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In a culture where fashion is important enough to make the daily headlines, imagine, if you can, an era when the subject wasn’t fit for polite conversation. That’s how it was in Jane Austen’s day. Obsessing over appearances and clothes was a mark of poor taste and breeding. For Jane and her contemporaries, all of that was supposed to come naturally. Caring was permissible only if it remained out of sight from all but the closest of companions.

And yet, with all that manufactured nonchalance, there were so many rules and consequences for sartorial screw ups. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price found herself a social pariah when she didn’t wear the right clothes or play the pianoforte on a visit to Portsmouth.

To send tongues wagging, one need do nothing more than wear a long sleeved dress before dusk. “I wear my gauze gown today long sleeves and all,” writes Jane Austen in 1814. “I shall see how they succeed, but as yet I have no reason to suppose long sleeves are allowable. Mrs. Tilson has long sleeves too, and she assured me that they are worn in the evening by many. I was glad to hear this.”

With all those muslin, short-sleeved gowns and not much for undergarments, how did Jane and her contemporaries keep warm on a chilly day, let alone in the dead of winter? I don’t know what England’s average highs and lows were in the early 1800s, but if they had temperatures anything like our arctic conditions, they needed another layer–or two or three. Perhaps that’s why people caught pneumonia and died so young: there was no fleece!

Without a Polartec half-zip or a cashmere cardigan to call their own, women had two options. One was the Spencer, a short, fitted jacket that only covered the bodice. It was typically made with long sleeves, a high collar and a heavy fabric in a vivid color that contrasted with the white skirt beneath. Think of a shrug that you might wear over a strapless dress and you’ve got the right idea. Lord Spencer started the trend by wearing a coat after its tails had been singed while he toasted himself in front of a fireplace. Afterwards, the concept morphed into female attire, aptly named the Spencer. Before that, what did women do? Lay in bed, covered by a down comforter? Perform calisthenics? That’s a subject for another post.

The pelisse was another fashionable alternative. Pelisses were made of velvet or wool for the winter months, and silk or sarsenet in the summer. A pelisse was like a lightweight coat that accented the lines of a compatible gown. At 5’7″ with a bust of 30 to 32 inches, Jane Austen must have cut a regal figure in such a long, splendid layer–a far cry from the fashion statements I’ve been making this winter in a feeble attempt to stay warm.

Since desperate times call for desperate measures, we fled Indiana for warmer climes last weekend. Am I too young to become a snowbird? Heavens, no! On a sunny golf course in Palm Harbor, Florida, I was feeling mighty grateful yesterday afternoon, wearing nothing heavier than pink cotton slacks and a white, short-sleeved polo, no layers needed.

It’s amazing how a little sunshine can restore your sanity. (Okay, the REAL Key Lime Pie shown above hasn’t hurt, either.) I hope it fortifies us for what’s left of winter. We return to the icebox on Saturday, but we’re thinking of all of our friends and relatives who are trying to stay safe and warm in sub-zero conditions at home.

What’s your best go-to solution for staying fashionably warm? Aren’t we lucky that we aren’t judged for wearing long sleeves?

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.