm going to look for wool stockings right away! What a brilliant idea. I also have seen just under-the-knee long underwear in many Sears catalogs from the 1940s and have been ruminating if there's a way to doctor an existing pair or somehow make a pair, so that I could at the very least be warm down to my knees. But when we really hit the dead of winter here and it is actually almost dangerous to expose much of your skin, I know I'll mostly find myself in trousers and long underwear. :)

  7. I would think you could adapt Colette's madeleine bloomers for keeping your thighs warmer- but you could also buy some of the longer length shapewear underwear- incorporating a girdle so you can have the right silhouette :)
    As far as the wool stockings go, a lot of the re-enacting suppliers sell them too!
    Fabulous article- I shall definitely be using some of these ideas!

  8. Well, I'm like Perdita: slacks and knee-high (also available for women) wool socks work perfectly. When it's really freezing, tights and long socks under your slacks. Or just knee-high boots. Make sure your coat is well over your behind and you're fine.

    The thing with (knee-length) skirts is, no matter what you wear underneath, there's always some draft creeping up on you which doesn't happen with trousers. Not to mention strong winds and everyday cycling…

  9. *Sigh* I just love wool. Fall clothing is my absolute favorite :)

  10. I don't own any trousers or jeans though I live in rather cold climate. Last winter we had about three months of -10-20C. I wear woollen skirts, long woollen coats, lined boots (or ankle boots with legwarmers) with enough layers of tights to keep warm. Oh, and let's not forget (fake) fur hats...

  11. My grandma used to knit herself little underskirts from odd balls of wool she had left over from other things. Very sensible lady I reckon! However I am now looking for a knitting pattern for a dress. X

  12. I have a couple of thin wool dresses which I think would be perfect for the many thin layers technique!
    And I just bought a beautiful woven wool skirt and bolero suit that I am looking forward to wearing too.
    For my cold ankles I wear a good pair of thick ankle socks, and I'm gluing some shearling to the cuffs and insides of my boots!

    Wool stockings are being googled....right now!


  13. You haven't got any inspiring pictures on how to look good all dressed up i warm clothes? I especially feel that opaque tights allways ruins everything:)

  14. I like skirts in winter because they don't drag in the snow and slush the way trousers do (at least not my skirts, because I don't wear them that long). I wear them with hand-knit wool stockings and wool bloomers. I like that solution better than tights, because I can take the bloomers off when I get inside! If it's really cold I put on trousers though. Last winter we had some days where it was -15 and windy.

  15. Oh my goodness! Those are all gorgeous! It seems that some of us wear vintage dresses during warmer weather, but when the cold weather hits I like my cozy pants.

    But in true 50s fashion I just sewed myself a dress from a Retro Butterick pattern that turned out so cute for a Christmas dress! You can see it here: http://www.edelweisspatterns.com/blog/?p=1312

    Thanks for all that lovely inspiration!


  16. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for writing this! At age 29, this upcoming Christmas will be my first in the snow. I'll be visiting my boyfriend's family in Pennsylvania, and being a California girl, I had no idea what I was going to wear. Like you, I wear nothing but cute, vintage dresses year-round. Again, thanks for giving all these tips on how to stay cute AND warm!


I'd love to hear your thoughts!


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