We all know women in the Regency wore clothes, but do you know what was worn when and why?
Introduction To Regency Dress
by Abigail Milton
Just like us, men and women of the Regency had a wide range of items of clothing to choose from every day. In the same way jeans and a T-shirt would not be suitable for a cocktail party (well, not usually, anyway), a woman of the Regency would never dream of wearing an afternoon dress to an evening entertainment.
One thing about undergarments for women during the Regency… There were so many more layers! The first layer for a proper lady of the Regency was a chemise. The chemise was usually made of linen or cotton, and unadorned. Its main purpose was to provide a barrier between the lady's skin and corset. This spared her from any chafing, and also kept her from sweating into her corset, which would be much harder to clean. Because the chemise was not meant to provide any kind of shape to the outfit, it ended well above the hem of the dress.
The next layer was a corset, of course. During the Regency, the purpose of a corset wasn't to constrict the waist (considering that the high waistlines made everyone look enciente, that would be pointless), but to lift and separate. In fact, these corsets were sometimes referred to as “Divorce Corsets,” because they kept the breasts apart!
There were two basic types of corsets available: short and long. Both types laced up the front, and had straps made as a piece with the back, tying in front. Because of this, the straps could be easily pushed off the shoulders to remain invisible when wearing wide necklines.
A short corset was almost shockingly similar to a modern bra, with its basic purpose being supporting the bust. Long corsets had the same goal, but were more comparable to a modern bustier. They usually had a stiff piece of wood, called a busk, inserted down the front of the corset in order to encourage good posture. The long corset also helped provide a smooth line from chest to hip. Because of the basic style of Regency gowns and their high waists, cinching in the waist was simply not a corset's goal.
The final layer (finally!) was anywhere between one and five petticoats, depending on the year, style and the lady's level of modesty. The purpose of a petticoat was to add fullness to the lady's skirts and protect the thin fabric of her dress from clinging too closely to her curves. The more brazen ladies would wear only one or two petticoats, and the most brazen of all would lightly dampen their petticoats and skirts to encourage them to cling indecently. Fifty years after the Regency, petticoats would be worn from the waist down only. But due to the high waistline of Regency fashion, petticoats were made to look just like dresses without sleeves. They were made out of light cotton fabrics or (for the very rich) silk for the summer, and heavier flannel for the winter. Their necklines would sometimes pull closed with a drawstring, and they were usually finished with a flounce or two, or at least some ruffled trim. Often, they would be just slightly longer than the dress, in order to allow a charming peep of ruffles to show under the hem.
The modern equivalent of a Regency morning dress would be the ratty sweats and old college T-shirt you wear while dying your hair. Fine for around the house, but you'd NEVER wear them in front of anyone. A morning gown worked on the same principle. It was a plain, generally unadorned gown that was never worn out of the house.
Because it was never worn outside, morning dresses were usually made of thin material and had no trimmings. Sometimes, they were made from older fabric, the kind with large flower prints that had been so popular in the last few decades of the 18th century. Most families would have had fabric like this lying around, either in remnants or old dresses. It made sense to reuse this fabric for dresses that would never be seen by anyone outside of family. Why, with all the money they saved in this way, they could buy more fashionable dresses for public viewing!
Other than that, they were pretty much indistinguishable from any other type of dress. They were made in the same style, certainly, with a high waist and long or short sleeves. But again, because it was never worn out of the house, a morning dress wouldn't necessarily be in the first stare of fashion. Morning dresses didn't always have long trains, for instance, even when they were popular. It wasn't unusual for a Regency miss to salvage the trim from a gone-out-of-style dress, use the trim on a new dress, and keep the old one as a morning dress.
The term “afternoon dress” can apply to many different types of gowns. In general, any afternoon dress is the opposite of a morning dress: it's meant to be seen. Other than that, the type of situation it was meant to be seen in would dictate its style. During the Regency, light muslins were very popular for afternoon dress. In the first few years of the 19th century, so many young women died after catching a chill or pneumonia due to wearing these light gowns in the winter that it was called “the muslin disease”!
During the day, one's bosom was entirely covered (well, unless one were beyond the pale). Even dresses with low scoop necklines were filled in with a chemisette (a dickey made of thin material) or fichu (a thin scarf tucked into a low neckline). Unlike today, cleaveage was NOT a daytime accessory.
A walking gown or promenade gown was meant for – you guessed it! – walking. It would be made in the most fashionable style, with beautiful trimmings, and worn while shopping or walking through the park. A walking dress could also be worn to pay calls on other families. The name is somewhat misleading, because nothing about it made it better for walking than any other dress. When trains were popular for daywear, walking dresses had them, and I can't imagine that would have been easy!
Another type of afternoon dress was a carriage dress or traveling dress. These were made out of slightly heavier fabrics, ones that would resist wrinkles more than a cotton muslin. Also, they tended not to have as many trimmings, which could become crushed during a long carriage ride.
Riding habits were also worn sometimes for traveling, but more often they were worn for (no, wait, don't tell me) riding. Made out of a sturdy material (like wool), a riding habit consisted of a dress with a very simple bodice and a jacket that was meant to cover it at all times. Imagine it as wearing a sportsbra under a blazer instead of a regular shirt. Sure, it's there, but you're not going to take off your blazer and let everyone see it.
The skirts of a riding habit were also longer and fuller than the skirts for a walking dress or carriage dress. They had to be in order to be draped over the ladies legs and protect her modesty while she rode sidesaddle. Riding habits took many details from men's clothing, the jackets being rather mannish in cut, and even the hats worn while riding were distinctly masculine. Riding habits also took many details from military uniforms, often being decorated with military-style piping or embroidery and epaulettes.
Outerwear was an important part of afternoon dress, especially if one didn't want to catch the muslin disease! Long hooded cloaks were always popular, as were many different styles of shawls. Some were decorated with classical Greek motifs, others with a paisley pattern (yes, paisley was around even then). The weights of shawls could vary from soft, heavy cashmere to light silk or even muslin in the spring and summer.
Another type of outerwear was the spencer. It was supposedly created by Earl Spencer (a great-great-great… ancestor of Princess Diana) when the bottom of his coat burned off after he'd had his back to the fire. Whether this is true or not, spencers were high-waisted jackets which could be worn over afternoon dresses of any type for warmth.
A close relative of the spencer was the pelisse. Most pelisses were basically spencers with an attached skirt. They provided more warmth than a spencer, because it would also keep one's ankles toasty. Some pelisses looked a bit more like shorter robes, ending at the knee or so, but to me these seem to defeat the purpose. One's ankles would freeze! Both spencers and pelisses took many details from men's clothing, and often had a military theme. Because of the War with Napoleon, military details were extremely popular for most of the Regency.
Other must-have afternoon dress accessories were gloves, muffs, bonnets, caps or hats, and of course appropriate footwear. But that is a story for another day.
Obviously, none of the above mentioned clothing would be any good for a grand soiree or rout. For an important haut ton event, something truly special was required.
Unlike afternoon dress, for evening it was quite proper to show one's bosom. Indeed, some bodices were so low they were in danger of showing even more. Wide scoop necklines were popular for evening wear, as were low squared necklines and low bodices cut straight across. In some paintings of bodices of this type, it's hard to imagine how the sleeves even attached.
For evening wear, light fabrics were still favored, but they were richer. Very fine muslin, silk satin, duchesse silk and light taffetas were all popular. Braver, older or married women sometimes wore silk velvet. There was an unspoken dress code for debutantes, which applied as much to evening wear as afternoon dress. Young ladies were expected to wear pastels and white. The more sophisticated, darker colors were off-limits to unmarried misses just out of the schoolroom.
Of course, it's important to remember that dark colors would not show well by candlelight; if one wore black, one would likely disappear! To this end, many dresses utilized metallic trim and glass or crystal beading to catch the light. Short sleeves were often seen in evening dress, but long gloves were a necessity. Above-the-elbow was the preferred length. We often think of gloves as either white or black, but many different colors of kid leather were used, including yellow and blue.
Outerwear for the evening included cloaks, capes and shawls. To my knowledge, spencers and pelisses were never worn with evening dress.
|I really enjoyed this summary. Spot on, very well researched and clearly presented.|
|Camy Tang||Great article!||2004-08-12|
|Thanks so much! This will help me in visualizing dress when I read my Regencies. Great job!|
|Aurelia King||simply Beautiful||2004-09-11|
|Thank you so much for your article. I have been quite curious about the look of the gowns that I have been reading about. Don't you miss the beauty of such clothing today? To be able to wear clothing that was made to make a woman look so gorgeous.... I miss that in everyday clothing.|
|Thank you for all the wonderful information!! As a newbie re-enactor for the 1bt 95th Rifles (female obviously) it is rather difficult to get information on ladies wear to such detail. It has been a valuable force of information, and I have passed your website address to my fellow re-enactors!!|