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Afternoon Dress

Afternoon dress is something that normal people don’t have–we have semi-formal dress rather than afternoon dress. Basically afternoon dress is what a person of the highest social class wears in the afternoon at appropriately upper- class social functions like society teas, garden parties, afternoon weddings, etc. During Jane Austen’s day, the social elite were of course the people who could afford to buy the expensive hand-colored fashion plates in the women’s journals of 1790-1830. Some Regency journals do use the term “Afternoon Dress,” such as The Gallery of Fashion and The Lady’s Magazine. In other journals, I haven’t noticed any uses of the phrase. You can find dresses labelled for promenading (sometimes even in particular parks in London such as Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens) that no doubt were worn in the afternoon and could be considered “afternoon dress.” I’ve only featured on this page the plates explicitly labelled afternoon dress.

Fashion plate from The Gallery of Fashion, October 1794, Figure 26, titled “Afternoon or Half-Dress.” Text reads “HEAD-DRESS. Bright puce-coloured hat, with an embroidered purple border, lined with blue, and trimmed with a garland of flowers; a parti-coloured ostrich feather placed on the left side. A large toupee frizzed into light curls, the hind hair turned under, the ends returned, falling lower than the chignon, and thrown into ringlets. A wreath of white flowers in the toupee. Robe and petticoat of striped muslin; the robe braided on the back, confined to the waist by a belt, trimmed round the neck with lace; long sleeves, trimmed at the wrists with lace; short full sleeves of clear muslin, fixed at the bottom to the long sleeves. Small handkerchief put within the robe. Gold ear-rings. Light blue gloves and shoes.”

This poor scan is made from a photocopy and doesn’t show the striped fabric. I read somewhere that when Charlotte Corday murdered Marat in 1793, she wore a fashionably striped dress like this one–certainly many prints of the famous murder in the bathtub show Corday in such a dress. Large nosegays or corsages like the one depicted here seem like a good idea to me in an age when soap and perfume cost a lot and horses were the main source of transportation!

Fashion plate from The Gallery of Fashion, November 1794, Figure 31, titled “Afternoon Dress, in Half-Mourning.” The text reads: “HEAD-DRESS. Toupee and side hair frizzed, and thrown into large curls; bandeauof white and black riband, cut out and formed into a wreath of flowers; one black and two white ostrich feathers placed in the front. Plain chignon, falling very low upon the back. Petticoat of clear lawn, embroidered in black. Robe a la Turque of black taffeta, with black braids on the back. Long sleeves. Handkerchief of Italian gauze, put within the robe. Gold festoon necklace and ear-rings. White glove and shoes, embroidered in black.”

Even in this bad scan of a bad photocopy, it is easy to see how striking the black and white ensemble is, particularly the white and black feathers. No large nosegay or corsage is worn–perhaps they were not seen as appropriate when mourning a death? Given the wild colors of the afternoon dress for the previous month (puce, purple, and blue), the more elaborate black embroidery on the petticoat is not exactly exciting. While brightly dyed or patterned fabrics are easy to buy in the 21st century and hand-embroidery is not; in the 1790s the reverse would be true and much less exciting.

Fashion plate from The Gallery of Fashion, May 1795, Figures 53 and 54, titled “Afternoon Dresses.” The text for figure 53 on the left reads,“The hair dressed in a high toupee; two ornaments of white satin in Vandyke scallops, the edges trimmed with silver spangles, placed in two parts of the toupee, and the hair betwixt combed into small curls; the hind hair in ringlets; three white ostrich feathers on the right side. Chemise of embroidered muslin; the collar and labels [lapels] of trimmed with lace; short full sleeves, tied in two parts with silver cords. Pink sash. Pearl ear-rings. Diamond necklace; and two small gold chains with a medallion round the neck. White satin shoes.”

The text for the right figure reads, “The hair in small curls, and the hind hair in ringlets. Turban of Italian gauze, spangled with silver. A wreath of small roses on the right side; a branch of oak leaves, made of green foil, across the turban, from the left side to the right, in the front. Three large white ostrich feathers in the front, placed one behind the other. Petticoat of white muslin embroidered in silver, trimmed at the bottom with a white satin riband. Lilac satin corset without points; long sleeves of white satin, with a narrow blonde plaited at the wrists; short upper sleeves of white satin, with full muslin tops, looped with a large pearl. Lilac-colored sash. Diamond ear-rings. Two strings of large pearls round the neck. Lilac-coloured shoes.” In other words, these are pretty white and pastel dresses (pink and liliac) with silver trim, shown worn with diamond jewelry–not exactly what your average girl puts on at 2 p.m.!

Fashion plate from The Gallery of Fashion, December 1795, Figure 80, titled “Afternoon Dress.” The text reads: “The hair in light curls and ringlets. Bandeau of white satin, tigrç in carmelite. White satin chiffonet mixed with the hair; three white ostrich feathers placed in the front. White satin petticoat. Robe of white muslin, embroidered at the bottom with silver, trimmed round the neck and down the side with a silver fringe; long sleeves plaited and trimmed with lace, the upper part full, and tied with three silver cords. Round the waist a silver cord with two large tassels, tied at the left side into a bow. Diamond ear-rings. Plaited tucker, and a string of pearls round the neck. White gloves. White satin shoes.”

The dress is similar to those featured in May of this year in the same journal, in that white and silver are the dominant colors. Interestingly, the dress below from 1810 also uses this same white and silver color scheme, and moreover both dresses feature white lace sleeves on a white muslin dress with a white satin headdress. The fur muff here is the one concession to winter. Note how much bigger the tassels are compared to those on the 1810 blue scarf and silver ribbon below (although they may be knots not tassels).

Fashion plate from The Gallery of Fashion, August 1796, Figure 110, titled “Afternoon Dress.” The text reads: “The toupee dressed in loose curls; the hind hair turned up in loops, the ends returned in ringlets; broad white satin riband across the toupee, with a bow in the front and behind. Fancy plume in a black tuft placed in the front, and a spotted coloured ostrich feather on the right side. White tiffany petticoat with an embroidered broad border. Robe á la Turque of white muslin embroidered in colours; trimmed round the neck with a plaiting of lace; short full sleeves of purple tiffany. Sash and upper bracelets of broad silver lace. Diamond ear-rings and Diamond ear-rings. Two strings of large pearls round the neck. Lilac-coloured shoes.” In other words, these are pretty white and pastel dresses (pink and liliac) with silver trim, shown worn with diamond jewelry–not exactly what your average girl puts on at 2 p.m.!

1795 Afternoon dress Fashion plate from The Gallery of Fashion, December 1795, Figure 80, titled “Afternoon Dress.” The text reads: “The hair in light curls and ringlets. Bandeau of white satin, tigrç in carmelite. White satin chiffonet mixed with the hair; three white ostrich feathers placed in the front. White satin petticoat. Robe of white muslin, embroidered at the bottom with silver, trimmed round the neck and down the side with a silver fringe; long sleeves plaited and trimmed with lace, the upper part full, and tied with three silver cords. Round the waist a silver cord with two large tassels, tied at the left side into a bow. Diamond ear-rings. Plaited tucker, and a string of pearls round the neck. White gloves. White satin shoes.”

The dress is similar to those featured in May of this year in the same journal, in that white and silver are the dominant colors. Interestingly, the dress below from 1810 also uses this same white and silver color scheme, and moreover both dresses feature white lace sleeves on a white muslin dress with a white satin headdress. The fur muff here is the one concession to winter. Note how much bigger the tassels are compared to those on the 1810 blue scarf and silver ribbon below (although they may be knots not tassels).

Afternoon dress Fashion plate from The Gallery of Fashion, August 1796, Figure 110, titled “Afternoon Dress.” The text reads: “The toupee dressed in loose curls; the hind hair turned up in loops, the ends returned in ringlets; broad white satin riband across the toupee, with a bow in the front and behind. Fancy plume in a black tuft placed in the front, and a spotted coloured ostrich feather on the right side. White tiffany petticoat with an embroidered broad border. Robe á la Turque of white muslin embroidered in colours; trimmed round the neck with a plaiting of lace; short full sleeves of purple tiffany. Sash and upper bracelets of broad silver lace. Diamond ear-rings and necklace. White gloves and shoes, imitating sandals.”

This dress is similar is style to the dress of November 1794 above in that both are “robes á la Turque” and both feature embroidery. The color scheme is also bolder, more like the vivid colors of the October 1794 afternoon dress above–both costumes use purple in combination with other colors (also both feature nosegays or corsages of flowers). The sleeves and imitation sandals show the increasing popularity of “ancient” or classical dress. The sleeves of this dress are an interesting transition from the longer sleeves popular at the start of the 1790s and the shorter sleeves of the early 1800s.

 

Fashion plate from The Gallery of Fashion, May 1798, Figure 180. This is a half-mourning dress like the plate above from November 1794. Note how the sleeves have become shorter and the cloth robe or overdress is replaced by a fashionable transparent net. Net fabrics made by machine were new at the end of the century. Instead of gold, pearls, or diamonds, during half mourning duller, darker jewelry like this black jet cross were considered appropriate. Rather than a nosegay or corsage, a smaller black set of plumes is worn.

This reminds me of a scene in Maria Edgeword’s The Absentee involving black fabric: “But she could not be satisfied with Colonel Heathcock, who, dressed in black, had stretched his ‘fashionable length of limb’ under the statira canopy upon the snow-white swan-down couch. When, after having monopolised attention, and been the subject of much bad wit, about black swans and rare birds, and swans being geese and geese being swans, the colonel condescended to rise, and, as Mrs. Dareville said, to vacate his couch, that couch was no longer white–the black impression of the colonel remained on the sullied snow. ‘Eh, now! really didn’t recollect I was in black,’ was all the apology he made. Lady Clonbrony was particularly vexed that the appearance of the statira, canopy should be spoiled before the effect had been seen by Lady Pococke, and Lady Chatterton, and Lady G–, Lady P–, and the Duke of V–,and a party of superlative fashionables, who had promised TO LOOK IN UPON HER, but who, late as it was, had not yet arrived.”

Fashion plate from The Gallery of Fashion, April 1799, Figures 215 and 216. The figure on the right is in mourning. Note how like in the half-mourning plate above, a jet cross is the jewelry worn with mourning. Why a big muff is needed in April isn’t clear, but this was the time of the “little ice age”! The dress on the left is a subtle print of black and red dots on white. I don’t know if this from a machine or block print, brocade, or if the dots have been embroidered on the fabric. The dress also has tons of ornamental buttons on the front and sleeves. The scarf and headdress feature a jaunty stripe that add a blast of color to this afternoon dress outfit. Long narrow scarfs and fur tippets are in style in this era–note how the scarf below in the 1810 plate is even longer. The two big feathers on the headdress are peacock feathers. The lace around the neck on the lady on the left is done in a flower pattern and seems to be part of a veil or scarf attached to the bandeau on the side. It isn’t clear if the lace trails down the back or is all tucked around the neck.

 

Fashion plate from The Lady’s Magazine, April 1805. When I examined this issue at the University of Chicago, I only copied the table of contents which lists this plate as “London Afternoon Dresses” to be found on page 213. Later I got this image, but not the descriptions. Note how by this time the high plumes of the 1790s were out of style for afternoon dress. The figure on the left does not have short plumes on her head–when I looked at a close up of the plate in better resolution than depicted here, it was easy to see that it was locks of hair in loose curls rising up from a sort of flat bun on the top of the head above the fabric and pearl headdress. This style of headdress echoes the vogue for imitating ancient Greek and Roman dress, particularly with the veil. The sleeves on both dresses are fastened up to show an underdress or fabric inset. The right dress uses two small buttons on the upper arm to create this effect. Both sets of sleeves echo the graceful draping of ancient dress in my opinion (other fashion plates showing a contrasting underfabic on the sleeve are often imitating Renaissance slashing rather than classical draping). The long sleeves of the 1790s are gone, as are the fans, but expensive jewelry, gloves, and trains are still part of afternoon dress.

The Lady’s Magazine, March 1810. Only the dress on the left is afternoon dress (or half dress)–the dress on the right is full dress. You can see here on this color scan the legend, “London Afternoon & Full Dress.” The original description from page 104 reads: “A short train dress of worked muslin, with lace sleeves, tied round the waist with a narrow satin ribbon, in a bow on the right side and long ends. Head-dress, a small cap of white satin and lace, with a plaited front, edged with silver. Blue figured sarcenet scarf. White gloves and shoes.”

The veils of 1805 are gone, replaced with more turban-style headdresses. Note the jewelry worn with the afternoon dress is plain gold without stones while with full dress, large stones of “cornelian or rubies” are depicted. The diamonds worn in the 1790s with afternoon dress would likely now be a bit vulgar, just as plumes would clearly be a fashion faux pas! Interestingly the colors of white, silver, and blue are similar to the white/pastels of the 1795 plate above. This 1810 fashion plate doesn’t convey the “worked muslin” or white-on-white embroidery of the dress and does a poor job of depicting the lace oversleeves and the “figured”–i.e., patterned or print–scarf. The matching color tassels of the scarf (or are they knots of fabric?) that standout in the plate, however, don’t merit a mention in the description. The silver ribbon belt also has knots or tassels–these appear to be larger than those on the scarf. Compare this silver belt to the silver cord in the December 1795 plate above.

Find Regency fashion at our giftshop, The Jane Austen Centre Online Giftshop

This article was written by Cathy Decker, creator of the Regency Fashion Page which catalogs fashion plates from 1790-1820. Her site includes full color photographs of the original plates as well as descriptive notes. The Regency Fashion Page has been recommended by the History Channel.

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