Tuesday, July 17, 2012

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.


  1. I have to admit that even though I'm currently writing books set in the Regency era, I think my favorite fashions (for women, anyway) are 1880-1910 and the 1630's. I watch Anne of Green Gables for the dresses (although they never seemed very practical on a farm).

    Now for men, you got me. I suppose I'd have to go with Regency there. Still wearing breeches but without the wild colors and silly wigs of the Georgian period. And lace. Oh, yes. There's something about a very masculine hand peeking out from a lace cuff. (The keyword being "masculine" in order to pull off the look.)

  2. I'm with you CJ. The look for the men of the Regency was very dashing. There's just something about Hessian boots...

    I think my favorite fashion period is the Edwardian era, but that's a subject for another day!

  3. I love the Regency fashions for women. They seem much kinder and more comfortable than any other fashions for a hundred years before or after. I did a post recently on my personal blog on the fashions in my new book, which takes place in Virginia, but during the Regency time period. I have lots of pictures particular to 1817 if anyone wants to check it out. http://awesomeinspirationals.blogspot.com/2012/07/fashion-of-love-in-three-quarter-time.html

  4. You're right, Dina. For women especially, the clothes were much less restrictive than styles of other eras. And you guys should check out Dina's post. She has fashion plates from the era and shows what her characters are wearing in some of their crucial scenes.

  5. I spent the weekend in 1812 and it was nice. I wasn't dressed correctly but many people were giving it their best shot (soldiers have expensive wardrobes, but it's easier to be 'correct'). I went to a Regency Tea and Fashion show. It was great. Food was made by a woman historian who was a policewoman in England. (I got her email address of course).

    They did a nice job with the details but I'm afraid the models had... uh... suntans. SO NOT REGENCY!

    I also broke down and bought my first historical straw hat because it fit my big head and I hate to buy a hat online. I hope to choose the right patterns and make some clothes of appropriate style soon.

    The one major complaint I had with the costumed reenactors was the incorrect under-apparel. EVen with the less restrictive styles and certain type of corset was worn and things were kept ...under control shall we say?

    Loved the post, Lisa! thanks!

  6. Deb, I am so jealous of your trip it sounds like it was so much fun. And I can't wait until you do a post about it and share with us all.

    Yeah, undergarments may seem unimportant but they can really make or break an outfit when it comes to authenticity. Although, I do think authenticity can be pushed too far. I wouldn't want all the reenactors to forego bathing for days before arriving for their part. So I guess we have to take the good with the bad!

  7. Those shoes are wild. I can't imagine how any woman could walk in them. Then again, I don't know how modern women walk in 6-inch stillettos!

  8. I follow some costumers online and one thing I know for sure is that in costume dramas or 'period' dramas, a costumer insists that the actors wear the correct underclothing as this is half the battle for looking the part as this effects posture and attitude as well as making the clothes fit correctly. I know they complain, but the actors also say the underwear keep the 'in character' as well.

    Loved the photos , Lisa. I have a interest account - empty and I never go on there, so I look forward to the day I start checking out the clothing boards that my fellow historical writers have started!

    My camera died early on Saturday so I didn't get any photos from the fashion show. :(

  9. Lisa, first I have to say I was on pinterest the other day and your fashion pictures are stunning. This is a great post. I have to say, wouldn't the low cut dresses have been more scandalous that less petticoats and no corsets? I know I must be missing the concept here.

    A little telling on my fashion ignorance: I always thought a pelisse was a purse. Lol! Someday I'd love to know all there is to know about historical fashion, so please keep writing about it Lisa!

  10. Suzie -- the purse is a "reticule." The short jacket is a spencer.

    What Lisa didn't include any pictures of were the turbans. That was a Regency style for women that I always found rather strange. Headgear could be its own post.

  11. Jen, I guess it was preferable to getting your shoes muddy.

  12. Deb, Pinterest has become a minor obsession. I have so much fun on there.

  13. And you had a servant to clean the mud out of those things too.
    I always imagine how difficult it would be to keep the hems clean in a filthy town with horse manure, sewage, dirt roads and coal dust everywhere. Even with street sweepers, there's a limit to what can be done...

  14. Suzie, you have to remember that low cut dresses had been around for a long time, especially for evening wear. But see through garments were something else entirely. Not that everyone wore them that immodestly, but there were a few.

  15. You know, CJ I didn't really address headgear at all, but you're right that it could be a post all its own. There were lots of extremes in that area as well. Including poke bonnets that were often parodied in the papers. Another fashion that got a lot of ridicule were the extremely high and stiff collars that some dandies embraced for a time.

  16. Exactly why I am not using Pinterest! I'm not even writing and I still don't have time for it. My daughter got me to join but I hear too much of how people spend so much time on it looking for cool things to pin up. I will have to come in and take a peek again...

    on this hottest day of the summer, I long for winter... for more than just the change in temp.

  17. Too true, Deb. But that's why they hired litter bearers to carry them from place to place.

  18. Deb, You're just longing for your writing time!

  19. Lisa, I love your Pinterest posts!

    I've taken to wearing more skirts this summer to beat the heat (and my expanded girth) and I still can't figure out how women functioned in long dresses. I'm forever slamming my skirt in the door, or stepping on it, or something.

    Whenever I read something about how scandalous modern clothing is, I always think back to some of those early trends... the nipple-bearing gowns, for example. I have to admit, the wet-dress thing was new information for me!

  20. Lisa, although I never did like the Regency cut of dress - is that an Empire waist? When they wear white, I always think they're running around in their nightgowns.

    You said, "There was even a bit of a fling with Chinese styles and motifs."

    Whenever I go to Fort Battleford, I'm always impressed by the different roof styles. On is your regular one, but there is also a gambrel one and the stable has a pagoda at the top where other's would have a widow's walk. It was explained to me that even houses at the forts fell to public fashion of the era depending on the commander.

    Thanks for this post, Lisa. I really like it when people explain fashion. And those pattens - I never knew. :D

  21. another influence was the military look for women's fashions with braids and tassels, epaulets, and cockades on hats. (Brings to mind one outfit from Lost in Austen - Charles Bingley's sister looking like a toy soldier -am I the only one who adores that series?)

  22. Be still my heart. Love this post, Lisa. And I've just joined Pinterest recently. Very addicting. Is that where you found all these goodies because I've just got to get some of this going at Pinterest. :) Lovely, lovely, lovely. And speaking of Greek influence. I'm fascinated by Greek and Roman mythology. Must check out some of that clothing. There you go, Lisa. Great post!

  23. You know Niki, being able to manage long skirts is an acquired skill. If that was the only thing you wore it might not be such an issue. Kind of like long hair or glasses.

    Just like back then, modern styles can be more revealing or more modest. It all depends on who you're looking at I guess!

  24. Yep, Anita, that high waistline just below the bosom is called an empire waistline. Fort Battleford sounds really interesting, Anita. I think you should do a post on it!

  25. I haven't seen Lost in Austen, Deb. Though I read a book by that name I think.

    The military was considered very dashing and with the threat from Napoleon throughout much of the Regency period, it's no wonder that there was an influence on clothing styles. The same thing happens during most major wars.

  26. Jilly! It's so good to see you! I tend to use a lot of classical references in my stories because that was the basis of their education system so they would think of those stories. Glad I'm not alone!

  27. That's fascinating. I love looking at period clothes. Wouldn't want to have to wear them. Ugh!! But they're gorgeous to look at.

    Is the medieval period too far back for you? :D

  28. I don't know as much about medieval clothing as some other eras. But I do know some things and I bet I can find out more!

  29. You know I love this post, Lisa! Great photos! The clothes are in amazing shape. When I visted the Fashioning Fashion exhibit at the LACMA, the first display was of white gowns from 1750-1900. White has a tendency to grow rather dingy through the centuries.

    Thanks for the fun post. I look forward to others in the series.


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