There’s more to layering than bobbly cardigans
Lag your pipes, insulate your loft, and get your winter drawers on, because austerity’s back, and it forgot to bring a coat.
Like many of my generation in Britain, I grew up in a house without central heating. As double-glazing was in its infancy in the Sixties (not that my mother would have allowed it, on aesthetic grounds) our childhood home was almost certainly inadequately insulated to boot – although since it was often as chilly inside as out, there wouldn’t have been much heat to escape.
There was then a general assumption that the cold, also known as “fresh air”, was good for you: it built character, made you hardy and resilient. The infant left outside in its pram, so the theory went, fought off all sorts of germs, strengthened its lungs bellowing for rescue and would go on to sustain the Empire. Some of this must have stuck, because when I lived in Italy I was regularly berated by passers-by on the grounds that my children had been brought outside half-naked. “Sono poco vestiti ’sti bambini!” they’d warn, adding that my children would certainly succumb to a chill on the kidneys, or worse.
Nothing has changed in the ancient, rambling, draughty, generally un-heatable house I live in today, where hypothermia is a distinct possibility and my husband (an economist) stands stern guard over the thermostat, exhorting us to stop moaning and put on another jumper. Yet as we hurtle towards recession and an energy crisis, the skill of dressing to keep warm in a cold house looks set to come back into its own.
There’s always the Michelin man option: the duvet coat, having been such a perennial favourite since the early Eighties, might have seen fall/winter 2022 coming. But this solution, like bringing out the ski salopettes, stocking up on techno-fabric base layers in shades of sludge or just wearing seven jumpers at once, only works if you’re a hermit with no zoom responsibilities and/or have already found your mate. Luckily, more elegant options are available.
There are layers. By which I do not mean donning every bobbly cardigan in the house, plus thermals, but investing in some quality natural fibres with personality. A velvet smoking jacket with quilted lining! Merino wool stockings as a base layer, finer and smoother than cashmere, will keep your elegant extremities warm as toast; add a cable-knit mini-dress such as Marilyn Monroe sported with beatnik black tights in Let’s Make Love and you have hit the saucy/comfortable sweet spot. You could even wear your coat indoors (and some of my guests do, Withnail-style), but make it narrow, turn up your collar and add a feather-light kashmiri shawl to nail the elegant tramp look.
As for underthings: naturally, nothing but silk will do. Strong, fine, seductive and beautiful, silk has almost magical insulating properties, and best of all you can layer it without looking like the lady in the van or an overstuffed mattress. Forget clammy nylon or scratchy woollen combinations, there’s a reason the most delicious vintage silk lingerie once formed the foundation stone of every woman’s trousseau: it was the first defence against the icy corridors of the incorrigibly draughty stately home. Light and breathable, silk is also heaven – as anyone who’s tried it will tell you – to sleep in. Which brings me to my joint-favourite cold weather solution, favoured by impoverished (and not-so-impoverished) writers down the ages: stay in bed.
The great Jean Rhys, who spent her life pining for the steamy heat of her birthplace Dominica while shivering in a bleak Devon bungalow, wrote in bed. On a trip to chilly Venice in the Seventies with Diana Melly, Rhys would stay in her four-poster at the Danieli until lunchtime, reading and writing. And the legendary Colette wrote while tucked up under silk eiderdowns in her grand apartments in the Palais Royal, perhaps conditioned to it by her overbearing first husband, Willy, who locked her in her bedroom to write the early novels he published under his own name.
In the final analysis – having tried and discarded the moth-eaten furs of their dead relatives – you can always turn to living, breathing, purring helpmeets for warmth. The government advises us to cuddle our pets for insulation this winter, so why not drape one, foulard-fashion, inside the lapels of your quilted velvet smoking jacket? But for style’s sake, make it a Burmese, not a Labrador.
Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now