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An Examination of Regency Petticoats

Regency Petticoats

Regency Petticoats: What Were They Like?

A petticoat or underskirt is an article of clothing for women; specifically an undergarment to be worn under a skirt or a dress. The petticoat is a separate garment hanging from the waist (unlike the chemise which is more shirt like in nature, and hangs from the shoulders.) In historical contexts (sixteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries), petticoat refers to any separate skirt worn with a gown, bedgown, bodice or jacket; these petticoats are not, strictly speaking, underwear as they were made to be seen. In both historical and modern contexts, petticoat refers to skirt-like undergarments worn for warmth or to give the skirt or dress the desired fashionable shape.*

A highly decorative Regency petticoat, complete with shoulder straps to help it stay in place.
A highly decorative Regency petticoat, complete with shoulder straps to help it stay in place. Note the plain front and gathered back. From the Oregon Regency Society

Prior to the Regency, any number of petticoats might be worn under a gown, with the outermost layer often meant for display, like the elaborate underskirt worn in this portrait:

Madame Pompadour at her Tambour frame, 1864, by Drouais.
Madame Pompadour at her Tambour frame, 1764, by Drouais.

Naturally, these Regency petticoats would fasten at the waist, however, the connical shape of Regency gowns, not only meant a reduced number of petticoats (one to five) mostly meant to stay hidden, they also had to fasten as high as the bust to accommodate the raised waistline. Some petticoats were even “bodiced”, including a bust support, which could even be worn in lieu of stays. As in any era, having the correct underpinnings was paramount to carrying off the fashion of the day.

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Smocking: Regency Elasticity

Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his hand-writing, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in unison with her opinion of each.
-Pride and Prejudice

This 1812 fashion plate from Costume Parisien features smocking at the neck of the gown.

During the Regency the stitching style known as smocking became increasingly popular. Used for generations to add “stretch” and “elasticity” to garments, it provided yet another outlet for the creative seamstress to express herself.

The following images, provided by Kass McGann of Reconstructing History, offer a visual tutorial for creating a Regency style smocked chemisette, like the one seen in the above fashion plate.

The cloth is marked for pleats.
Crease the pleats into place.

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The Regency Engraver

engraver

The Engraver – During the Regency, and age before the dawn of photography and color printing presses, engravings, made from copper plates were one of the only ways of transferring an image to the printed page.

Anne … in walking up Milsom Street had the good fortune to meet with the Admiral. He was standing by himself, at a printshop window, with his hands behind him, in earnest contemplation of some print, and she not only might have passed him unseen, but was obliged to touch as well as address him before she could catch his notice. When he did perceive and acknowledge her, however, it was done with all his usual frankness and good humour. “Ha! is it you? Thank you, thank you. This is treating me like a friend. Here I am, you see, staring at a picture. I can never get by this shop without stopping. But what a thing here is, by way of a boat. Do look at it. Did you ever see the like? What queer fellows your fine painters must be, to think that any body would venture their lives in such a shapeless old cockleshell as that. And yet here are two gentlemen stuck up in it mightily at their ease, and looking about them at the rocks and mountains, as if they were not to be upset the next moment, which they certainly must be. I wonder where that boat was built!”
-Persuasion

Rudolph Ackerman is, perhaps, one of the most famous of the Regency Engravers, but there were many such establishments during the Regency, happy to oblige the public with a copy of the latest political cartoon or famous portrait. Fashion plates of the time were another popular use of the art, and had to be hand coloured in each journal or magazine they appeared in. The following piece, reprinted from The Book of Trades (1806) gives a glimpse into the art of the engraver:

Engraving on copper is employed in representing different subjects, as portraits, historical pieces, landscapes, &c. either after paintings, or after designs made for the purpose. It is performed either with the graver, the dry point, or with aquafortis.

The tools necessary for engraving in the first method are gravers, a scraper, burnisher, an oil-stone, a sand-bag, an oil rubber, and some good charcoal.

The gravers are instruments of ternpercd steel, fitted into a wooden handle. They are either square, or in the lozenge form; the first is used in cutting very broad strokes, and the other other for fainter and more delicate lines.

The scraper is a three-edged tool for scraping off the bur raised by the grave. Burnishers are for rubbing down lines that may be cut too deep, or for taking out any scratches or defects in the copper; they are made of hard steel, well rounded and polished. The oil-stone is for sharpening the gravers, and the oil-rubber and charcoal are for polishing the plate when necessary. The sand-bag or cushion is for laying the plate upon, for the conveniency of turning it round in any direction : this is principally used by writing-engravers.

Having the copper, tools, and drawing ready, the first thing is to lay the on the plate : for this purpose,the plate is to be covered over with a, thin skin of virgin wax ; and the drawing or picture is to be copied on paper Avitha black-lead pencil, or any matter that is free from gum : this paper is to- be laid upon the plate with its penciled side upon the wax, and pressed all over so completely, that when the paper is withdrawn the impression may remain upon the waxed plate then with a sharp-pointed tool trace the design through the wax on to the copper. The plate is now to be warmed, and the wax cleaned off; after which the engraving is to be finished by means of the gravers.

Plates such as this one from Ackerman’s Repository show the fine detail and skill of the engraver’s art.

The dry-point or needle, so called because not used till the ground is taken off the plate, is principally employed in the extremely light parts of water, sky, drapery, &c.

Etching is a method of engraving on copper, in which the lines or strokes, instead of being cut with a tool or graver, are corroded in with aquafortis or nitrous acid, and it is thus performed : the copper-plate is first warmed, and then thinly covered with varnish ; it is then to be blackened over with the smoke of a wax candle.

The ground being now laid, and suffered to cool, the next operation is to transfer the design to the plate. For this purpose, the drawing must be traced on oiled paper, with pen and ink, having some ox’s gall mixed with it. Another piece of white paper must be rubbed with flake-white, and laid on the varnished copper, with the white white side next the plate : upon this is to be put the traced oil paper, and fastened with a piece of bordering wax to the copper.

When this is done, all the lines in the tracing must be gone over with a blunt etching needle, by which means the lines will be transferred to the ground •when the papers are taken away.

The plate is now prepared for drawing through the lines which have been marked upon the ground. For this, etching points or needles are employed, leaning hard or lightly according to the degree of strength required in the lines.

Kate Greenaway’s charming prints of Regency life were engraved by firm of Edmund Evans.

A margin or border of wax is now to be formed all round the plate, to hold the aquafortis when it is poured on; where it is to be left till the operation is completed. The biting-in of the plate, as it is called, is the most uncertain part of the process, and nothing- but experience can enable a person to know when the plate is sufficiently bit.

When the acid has been on long enough to bite the lines that are to be the faintest, the aquafortis is poured off, the plate washed and dried,* and those lines that are to be made deeper must be stopped with turpentine varnish, mixed with a little lampblack, and laid on with a camel’s-hair pencil; and when thoroughly dry, the aquafortis may be poured on again, to bite the other lines that are required to be deeper.

When the biting-in is finished, the bordering wax and ground are to be taken off, the plate cleaned, and an impression taken upon paper by a copper-plate printer; which impression is called a proof.

In almost all engravings on copper that are executed in the stroke manner, etching and graving are combined; the plate being generally begun by etching, and finished with the graver. Landscapes, architecture, and machinery, are subjects that receive most assistance from the art of etching; it is not so applicable to portraits and historical designs.

The screen that is suspended before the window is to keep off’ the glare of light, which would be mischievous to the engraver’s business. The screen consists of four laths joined at their ends, and covered on both sides with silver-paper. The art of engraving is ascribed to a M3 goldsmith at Florence, who, having placed a sheet of oiled paper under a plate of silver that was engraved, and on which by accident he had laid a heavy weight, was surprised to find a complete impression of the plate on the paper.


From The Book of Trades or Library of  the Useful Arts, Part II, Illustrated with Twenty-Four Copper-Plates. The Third Edition; London; 1806