The Mizra Turban and La Brada Mantle are also articles of novel elegance. They will doubtless have a great run during the winter. For the Opera-dress we think them peculiarly calculated.–The Persian costume is at this time much adopted, in every species of decoration, and we really think it is highly advantageous to British beauty.
From Le Beau Monde, and Monthly Register
Vol. 2, No. 9, December 1809
The London social season evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries, and in its traditional form it peaked in the 19th century. In this era the British elite was dominated by landowning aristocratic and gentry families who generally regarded their country house as their main home, but spent several months of the year in the capital to socialise and to engage in politics. The most exclusive events were held at the town mansions of leading members of the aristocracy; exclusive public venues such as Almack’s played a secondary role. The Season coincided with the sitting of Parliament and began some time after Christmas and ran until midsummer (ie. around late June). The social season also played a role in the political life of the country: the members of the two Houses of Parliament were almost all participants in the season. The Season but was also a chance for the children of marriageable age of the nobility and gentry to be launched into society. Women were formally introduced into society by presentation to the monarch at Court.*
One popular venue for entertainment was the Theater. Here one could see (and be seen) the latest plays, comedies, musicals, operas and ballet performances, along with favorite classics from over 300 years of theatrical history. Naturally, going to the theater required it’s own special form of attire, called “Opera Dress”.
Opera Dress was a very formal variation of evening dress and often included a cap, turban or band decorated by a large feather. When Jane Austen attnded a ball in 1799, she wrote to her sister, “I am not to wear my white satin cap to-night. after all; I am to wear a mamalone cap instead, which Charles Fowle sent to Mary, and which she lends me. It is all the fashion now; worn at the opera, and by Lady Mildmays at Hackwood balls. I hate describing such things, and I dare say you will be able to guess what it is like. I have got over the dreadful epocha of mantua-making much better than I expected. My gown is made very much like my blue one, which you always told me sat very well, with only these variations: the sleeves are short, the wrap fuller, the apron comes over it, and a band of the same completes the whole.”
The following plates, from Cathy Decker’s Regency Fashion Page, give a good example of what would have been worn to the Opera at the turn of the Century.The Full length Opera Cloak, still in fashion today, would have been much worn to protect these gowns (as well as Ball gowns and other find evening wear) from the elements, and to provide an additional layer of warmth on a chilly evening. The Opera Pelisse, a long sleeved coat, sat closer to the body and would have been worn at any hour of the day, as this image, portraying Morning Walking Dress. In this instance the term “Opera” probably has more to do with the length (a pelisse could be knee length or longer) than occasion, as is also seen in “Opera Length Gloves” and “Opera Length Pearls”
Morning Walking Dress
A plain muslin dress, walking length, made high in front, and forms a shirt collar, richly embroidered; long sleeves, also embroidered round the wrists, and at the bottom of the dress; a pelisse opera coat, without any seam in the back, composed of orange-blossom tinged with brown, made of Angola cloth, or sarsnet, trimmed either with rich Chinchealley [sic] fur, or sable tipt with gold; white fur will also look extremely delicate. The pelisse sets close to the form on one side, and is fastened on the right should with a broach; both sides may be worn close as a wrapping pelisse. Indispensables are still much worn, and of the same colour as the dress. The Agrippina hat, made at Millard’s, corner of Southampton-street, Strand, is truly elegant and quite new; the hair in loose curls, confined with a band of hair: ear-rings are quite out of fashion. Leather gloves, and high shoes or half-boots, or orange-blossom, brown velvet or kid.
Evening Dresses for the Opera and Concerts
Opera Dresses, from Nicholas Heideloff, Gallery of Fashion, 1796
From the left:
The hair combed plain round the face; two white bands mixed with the curls of the toupee; the curls dressed very tight and smooth, the hind hair turned up short and plain. Small yeoman hat of blue satin, lined with white, and a gold band round the crown; two white ostrich feathers on the left side near the front, fixed with a gold pin, the head representing the Prince’s crest. Round gown of embroidered muslin, trimmed round the neck with lace; short sleeves in half plaits, with white satin épaulettes and cuffs. Pearl necklace and gold ear-rings.
The hair combed straight round the face; the hind hair turned up in three short loops, returned in ringlets, and crossed with two gold bands. Diamond bandeau and diamond pin on the right side; and on the left a wreath of green leaves intermixed with the hair; two white ostrich feathers in the front. Petticoat of light blue tiffany; body of the same, with short sleeves trimmed with lace. Plaiting of broad lace round the neck. Upper petticoat of white crape, spotted with white satin in chéilles; robe of the same, spotted in the same manner; the whole Vandyke scolloped. Diamond ear-rings, girdle, and clasps. Pearl necklace. White gloves and shoes, richly embroidered in silver.
The hair combed plain round the face. Chiffonet of silver muslin, the end trimmed with a silver fringe; the hind hair turned up in two loop; silver bandeau on the left side, and on the right a wreath of honeysuckle silver flowers. Three party-coloured green and white ostrich feathers in the front. Petticoat of white tiffany with a rich embroidered border; white satin body embroidered in silver round the neck. Robe of salmon- coloured tiffany; short sleeves épaulettes, cuffs, and binding of green satin. Full plaiting of broad blonde round the neck. Silk cord and tassels round the waist. Diamond ear-rings. White gloves and shoes.
These three ladies are in a box at a theater. The lady on the right holds a glass to let her see the stage and other theater-goers better. They were three very different headdresses: one is in plumes of assorted colors, one a hat, and the other wears garland weaths with white rose trim. The two ladies in front seem to have taken care their headdresses and dresses match, while the standing woman’s plumes are very different in color from her bold yellow dress. In Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778) and Camilla (1796), the heroine attends the theater in such a box. Scenes in theater boxes also occur in Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington and Jane West’s A Tale of the Times (1799). The original text reads as follows:
Dress á l’ Espagnole. The front hair combed straight on the forehead; the side hair in ringlets, and the hind hair in three loops, the ends returned in ringlets. Fancy-hat of white and lilac-coloured taffeta. White muslin gown; short sleeves, puffs, and Vandyke scollops of lilac silk. Small handkerchief trimmed with broad blonde. Pearl necklace. Diamond ear-rings.
The front hair combed straight on the forehead; the side hair in ringlets: the hind hair turned up plain, and the ends returned in ringlets. Turban of silver net, looped at the right side with a silver band. One light-blue, two white brush feathers, and a large diamond pin, with a diamond aigrette, on the left side. Robe of yellow stained muslin; short sleeves. White satin girdle with small roses, and shoulder clasps. Small handkerchief trimmed with blonde.
The toupee dressed large, and in small curls; plain chignon, falling very low on the back; two wreaths of green foil round the toupee; and a bouquet of white roses on the left side. Robe of silver tissue, embroidered in the shell pattern; short sleeves trimmed with lace; full épaulettes of Italian gauze. Tucker of broad lace. Wreath of green foil round the neck, fastened in the front and upon the shoulders with diamond rosettes. Sash of white satin riband, tied on the right side into a bow. Festoon pearl necklace, with a medallion. Large pearl earrings.
Cathy Decker has created the Regency Fashion Page which catalogs fashion plates from 1790-1820. These plates include full color photographs of the original plates as well as descriptive notes. Her page has been recommended by the History Channel.
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