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Court Gowns: Dressing the Part

She is unfortunately of a sickly constitution, which has prevented her making that progress in many accomplishments which she could not otherwise have failed of; as I am informed by the lady who superintended her education, and who still resides with them. But she is perfectly amiable, and often condescends to drive by my humble abode in her little phaeton and ponies.”

“Has she been presented? I do not remember her name among the ladies at court.”

“Her indifferent state of health unhappily prevents her being in town; and by that means, as I told Lady Catherine myself one day, has deprived the British court of its brightest ornament. Her ladyship seemed pleased with the idea, and you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies. I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine that her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her. —
Pride and Prejudice


Miroir de la Mode, February 1804

This print is a rare example from the short-lived British magazine, edited by the famous modiste Madame Lanchester, that was published only from 1803 to 1804. Bits of silver paint are used to pick out details in the trim and the jewelry. Out of my collection of over 500 fashion prints, if I could only keep one print, this would be it.

When ladies (and gentlemen) appeared at Court on formal occasions they were required to wear Court Dress, which was a very formal, very specific type of garment that was not worn anywhere else. Rules of Court Dress were rigid and dictated by the current monarch or his Queen. During the Regency, those rules produced a type of female garment that appears perfectly ridiculous to modern eyes, but which was taken quite seriously by those who wore them and by the designers who made them.

The rules of Court directed that ladies should wear skirts with hoops and trains, and that white ostrich feathers be worn in the hair, attached to lappets which hung below the shoulders. These rules had been in place long before George III took the throne. In his predecessor’s day the skirts were enhanced with panniers that stood out very wide on either side, but leaving the front and back flat. The intent of such odd-looking dresses was to display a broad swath of beautifully embroidered fabric, some of which had pictorial or floral scenes that used the entire front of the skirt as a canvas. Side panniers had been replaced by normal round hoops by the time of George III. In the last decade of the 18th century, the fashion for wide skirts began to evolve into the slim, vertical line associated with Regency dress. Queen Charlotte, however, held firm on the rules of Court Dress, and ladies were forced to adapt those rules to the current style, which produced a very odd-looking garment with the high-waist under the bosom and a full hoped skirt.

Who wore these silly (to my eye) concoctions?

Wives and daughters of peers, members of parliament, or the landed gentry were allowed to be formally presented at Court on only three specific occasions: as a young woman making her debut in Society (she was later to be called a debutante), upon her marriage, and on the occasion of her husband having an honor conferred upon him. For daughters, the presentation at court marked them as suitable bridal candidates in the marriage market. For wives, it marked them as respectable members of the upper classes of Society and sometimes opened doors for them that had formerly been closed. The woman being presented was always sponsored by another woman who had already been presented. This was usually her mother or mother-in-law or another female relation. If she had no relative to present her, there were certain high-ranking ladies who would do so for a fee.

La Belle Assemblée, March 1806
“The Marchioness of Townshend in her full Court Dress as worn by her Ladyship on the Queen’s Birth Day 1806”

This print accompanies a biographical sketch of Lady Townshend, and is not referenced or described in the fashion commentary of the same issue.

The presentations took place at St. James’s Palace at events called Drawing Rooms, where the monarch and/or his Queen received those attending Court. Presentation Drawing Rooms were held two or three times a week during the Season. Based on letters and diaries of the time, it was so stressful an experience that it was regarded more as a duty than a pleasure. The young woman to be presented stood sometimes for hours (one never sat in the presence of the Queen) waiting for her name to be announced by the Lord Chamberlain. She then walked to where the Queen sat and made a deep curtsy — which had been practiced and practiced while wearing the hooped skirt. A few pleasantries were exchanged, the young woman answering any question the Queen put to her, but no more. When the Queen indicated she was dismissed, the young woman made one more deep curtsey, and then had to walk backwards out of the royal presence (one never turned one’s back on the Queen) all the while dealing with the obstacle of her train so as not to trip over it. Stressful indeed!

Other formal occasions requiring Court Dress were the Drawing Rooms held to commemorate the Queen’s birthday (January) and the King’s birthday (June). These were invitation-only events involving only the highest-ranking members of Society. Unlike the young women being presented at court for the first time, whose dresses were primarily white or pale pastel shades, the ladies of the nobility were allowed more freedom of color in their court costumes. Many of the magazines of the period listed all the important women who attended the Drawing Rooms and described what they wore. For example, in January 1809, the Lady’s Magazine reported that the Countess of Carlisle wore: “A most superb dress of ruby velvet and white satin; the draperies in every part trimmed with a rich imperial gold border, and a profusion of splendid gold tassels, rope, &c.; robe trimmed with point lace. Head-dress, ruby turban, jewels, and feathers.” Figure 2 shows a dress worn by the Marchioness of Townshend at the Queen’s Drawing Room in 1806, and Figure 3 shows what the Princess of Wales wore to the King’s Drawing Room in 1807.

La Belle Assemblée, February 1808
“A Lady of Quality in the Birth Day Court Dress January 18, 1808”

The Queen’s unyielding insistence that women attend court in unfashionable hoops continued even after the King no longer appeared in public, and Drawing Rooms were hosted by the Prince Regent. The ever astute Mrs. Bell (the shameless self-promoter who designed most of the dresses illustrated in La Belle Assemblée) at last came to the rescue with a more flexible hoop in 1817 (see Figure 8), but it must still have been something of an aggravation to deal with such an unwiedy and heavy costume while standing, never sitting, at court. Such out-of-date dress had long been discarded at the French court, where no hoops were worn, but where long trains, white plumes, and court lappets echoed the English court style. (See Figures 5, 6, and 7.) After the Bourbons reclaimed the French throne upon Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, fashion magazines in England began to include prints of French court dress. It is tempting to believe they did so to encourage the Prince Regent to adopt a more current style of court dress by showing the more fashionably attired ladies of the French court. (See Figures 6 and 7. As you can see, the prints were often exact copies of fashion prints that had previously appeared in the popular French publication, Le Journal des Dames et Des Modes.)

Journal des Dames et des Modes 1814 (month unknown)
Costume Parisien, “Costume de présentation”

The Prince, however, did not relax the rules until he came to the throne as George IV in 1820. Finally, ladies could abandon their hoops. (Ironically, they came back into fashion within another 15 years.) The rules regarding white plumes in the hair still held fast (and did so well into the 20th century), and in looking at the fashion prints of the early 1820s (see Figures 9, 10, and 11), it appears that the extravagance of skirt that was given up with the hoop was transferred to the head. Plumes became ridiculously large and numerous. Figure 9, which shows one of the first non-hooped Court Dresses from 1820, also exemplifies the new extravagance for plumes. Fortunately, ostrich feathers weigh very little, else the lady would surely have been unable to lift her head.

If it is any consolation to the ladies, the rules of gentlemen’s court dress were much more strict, and became even more so during Victoria’s reign.

Left: Journal des Dames et des Modes 1816 (month unknown) Costume Parisien “Coeffure et Robe de Cour”

Right: La Belle Assemblée, September 1816 “Parisian Court Dress”

La Belle Assemblée, which copied the print from the French weekly Journal des Dames et des Modes, described the dress as follows:

“Petticoat and train of white satin, superbly ornamented round the border and sides with flowers and couloured foil. Body of white satin or silver tissue. Short full sleeves of white satin, richly ornamented wth point lace, and surmounted by imperial wings formed of a triple row of the same material. Toque of white satin, encircled round the forehead by a bandeau of pearls or diamonds. The hair in curls, à-la-Ninon; superb plume of full white ostrich feathers, and court lappets of fine lace. Ear-rings and necklace of diamonds. White kid shoes with very small rosettes; white kid gloves, ornamented at the top with a narrow fluted quilling of blond.”

Left: Journal des Dames et des Modes 1816 (month unknown) Costume Parisien “Coeffure et Robe de Cour”

 

Right: La Belle Assemblée April 1817 “French Court Costume “

La Belle Assemblée, which copied the print from the French weekly Journal des Dames et des Modes, described the dress as follows:
“White satin petticoat, bordered with a rich work in silver lama of grapes and vine leaves. Body of silver tissue, with short sleeves or crape, ornamented with pearls. Falling tucker of crape, three rows, to correspond with the sleeves. Mantuan train of satin of a fine tyrian purple, pink, or ethereal blue, embroidered round the border in the same manner as the petticoat. The hair elevated on the summit of the head, and encircled with a bandeau of diamonds. A full plume of white ostrich feathers and marabou feathers intermingled. Court lappets of find Mechlin lace, edged with small pearls; diamond necklace and ear-rings.”

La Belle Assemblée, April 1817
“Court Dress with the New Hoop”

Described in the magazine as follows:
“Full suit dress of pink satin, finished round the border with fine blond interspersed with pearls, to which are added rich cordons and embossments of white silk, in an embroidery of a novel kind, mingled with artificial flowers. Superb drapery of embroidered net, trimmed with blond of an unrivalled pattern and workmanship, and drawn up with full wreaths of artificial flowers. Train of pink satin, elegantly finished with silver lama; short sleeves of pink satin and blond, caught up to the shoulder with full blown roses. Head-dress feathers and diamonds. Diamond necklace and ear-rings. White satin shoes; and white crape fan, the outward sticks studded and fastened with diamonds.

“N.B The attention of the nobility and gentry is particularly appealed to on the newly invented Court hoop, which enables a lady to sit comfortably in a sedan, or other carriage, while the hoop is worn, with the same ease as any other garment; and by this unique and unrivalled novelty the splendor and dignity of Court costume is not only preserved, but considerably heightened.”

La Belle Assemblée, July 1820
“Court Dress of Lady Worsley Holmes worn at the first Drawing Room of George IV”

Described in the magazine as follows:
“A beautiful drawing was taken of this superb and elegant dress last month, but our Engraver disappointed us of then offering it to the public; in addition to a faithful representation of it in our Print of Fashion, the following description is offered to our fair readers. It consists of a rich white satin slip, with a fancy petticoat over it, embroidered in pearls, wheat-ears, blue chenille rosettes, and wreaths of the same. The petticoat finished at the border with a rouleau of blue gros-de-Naples, wreathed over with pearls. A robe train of blue gros-de-Naples lined throughout with white satin, trimmed all round with a rich French blond, and rouleau of gros-de-Naples, entwined with pearls, to correspond with the border of the petticoat. The body of blue gros-de-Naples, tastefully ornamented with pearls and French blond. Headdress is a magnificent plume of ostrich feathers, bandeau of diamonds, and blond court lappets.”

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Candice Hern is the author of several Regency Romance novels and an avid collector of period fashion accessories. Her newest book, Lady Be Bad, part of her popular Merry Widows series, will be released in August. Visit her website for a sneak peak at this book as well as selections from her other novels. Larger images of the gowns seen here can also befound at www.candicehern.com.

 

 

For more information on court dress, see these sources:

 

  • Nigel Arch and Joanna Marschner, Court Dress Collection, Kensington Palace, 1984.
  • Sharon Laudermilk and Teresa L. Hamlin, The Regency Companion, Garland Publiching, Inc., 1989.
  • Philip Mansel, Dressed to Rule, Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Kay Standiland, In Royal Fashion, Museum of London, 1997.

For more information on fashion prints, see these sources:

  • Alison Adburgham, Women in Print: Writing Women and Women’s Magazine from the Restoration to the Accession of Victoria, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1972.
  • Irene Dancyger, A World of Women: An Illustrated Hisotry of Women’s Magazines 1700-1970, Gill and Macmillan, 1978.
  • Madeleine Ginsburg, An Introduction to Fashion Illustration, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1980.
  • Vyvyan Holland, Hand Coloured Fashion Plates 1770-1899, Batsford, 1955.
  • Doris Langley Moore, Fashion Through Fashion Plates 1771-1970, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1971.
  • Sacheverell Sitwell and Doris Langley Moore, Gallery of Fashion 1790-1822, Batsford, 1949.
  • Cynthia L. White, Women’s Magazines 1693-1968, Michael Joseph, 1970.
  • Alison Adburgham, Women in Print: Writing Women and Women’s Magazine from the Restoration to the Accession of Victoria, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1972.

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