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Spencers, Shawls, Pelisses and More

Lady's Monthly Museum (1804)<br /> Thanks to Kathy Hammel for this fashion plate image.<br /> A pink sarcenet Spencer, open in front: sleeves made very full, and trimmed with lace round the hands

Regency Outerwear

By Kathy Hammel

“If I thought it would not tempt her to go out in sharp winds, and grow coarse, I would send her a new hat and pelisse.”
Sir Walter Elliot

Lady's Monthly Museum (1804)<br />
Thanks to Kathy Hammel for this fashion plate image.<br />
A pink sarcenet Spencer, open in front: sleeves made very full, and trimmed with lace round the hands

In 1799, as the 18th Century was quietly taking its last breath and the craze was for all things classical, the spencer and pelisse were making their debut. The spencer– a close-fitting, tight sleeved, waist length jacket modeled on a gentleman’s riding coat, but without tails– is said to be the invention of one Lord Spencer. While references agree that Lord Spencer inadvertently engendered the style through a mishap; what exactly the mishap was, however, is not generally agreed upon. It seems the gentleman in question either had the tails torn from his riding coat when he fell from his horse or had them singed off after he backed too close to the fire while warming himself. Either way, Lord Spencer apparently found the tail-less riding coat to his liking and instructed his tailor to make him several more in the same style. It wasn’t long before the fair sex took up the style (note 1) — the bottom of the jacket raised to match the high waists of the current fashion– and a Regency classic was born. Continue reading Spencers, Shawls, Pelisses and More

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A Tour of Regency Fashion: Day and Evening Dress

Le Beau Monde, June 1808 The Regency Era (often given as 1812-1830, though the dates are flexible) officially began when the Prince of Wales became Regent of England after his father, George III, was declared insane. This period was dramatically different from what came before it, Georgian decadence and excess, and from what followed, Victorian morality. The fashions, of course, reflected this change.

In the eighteenth century fashions were highly elaborate, made of heavy brocades and satins with copious lace trim and quilted, beaded underskirts supported by a complicated infrastructure of hoops and panniers. The entire confection would be crowned with elaborate wigs, tall feathers, and huge hats. By the 1790’s, a radical change was in the air.

The change was precipitated by the French Revolution and its “democratic” tenets. Noblewomen and their maids alike dressed in the new style as silks gave way to light muslins, clinging lines, high waistlines, and arm-baring sleeves. These new styles were classically influenced, modeled on the ideals of the Greek and Roman worlds that were aped by the Revolution.

Throughout the Regency, there were certain elements of fashion that remained fairly consistent. Necklines were low and wide, filled in for daytime with fichus, scarves, or chemisettes; a high waistline; a fitted bodice, and fitted sleeves, either short and puffed, elbow-length, or long. There were trends; waistlines went up and down, more elaborate trims came into vogue, especially at the hems and necklines of gowns, and medieval and Renaissance details became popular, especially in England. As always, the French tended to be more daring in their fashions!

Day Dress
In the early Regency (approximately 1797-1805), the most common style of dress for day wear was one that was very classic in feel and simple in style– what we often think of toady as “typical Regency”. It was high-waisted with a wide neckline and rather long sleeves. Chemisettes (a style much like a modern dickey!) or fichus, often made of filmy fabrics, were used to fill in the neckline. Often there were no back fastenings; The two photos [I sent] were of the same dress, dressed up for evening and down for day. I made it from the La Mode Bagatelle Regency pattern (which can be bought at the Sense and Sensibility website). It's kind of expensive, about $48, but you can make about 10 different dress styles from it, as well as a pelisse and spencer. Very authentic, too, but a bit hard to sew. a woman could simply pull the dress over her shoulders and tie up the drawstrings. The term “chemise dress” was very descriptive of these dresses. (pictured on right)

Early Regency dresses, even day dresses, also had trains, though this trend faded around 1805. Also after 1805, the longer, tighter sleeves began to give way to the shorter, puffed style. The drawstring fastening was often augmented by a hook or button in the back, at the neckline. Waistlines continued to fluctuate, and around 1807-08 new, smooth bodices, not gathered but fitted with darts, began to emerge.

Opera Gowns, from Ackerman's Repository of the Arts, 1810 Early styles of dress had skirts of classical simplicity with very little trim or embroidery. They were also quite narrow, with all the fullness gathered in the back with the train. In the 1810s, gowns started becoming more elaborate. Tucks and flowers adorned hemlines. The English were especially fond of “Renaissance” details – ruffs, slashed sleeves, and lace (See the fashion plate on the left.). Heavier fabrics were needed to support these details, and silks and satins returned to vogue.

By 1816, waistlines were at their highest, though often just a small band of fabric, and hems were at their most elaborate.

Evening Dress
Early Regency evening dress retained some eighteenth century richness, with colored silks and metallic trims, but the style was Classical, with high waists, narrow silhouettes and close-fitting, longer sleeves. A train was de riguer, as it was for day dress.

On the whole, evening fashion tended to resemble day dress styles. When trains disappeared for day dress, they became optional for evening. Waistlines raised and lowered; fabrics became simpler, then returned to more elaborate silks, satins, and velvets. Sleeves grew and became more gathered and puffed.

From: The Gallery of Fashion 1790-1822, Plates by Heideloff and Ackermann with Introduction by Sacheverell Sitwell and Notes on the Plates by Doris Langley Moore (Batsford Colour Books. London: B.T. Batsford, 1949). Moore describes the dress thus: 'Evening dress of gossamer satin, body and Spanish slashed sleeves of pink satin, cap with rosebuds ... An evening or musical party full dress of gossamer satin, with festoooned trimming, bordered with rouleaux of rose-pink satin. Body and Spanish slashed sleeves of pink satin. Cap ornamented with rosebuds.' By 1815, the original classical simplicity of dress had all but vanished. Layered gowns (underdresses of silk or satin, often colored, and overdresses of sheer lace or gauze) came into vogue. Hems were very elaborate, with artificial flowers, beadwork, lace and netting used. Ornamentation on the sleeves echoed that of the hems. (See fashion plate on the right).

By 1825, the waistline approached the natural state, skirts were growing wider, and the fashion style of the Regency was ending. Soon it would give way entirely to the elaborate hoops and corsets of the Victorian age, sending fashion back full circle.

Buy dress patterns to make your own Regency gown at the Jane Austen Centre Online Giftshop!

Coming Soon! A Scandal in Venice Ammanda McCabe is an author of Regency Romances and speaker at an upcoming writer’s conference where her subject will be Regency Fashion. Her first book, Scandal in Venice, will be released this month. Order it today from Barnes and Noble!

Ammanda’s gown was made with “the La Mode Bagatelle Regency pattern (which can be bought at the Sense and Sensibility website). It’s kind of expensive, about $48, but you can make about 10 different dress styles from it, as well as a pelisse and spencer. Very authentic, too, but a bit hard to sew. I’ve also made a gown from Simplicity 9221. It’s easier to make, and looks fine with a few easy changes (like no zipper).”

Select Bibliography
Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion 1. Quite Specific Media Group, Ltd.: 1975.
Asheford, Jane. The Art of Dress. Harry Abrams: 19



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A Lady’s Evening Ensemble

This Evening Ensemble was researched, designed and constructed by Yvonne Roe, Gloucester.This Evening Ensemble and many other gowns can be seen on display at the Jane Austen Centre, which boasts a fine hands on collection of Gentlemen’s, Ladies’ and Children’s wear.

The main over part of the gown is made from a length of Indian silk, shot in two shades of green, using the woven borders as part of the design. The undergown is plain cream silk decorated with pearl braid and a tuck. At this time, many enterprising traders went to India to make their fortunes, sending gifts of shawls and local fabrics to their female relatives at home. There are several examples in costume collections of dresses made from such items, with the cut of the gown being carefully adapted to take advantage of the borders, doubtless giving their makers quite a challenge so as not to waste a precious inch. The dress on display is based on an original in the collection at Snowshill Manor [NT] and a similar design was worn by Mrs Weston in the latest television adaptation of Emma, at the Crown Inn Ball.

The sleeves are interestingly detailed, with tulip-shaped oversleeves over the popular puffed shape; the sleeve band is decorated with gold cord and pearl braid.

Headdresses for the evening would range from a simple ribbon round the wearer’s curls to an elaborate turban twisted from lengths of silk, decorated with brooches, cords and, of course, some imposing feathers. The older lady would wear a cap made of very fine lawn, often elaborately frilled and flounced.

Morning Dress, Costumes Parisiens, 1801. This simple morning dress is slit down the front and tied by white tasseled cords that allow provocative glimpses of the lace trimmed underdress. A cashmere shawl of green, pink, and yellow squares is draped over the lady's shoulders. Shawls or stoles completed the evening ensemble – often, Indian cashmere was the choice which was later copied by British manufacturers and endured as a fashion until the 1860s. The shape gradually evolved from rectangular to a large square; fabrics could be fine wool, silk, cotton or a mixture, often with colourful woven borders, usually in the Kashmir pine-cone design, in bright colours, which later became the pattern we know as Paisley – [because that town became the centre of the shawl weaving trade]. The stole on display is of fine silk georgette with green silk edging and gold fringe.

All sewing was done by hand at this time and there were only a few diagrammatic patterns available. Fashion magazines, such as La Belle Assemblee, Ackerman’s Repository or the Lady’s Magazine showed eager readers fashion plates of the very latest modes in London or Paris, and those ladies fortunate enough to be visiting centres of fashion, such as Bath, wrote letters home with detailed descriptions and sketches of what the fashion leaders were wearing. This information was then used to create their own interpretations of “the latest thing” for those at home. Newspapers, too, reported on current fashion; from the London Recorder, 1806: The dresses of ladies were in general white muslin, with a slight intermixture of lilac and peachblossom. The headdresses were either Grecian or Egyptian; ostrich feathers were generally worn; on the whole, the Drawing-room wore a much more brilliant aspect than usual.

London Evening Dress from La Belle Assemblée; March 1808 Even gentlewomen often made their own gowns, and certainly, in households such as the Bennet’s in Pride and Prejudice, the sisters would have made some of their own clothes. In every locality there were seamstresses, often called mantua-makers, who would make for those who could afford it and the ideal ladies’ maid was able to make, repair and alter her mistress’s clothes.

Costume researched, designed and constructed by Yvonne Roe, Gloucester. Special to the Jane Austen Centre, Bath.


Supplemental fashion plates, by permission from Cathy Decker, The Regency Fashion Page.

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“I was very lucky in my gloves–got them at the first shop I went to…and gave only four shillings for them; upon hearing which everybody at Chawton will be hoping and predicting that they cannot be good for anything, and their worth certainly remains to be proved; but I think they look very well.
Jane Austen, 1813

During the 19th century, ladies always wore regency gloves outside (so did gentlemen). In addition, they wore them for the most part indoors as well (always at balls, for instance). Made of cotton or kid, they were protection for the hands against dirt and the elements. Continue reading Gloves

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The Importance Of Wearing White – The White Regency Gown

white regency gown

The White Regency Gown in Austen’s Novels

“`Mrs. Allen,’ said Catherine the next morning, will there be any harm in my calling on Miss Tilney today? I shall not be easy till I have explained everything.’

`Go, by all means, my dear; only put on a white gown; Miss Tilney always wears white.'”

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, 1818

British Fashion Plate of White Walking Dress and White Full Dress or Evening Dress

Why does Jane Austen’s Miss Tilney always wear white? The simple, tubular white gown was for the women of Austen’s day what the little black dress is today: a fashion basic for every season, every year. In the early years of the nineteenth century, a white gown was the important clothing item for any woman who wanted to be stylish. From her letters, we know Austen herself owned white gowns. Fashion plates, like the one below, commonly feature white gowns for day and evening wear from 1790-1820. When the shape of dresses in the 1820s became an hourglass, rather than a tube, many of the stylish, white gowns of earlier years could not be modified to match the new style and were stored away. Thus, according to Jane Ashford’s The Art of Dress (1996), a fairly large number of these white gowns still exist and can be seen in museum collections around the world (page 179). In the last five years, several of these white gowns have even been offered for sale on the internet by various sites specializing in historical textiles and clothing. Continue reading The Importance Of Wearing White – The White Regency Gown