Historical Fashion Series-Regency
By Lisa Karon Richardson
In some ways I’m a total girly girl. I like clothes, I like shoes, and if it has lace, I’m in.
I’m also a nerd.
One of the things that can throw me right out of a good story is when the details are just wrong. It doesn’t mean I’ll put a book down, (I make plenty of boo boos of my own!) but it is something I notice. Seems like book covers can be especially bad about getting the details right. I mean, women didn’t typically go around with their hair blowing in the breeze, but it seems most book heroines can’t keep a hairpin in place, nor can they be bothered with hats, so their locks are tumbling freely over shoulders, which are also bare.
Sorry, it’s a pet peeve, and I need to get back on track.
What was I talking about? Oh, right.
Fashion. I thought I’d do a series on some of the various eras of fashion. This could be useful for writers, but also for any history or genealogy buff as the cut of a sleeve or shape of jacket are great ways to try to determine when a particular picture or portrait might have been made.
The Regency is narrowly defined as 1811-1820, but stylistically the era is extended from 1800-1830. In the US, we also call that time period the Federalist Era. The general trends in design were toward the elegant simplicity of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Later this fascination was extended to other ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians. There was even a bit of a fling with Chinese styles and motifs.
When it comes to ladies fashions, the most notable features are the slimmer silhouettes and the high, bosom emphasizing, empire waistline. Throughout the period, sleeves remained fairly tight, although with often a small poof at the top. Necklines could be quite low, almost nipple revealing, and were usually squared off or scooped.
In order to achieve the classical ideal, the voluminous petticoats of previous decades were discarded and replaced with perhaps a single petticoat. Rather than tight corseting, most women made do with stays that simply provided lift and support for the bust, a precursor to the modern bra. This of course scandalized the previous generation, and also scandalized the Victorians that were to come. Those who took fashion to the extreme scandalized everyone when they took the already gauzy muslin that most day garments were made of, and wetted it down so that it turned downright transparent. And this in a day before drawers were popular! *Blush*
At the beginning of the era, nothing would do but white. Again, there was that classical influence and since Roman murals pictured mostly white garments dresses must be white too.
Of course, that grew boring quickly, and how was a young miss to attract a suitor when she looked pretty much the same as everyone else? Within a season we see the addition of classical motifs to hems and sleeves and then colors are added. Although white remained popular throughout the era as did pastels, especially for younger women.
“Net” dresses became popular. Worn over dresses of plain muslin or cotton it added color, pattern, and dimensionality.
Muslin inevitably gave way to other materials, especially as frigid winters and drafty old houses reminded the wearers of more practical concerns than classical beauty. Throughout the period, beautiful shawls were de rigeur. A fashionable miss might also wear a spencer—a short jacket, or a pelisse—a longer coat to ward off chill.
When the roads got muddy, which they often did, pattens were worn over the shoes to keep them out of the mud. Although these too eventually fell out of fashion and ladies began wearing boots, rather than slippers, for everyday wear. Boots then became the mainstay of footwear for a hundred years. Sigh.
Far more than women’s styles, men’s styles were irrevocably altered by the Regency ideal, and particularly one man—Beau Brummell—the paramount dandy and wit of the age. Brummell had impeccable taste and he disdained men’s fashions that included flowered jackets, curled and beribboned wigs, and high heels. Instead, his image of the masculine ideal featured solid (usually dark) colors, snowy white shirts and cravats, and snug (very snug) breeches. As the era progressed the breeches eventually became pants as we would recognize them today. Brummell sported short hair—once again a classical inspiration. High boots were generally worn during the day, although this could differ based on a fellow's occupation. White stockings with black evening slippers in the evening. Every man in England with the means followed his lead, and soon, so did everyone in the western world. Men’s fashions have never returned to the excesses of the 18th century. For which I personally am very grateful.
Overall, Regency styles are very distinctive from the eras that preceded and followed. The look is highly romanticized as is the entire time period in the popular conscience.
Do you like the Regency look? Is there an era of fashion you’d like me to cover in a future post?
Influenced by books like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, Lisa Karon Richardson’s early books were heavy on boarding schools and creepy houses. Now that she’s (mostly) all grown-up she still loves a healthy dash of adventure and excitement in any story she creates, even her real-life story. She’s been a missionary to the Seychelles and Gabon and now that she and her husband are back in America, they are tackling a brand new adventure, starting a daughter-work church in a new city. Her first novella, Impressed by Love, part of the Colonial Courtships collection, is coming in October, 2012 followed shortly thereafter by The Magistrate’s Folly in November.