Undress, Half Dress, Full Dress: Making Sense of It All
When Lydia went away, she promised to write very often and very minutely to her mother and Kitty; but her letters were always long expected, and always very short.
Those to her mother contained little else, than that they were just returned from the library, where such and such officers had attended them, and where she had seen such beautiful ornaments as made her quite wild; that she had a new gown, or a new parasol, which she would have described more fully, but was obliged to leave off in a violent hurry, as Mrs Forster called her, and they were going to the camp; — and from her correspondence with her sister, there was still less to be learnt — for her letters to Kitty, though rather longer, were much too full of lines under the words to be made public.
Pride and Prejudice
Let us understand from the start that the term “Undress” did not signify being unclothed. Likewise, “Half Dress” did not mean one was literally half- dressed. The terms are categorical, not literal. Like Full Dress, their name referred more to function than a state of being. In which case you may ask, ‘What does it all mean?’
It means that there had to be a great many gowns in a genteel Regency lady’s wardrobe–regardless of the size of her fortune. Indeed, to be active in Society the necessity of owning a large wardrobe could hardly be avoided. In a small town such as Longbourne (where the Bennets lived) the categories no doubt overlapped more than they would, say, for a debutante in London. In addition, you will find a number of sub-categories of dress, and of course there would have to be variety within each category no matter where you dwelt, for there were different uses for each type of gown, as we shall see.
Having said that, one could argue that there are only two main categories of clothing for the Regency belle: Undress and Full Dress. In this “model”, Undress includes all of the gowns worn during the day, and what is otherwise called Half Dress. (Which is to say, the majority of clothing for daytime, and even perhaps, informal evening wear.)
Day gowns include any gown worn for the morning, walking out, shopping, carriage riding, or making calls. Full Dress, on the other hand, was for an evening ball, very fancy dinner, the opera or an appearance at Court. (The Royal Court, not a court of law.)
The chief difference between Undress and Full Dress was a lower bodice for the evening, but in practice full dress implied a whole ensemble; A short-sleeved empire-waisted, low-necked gown, (often of muslin but by no means restricted to such, silk, satin and other fabrics were also popular) and including evening gloves, a fancy headdress of some sort, a few jewels, a fan, perhaps a reticule, and satin slippers. Other accessories could also be worn or on hand: feathers, boas, shawls, scarves and fans, to name the most common.
The following gowns constituted Undress:
- Morning dress
- Walking-out dress
- Carriage dress
- Promenade dress
- Afternoon dress
- Riding Habit
See the difference? In theory, you were in Undress in the morning, Half-dress in the afternoon, and Full Dress for evening events. Court Dress was also considered Full Dress, though it had extravagant requirements that no other occasion called for.
According to The Georgian Index, a wonderful online resource for Regency fans, Dinner Dress and Opera Dress fall into the category of “Half Dress.” And only “Evening, Ball and Court Dresses” passed as Full Dress. Is your head swimming, yet? If not, consider that the Riding Habit might not fit into any of the above, but simply constitute a category in its own right!
Ah, so many dresses, so little time! No wonder the all-important Regency “season” was a roller-coaster ride of entertainments, diversions and delights. A lady must needs have enough events to make use of such an extensive wardrobe, and enough gowns in her possession to attend them in “the mode.” Pity the poor chit who couldn’t follow protocol or dress for the occasion. Such was the challenge for families with more pretension than means, who wished to launch a Regency buck or belle into the swirl of the fashionable elite.
The Regency. There’s never been a time quite like it. You’ve got to love it!
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Linore Rose Burkard is the Author/Editor of the monthly eZine, “Upon My Word! Facts, Fashion and Figures of the Regency.”. Ms. Burkard is also the author of the Regency Romance, Before the Season Ends, a ground-breaking book which combines the Regency with Inspirational Romance! The sequel to this book, The House at Grosvenor Square will be published in 2009.