One of the most common questions you get when you’re wearing historical clothing is the undying, “Aren’t you hot in those clothes?”
A heavily perspiring visitor wearing practically nothing usually asks this question, and the standard reply is a variation of “Aren’t you hot? In really warm weather, everyone is hot. But natural fibre clothing wicks the moisture from the skin and helps to keep you cool.” My internal response (vocalized only once) is, “Why yes, I am—and thank you for noticing. I work hard for this look.”
The “aren’t you hot” question is often followed by, “Wow, and they didn’t bathe, so everyone really smelled.” You try not to think of that Monty Python sketch about Britain’s deadliest joke program in WWII and move the conversation on to weekly laundering of body linen, multiple shifts, shirts, and under-drawers, and the general hygienic practices of the past.
What struck me after a sticky weekend is how much I noticed the smell of modern people.
My traveling companions and I bathed on Friday morning, drove for 7+ hours in muggy weather, slept in our clothes, wore wool, cotton and linen in rain and thick humidity, sweated in the tailor’s shop, slept in our clothes again, and spent another warm, close, day in muggy weather, including grave digging and pall bearing. But as feral as my shift may have been on Sunday night, I never smelled us.
Mr H reported that his wool trousers were really stinky in the rain, and I think his white Spencer was well-seasoned even before this weekend, but I didn’t notice anything. Mr S’s soaking greatcoat was whiffy only at extremely close range.
What I did smell were modern perfumes, deodorants, and hair products. Those linger around their wearers and trail behind them, sometimes eye-watering in their intensity. I encountered lingering perfume in a bathroom at the museum, and we were overwhelmed by cologne at diner Monday morning: wow, people must really smell now, of petrochemicals.
This is not to say that homeless people and sulky teenagers don’t smell of unwashed bodies and clothes, but people in the past may not have smelled quite as badly as we think. They washed, if not bathed (bathing being full immersion washing) and by changing body linen and airing their clothes, they kept reasonably clean.
There was plenty to whiff in the past: wastes of all kinds, stagnant bodies of water used as dumps, rotting foods and corpses. But I’m not convinced that we haven’t simply exchanged one set of smells for another of different origin and intensity.