“So prettily done! Just as your drawings always are, my dear. I do not know any body who draws so well as you do. The only thing I do not thoroughly like is, that she seems to be sitting out of doors, with only a little shawl over her shoulders — and it makes one think she must catch cold.”
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 (1) — the bottom of the jacket raised to match the high waists of the current fashion– and a Regency classic was born.
The pelisse has a somewhat more mundane genesis: with the fashion of the time favoring lightweight fabrics with almost no underclothing, women were literally freezing to death. 1803 was a devastating year for the fashionable lady; a goodly number of them perished from the “muslin disease,” the popular name given a French influenza epidemic credited with carrying off scores of scantily dressed ladies who’d braved the frigid weather in little more than wispy sheaths. To counteract death by fashion, the pelisse and spencer soon became standard wear among Regency belles.
Spencers fit tightly to the body, hugging it as closely as a bodice. They could be worn either open or buttoned tightly over the bosom. They were often in a darker, contrasting color to the dress beneath. Early in the century, the spencer was a collar-less, sleeveless overblouse, that might be pulled on over the head rather than having the more standard front opening. This sleeveless garment might be worn indoors as well as out, and is sometimes referred to as a canezou or hussar vest. At this time, they were often made of white or black lace over colored sarsnet. Also prior to 1804, the spencer, though it was tight under the bosom, might have a loose `skirt’ descending to below the natural waist. After 1804, the style of spencer more familiar to Regency readers, came into vogue, usually sporting a standing collar which might be high enough to fold over; in cool weather the spencer could even be fur lined or be worn with a fur tippet or pelerine (2) over it to add warmth.
The pelisse, however, was a better choice of outerwear for cooler weather. An overdress or coat dress, the pelisse fit relatively close to the figure (though not tight) and was styled along the same high-waisted lines as the dress of the day. Pelisses were often lined or edged with fur and, in fashionable circles, more or less replaced the fur-lined cloaks of the earlier periods. (3) Pelisses were also heavily and variously trimmed with fur, swansdown, contrasting fabric, frog fastenings, etc. practically from their beginning. In May of 1810, a London Miss writes to her country sister: “Pelisses, as is usual at this season are in much request. They are chiefly composed of twill sarsnets, either shot or figured; some reaching to the feet, clasped at regular distances from the throat to the bottom; others are of a demi-length (4), rounded at the ends and confined with festooned ropes of floss silk with tassels in the center.” (Ackermann’s)
Choice of fabric for pelisses and spencers was dictated largely by the season. In the Spring months, the pelisse might be fashioned of silk, satin or light velvets; in the summer, lighter fabrics, such as sarsnet, light silks, or even muslin might be employed. Winter, of course, brought out the fur lined velvets and wools.
Colors (including prints, strips and plaids) were generally decided by the fashionable elite and styles of ornamentation and– during the years of war and conquest–were heavily influenced by things military. One fashion correspondent bemoans this custom “of drawing names (and styles) of fashions from every popular occurrence”: “Mr. Adam’s treaty with the Sublime Porte will doubtless introduce amongst our spring fashions a profusion of Turkish turbans, Janizary jackets, mosque slippers and a thousand similar whimsicalities; all of which (provided a northern coalition be accomplished) must speedily give way to Russian cloaks, hussar caps, Cossack mantles, Danish robes, &c, so that by the setting in of the dog-days, our ladies will stand a chance of being arrayed in the complete costume of all the shivering nations of the north.” (Ackermann’s April 1809) Apparently, our correspondent was not overstating his case, as proved by this letter from Brighton in October 1810: “On the beach and gay parade we see the Arabian coat, Arcadian mantle, Persian spencer, and Grecian scarf, with French cloaks and tippets…” Indeed, our Regency cousins did love anything that gave hint of the exotic.
Unfortunately for the researcher trying to get a handle on fashion trends of the era, dress was subject to rapid and undisciplined changes. Though modern day texts do attempt to report on generalities, a review of period literature shows monthly, if not weekly changes in what was au currante. As it turns out, even contemporary belles had a bit of a struggle keeping up, as one noted in January of 1810: “…at this moment a world of variety prevails…it would puzzle discrimination…to select all that is considered fashionable.” While one could say, in general, that spencers changed from long overblouses to short bolero style jackets, and pelisses went from half length open coats to long, closed coats, these were neither smooth nor absolute changes. In August of 1810 our London Miss reports that “the long pelisse is now exploded…or is only worn by a few second-rates, or as a wrap for the open carriage.” However, while this preference for short or ‘demi-long” pelisses lasted through about 1813, long pelisses continued to be featured in contemporary fashion plates, and by 1822 they were generally worn ankle length. A contemporary report says, “(pelisses) are…worn so long, that one can scarcely discern even the (hem) trimming of the gown.”
Besides the spencer, pelisse and cloak already mentioned, Regency ladies might also be seen wearing pelerines, mantles (5) and shawls. Any of these might be worn alone, or over either a spencer or pelisse to lend additional warmth. The pelerine, when used as an adjunct to the spencer, often would be made of fur. When worn alone, the pelerine as well as the mantle, were generally used in spring or summer when the milder weather made a lined, form-fitting jacket or coat too confining.
Aside from being used in spring and summer promenade costume, mantles were also popular wear for evenings out, often being presented in the contemporary fashion plates as part of a going-to-the-opera ensemble. Shawls increased in popularity throughout the early Regency. Ackermann’s Repository for June 1809 confides, “Shawls are much worn; they are admirably adapted to the promenade, as they afford, in the throw and arrangement, such fine opportunities for the display of the wearer’s taste.” As the century began, shawls were plain, one yard by one yard squares of fabric, but, as the decades advanced, they became more ornate, going from simple trims like ball fringe to elaborate embroideries of gold and silver thread. By the latter part of the Regency, shawls (though quite costly) were still often worn, but not as commonly as spencers and pelisses.(6)
It wouldn’t be fitting to leave off a narrative of Regency outerwear without mention of the Witzchoura. The Witzchoura, a fur coat with silk lining, was introduced about 1808 and was probably Russian in origin. The contemporary publications consulted for this article, did not mention the witzchoura or even the Polish version, the Witchoura (woolen coat with fur lining). However, the Witzchoura is seen regularly in fashion plates of a slightly later period. It’s possible that gentlemen wore them more frequently than ladies’ at this time.
By the time the Regency ended and the high waist descended back to its natural placement, the spencer rapidly went out of fashion. The pelisse lingered for quite a few years, but was slowly replaced by the Redingote. (7) In general, when dressing Regency heroines to go out on the promenade, wrap them in long or demi-long pelisses of sarsnet, silk, satin or velvet or in bright colored or printed spencers of the same materials. Ornament their outerwear with trimmings of cord, lace, various furs or contrasting fabric, or with gold or silver embroidery designs reminiscent of middle eastern potentates or military men. If the weather is mild or warm, artfully arrange a silk mantle edged with a deep border of lace across her shoulders, or if she’s going out to the opera on a chilly fall evening, enfold her in an ermine lined velvet robe pelisse. And while we’re at it, let’s hope her ridicule (8) is filled with crowns. She’ll need lots of the ready to wrap herself in the first stare of outdoor fashions. If she’s less than plump in the pocket, expect the poor dear to spend many an hour trimming and re-trimming the same old velvet pelisse or silk spencer to reflect the current mode.
Buy beautiful spencers and patterns at the Jane Austen Centre giftshop!
Kathy Hammel, a Godey’s collector and victorian fashion enthusiast lives in Los Angeles California with her husband Jim and two sons. Kathy started writing about victorian fashions after a layoff several years ago. Dressing Baby 1850s Style is the first part of a triology she has planned. This peice had been reprinted from The Regency Plume Volume 6, No. 3 (1996) by permission of the author. Please do not reprint without permission.
Throughout this period women were quick to embrace the jauntier masculine styles, particularly in coats and caps.
A broad collar-like cape which covers the shoulders.
In all fairness, it should be noted, that although cloaks were not considered particularly fashionable throughout the Regency, they were still worn, particularly in carriages. There was also a robe pelisse or wrapping coat that was a cross between a pelisse and a cloak.
Half length. These short pelisses were sometimes called “Cossack coats.”
A short (hip- or thigh-length) cape.
However, shortly after the Regency ended, both spencers and pelisses were rapidly fading. Shawls, however, enjoyed a major resurgence a few years later.
French interpretation of the English “riding coat” which first became popular in the 18th Century for both men and women. By the 1820s, the redingote had evolved into a long, fitted coat with a shaped waist and broad collar.
Often called a reticule. While `reticule’ was the proper name for a lady’s purse in later times, duing the Regency it is consistenly referred to as a ridicule.
Primary Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics, 1809-1816, 1822, London.
Lady’s Magazine or Entertaining Companion to the Fair Sex, Appropriated Solely to Their Use and Amusement., 1808, London.
Lady’s Monthly Museum or Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction: Being an assemblage of whatever can tend to please the Fancy, interest the Mind or exalt the Character of the British Fair., 1802-4; 1806-7, London.
Secondary Barton, Lucy, Historic Costume for the Stage, Walter H. Baker Co., Boston 1963.
Bigelow, Marybelle S., Fashion in History, Burgess Publishing Co., 1970.
Cunnington, C. Willett, English Women’s clothing in the Nineteenth Century, Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1958.
Kohler, Carl, A History of Costume, David McKay Co., Philadelphia, 1930?.
Kybalova, L, et al, The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Fashion, Hamblyn Publishing by Crown Publishers, Inc, NY 1972 (3rd Edition).
Picken, Mary Brooks, “The Language of Fashion,” A Dictionary and Digest of Fabric, Serwig & Dress, Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1939.
Sage, Elizabeth, A Study of Costume, Chas. Scribner’s Sons, NY 1926.
Tortora, Phyllis & Eubank, Keith, A Survey of Historic Costume, Fairchild Publications, 1989.
Rothstein, Natalie (Ed., Victoria and Albert Museum), A Lady of Fashion: Barbara Johnson’s Album of Styles and Fabrics, Thames & Hudson, London 1987.
Walkup, Fairfax Proudfit, Dressing the Part: A History of Costume for the Theatre, F.S. Crofts & Co, NY, 1938.
Wilcox, R. Turner, The Mode in Costume, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1944.