Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dressing Mr. Darcy: Regency Fashion, Live and In Person

by Susanne Dietze

I've got an affection for historical costume, and my love affair with all things relating to the Regency period in England (roughly 1810-1820) includes an appreciation for its signature clothing style -- cravats and waistcoats for the gentlemen, and empire waists, Greco-Roman columns, and light muslins for the ladies.

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) offered a temporary exhibit, "Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915," I was blessed to attend with my family in tow. Non-flash photos were allowed, so I took a few pictures, and I wanted to share a few Regency-specific ensembles with you.

The photo below shows gowns from two different eras: the stunner on the left is early-Victorian, and IMHO quite lovely. Nevertheless, I was a bit more interested in the Regency-era ensemble on the right. (My daughter proudly pegged the brown jacket as Regency-appropriate and even called it by name -- a spencer! Some kids pick up sports trivia from their parents...mine absorb Regency clothing names. I'm so sorry, kids.)

Doesn't it look like the Regency-clad mannequin is looking wistfully at the Victorian gal's gorgeous gown? A bit like Cinderella before the Fairy Godmother arrives...Sigh. I've been there, honey.

Around the corner, I discovered some gentleman's court (read: fancy) ensembles that were a bit too early to be categorized as Regency, but they came close. The craftsmanship that went into these pieces amazed me. Alas, my photo of the black one did not turn out. My photo of the second suit, however, came out fairly well. Despite its militaristic look from the red wool coat, it's dashing enough for someone of Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy's vast wealth to have worn (although I always picture him in a bottle green coat. But I digress.)

The red coat and cloth-of-silver waistcoat are both heavily embroidered with silver thread, weighing in at more than six pounds!

And what would Mr. Darcy's lady, Elizabeth Bennet, be wearing, perchance? Well, the ladies' formal gowns on display were all a good twenty or so years younger than the gentleman's ensembles, so we'll have to use our imaginations. But here's a lovely late-Regency gown that Elizabeth Darcy could have worn years after Pride and Prejudice concluded. This stunner from 1818 is deceptively simple. It's fashioned of lace, as you can best see by examining the hem. It was worn one year after Jane Austen's death.

The next two photos show a silk court gown from 1825. It doesn't qualify as Regency because it's too late and it's not English (it's Portuguese), but I thought it was too beautiful not to share. It's embroidered with golden palm fronds and exotic flowers. Indian muslins, turbans, and exotic plants were popular during this period.

Here's a close-up of the train:

Wowee. I wonder how long it took a team of embroiderers to do that. It's gorgeous.

Last but not least, here's a photo of a beaded Regency-era reticule -- a small purse. This was the one item on display which surprised me and set me on a new wave of research. In my own stories, I've always had my heroines carry things in their reticules like handkerchiefs and coins, and perhaps even a letter. Big mistake? I wonder, because this one is barely three inches wide. The reticules displayed at the LACMA grew larger as the decades progressed, but this Regency-era representative seems more like a coin purse (and it's half the size of the tobacco pouch to its left).

The embroidery on this reticule is fine indeed. But is this tiny-sized purse a fair representative of all Regency-era reticules? As with everything on display at the museum, from stockings to gowns, I would have loved to have had some context to go with it (who owned it? Where did they wear it?). Not knowing the answers has given me some work to do.

And it's inspired me to make up my own stories to answer those questions.

Do you enjoy historical fashions? And more pressing, are you an expert on reticules? HELP! :-)

For more information about LACMA, visit www.lacma.org.

A version of this post originally appeared on Tea and a Good Book, www.susannedietze.blogspot.com.

Susanne Dietze has written love stories set in the nineteenth century since she was in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she writes in the hope that her historical romances will encourage and entertain others to the glory of God. Married to a pastor and the mom of two, Susanne loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, travel, and spending time with family and friends. Her work has finaled in the Genesis Contest, the Gotcha! Contest, and the Touched By Love Contest. You can visit her on her personal blog, Tea and a Good Book, http://www.susannedietze.blogspot.com/.


  1. I would never be able to fit all my "stuff" in that reticule. The gift shop at my hospital sells reticules. They're so adorable. They have the cutest one in denim and pearls.

    That train! Oh, my, it's gorgeous!

    Fun post, Susie.

  2. I have a few reticules myself. I think I used one or two during prom or party times.
    Chapstick, kleenex... that might be it.

    Though it's out of historical setting, I think a lot of people who haven't been into historicals before have come to love Downton Abbey and there is a huge interest in Edwardian era clothing. With Titanic's anniversary this year, I expect to see a surge in this.

    I've been studying a lot about clothing (again) (still), especially as my current heroine is a seamstress/dressmaker, and it's always been a fascination for me. I used to make doll clothes, costumes, and do a lot of sewing. I love the 'engineering' side of creating something and knowing how it's going to fit together and then the details that make it special.

    Thanks for posting your photos, Susie. I would love to see these dresses in person. Have you noticed how most antique dresses are tiny? But we know some of the older women were not tiny. I have to figure out a theory for that.

  3. When I chose the setting for my new book anytime between 1817 and 1830 would have worked, but I picked 1817 because I love the Regency fashion and wanted to be in the thick of it. In addition to it being so pretty, it was much kinder to the female body. They weren't stuffing themselves into dangerous corsets and wearing big flammable skits while stuck in hoops. I think I could have been happy in Regency clothes, other than the pattens. I hate hard, heavy shoes, so my heroine protests them as well. She's a bit of a hoyden and would rather be in her bare feet anyway.

  4. I really enjoyed your post, Susie. And yes, that embroidery would have taken days with a team of workers.

    Silver threads? Without today's technology, how did they make thread from a mineral?

    The novella project I'm working on is generational and I have the first story set in 1908. This is the first time I'm writing in the Edwardian period and I quite like it. But then, I love research.


  5. I've got no insight on the whole issue of reticules. Although I will say ladies, typically tucked their hankies in their sleeves. No need for it to take up room in that tiny little pocket.

    I do love fashion history. Thanks for sharing your pictures. Thinking of the man hours that went into making "fancy" clothes, it's no wonder there were such visible class distinctions. And people could so easily identify a "well-cut" coat.

  6. Sorry to be so late this morning. Ack!

    Suzie, isn't that train gorgeous? I wonder what it would be like to wear something like that.

    I have 2 tiny purses for fancy evenings. As you can imagine, they get used every few years or so. I bought one for my high school reunion. They're big enough for car keys, lipstick, kleenex. And my license. Can't fit a wallet in there.

  7. Deb, I'm so impressed by the engineering side of crafting clothing. I am not gifted in this way: I have a hard time visualizing what a bolt of fabric could become. I am a much better copycat.

    Interesting note about the size of the gowns. Everything I saw--male and female--was fairly trim, with the lone exception of a waistcoat.

    I wish I could remember the details of it, but I just can't, probably because it wasn't Regency. And as I mentioned, there were no details as to who could've worn the ensemble or item, how well it represented a social class, etc. While I took some notes during my visit, I was mindful that my kids were not as enthused as I, and that there was a display of fetish boots I wanted them to avoid. :) I didn't buy the catalog, either, because it was so expensive.

    I love costume, Deb. Speaking of...how did you enjoy Downton Abbey?

  8. Dina, I'd be delighted if empire waists came back in vogue. What a forgiving, comfortable and pretty style.

    Although women wore sheer muslins, too, and it sounds as if the effect could sometimes be risque. Jane Austen wrote of a woman who was "expensively and nakedly dressed."

    Gotta love Jane.

  9. Great question about the silver thread, Anita. I believe a thin strip of metal (perhaps more like a wire?) is wound around a silk or cotton thread. I cannot imagine the labor involved in this process, but it hits home how valuable cloth-of-gold must have been, and how amazing it was that Rumpelstiltskin (of fairy tale fame) spun straw into gold thread.

    I don't know exact dates, but metallic embroidery goes back farther than medieval times. I believe English clergy of old were envied throughout Europe for their gold and silver-embroidered vestments.

    Hmm, going to have to do more research!

  10. Thanks for the info on hankies, Lisa! I'd heard that about hankies, but not definitively. Of course, a well-born lady's hanky was probably a work of art unto itself, lace-trimmed and snowy white. Who would mind if it peeked out from the sleeve?

    I confess I'm somewhat envious of the upper-classes in that their clothes were all perfectly tailored, just for them. Well-turned coats, indeed. The lower classes didn't have the luxury of tailoring. And clothes were so valuable, it wasn't unheard of to strip clothes off the dead and don them at once.

  11. I found a little bit of info on Wikipedia about metallic embroidery, Anita. It looks like goldwork has been traced to Asia, as far back as 2000 years ago.

    According to the write-up on Opus Anglicanum, or English work, pieces embellished with metallic embroidery go back at least to Anglo-Saxon days--made as early as the year 909!

    Astonishing. Absolutely astonishing! I still don't know how they did it. It must have taken a long, long time.


  12. Oh, that's gorgeous! And fascinating.

    Love the embroidery, too!

  13. Susie, you could use your cute little purse at the conference awards ceremony.

    I never did get that handkerchief thing. I am so thankful for Kleenex!

  14. Why Suzie, I think I will bring that little purse along!

    It's not always easy to find hankies anymore. I looked for some for my fil and it wasn't the snap I thought it'd be.

  15. Hi DeAnna! It is gorgeous, isn't it? I would love to wear one of those gowns just for a while. Preferably at a ball after I've taken dancing lessons. Sigh.

  16. Susie girl,
    Awesome post. Caught it just before heading off to bed. I wish I could have toured the museum with you. What fun!
    If you Inkies get a chance come on over and play at my blog tomorrow. I'm celebrating my birthday and doing a give away. Miss you all.

  17. Thanks for a lovely post! I enjoyed seeing the photographs. I wish I could have toured the museum with you, also.

    I am writing a story with a pair of sisters who are dressmakers as main characters, set in 1880 England. It is fascinating to research the details of what they did. I am going to have to be a frequent flyer here on HIstory Tuesday!

  18. Hi Jill! I hope you had a great birthday. I stopped by your blog--what a party!

    I wish you could've come along to the museum, too. One of these days...

  19. Hello, Kathy! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. Hopefully similar exhibits will visit both of our hometowns, soon.

    I'd be interested in reading your story. The skill shown by dressmakers, milliners, etc fascinates me.

    Looking forward to your Tuesday visits!


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