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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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Tambour Work

During the Regency era there were any number of ways to embellish a gown, from printing or painting directly on the fabric, to adding lace and other accents, or even embroidery. One method of embroidery, Tambour Work, was especially popular for it’s ease of application. Tambour is French for drum, and refers to the method of creating the embroidery.

According to Jessamyn Reeves Brown”s Costume Companion,

Tambour work was at least as popular as embroidery and was faster to produce. The fabric to be worked was stretched on a large frame held on a stand, and the lady used a hook like a tiny, sharp crochet hook to punch through the fabric and create a chain stitch. The result is almost indistinguishable from embroidered chain stitch except that it is so very fine and even, and the work goes more quickly. Tambour work is still used on couture clothing today.

Fine muslins were perfect for tambouring because the loose weave was easy to punch through without damaging. Most work of the era was white-on-white; subtle, but the translucency of the muslin contrasted with the opacity of the tambouring. In addition to tambouring their dresses, fine ladies tamboured fichus (neckcloths), shawls (not very warm, but pretty), reticules, and more.

By the 1830’s, machines had been created which could produce tambour work fabric 140 times faster than the average seamstress. Professional tambour artists were out of a job, and the ladies of leisure soon found other hand crafts to occupy their time and talents. Victorian tastes drifted away from the delicate details of the previous era and the art was virtually forgotten for a time.

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Sew a Regency Gown

The caption on this lovely regency gown reads, “Dress of sheer white India muslin. The dress has a short train and is embroidered with gold threads of various weights in a running vine-like pattern with occasional single flowers. The workmanship is exquisite. The fabric is so fine–almost a gauze– it seems impossible that it can hold the metal thread.”

As we noted last month, the following pattern should be attempted only by experienced sewers. The illustration shows an embroidered gown of Indian Muslin. It is possible to make this with the included pattern– but only after enlarging it (click on the pattern to see it full size, and ready to print) to the size indicated. So go ahead– what are you waiting for? Create a dress the way Jane Austen’s would have been made!


 

 

 


Patterns are available at our online shop! Click here to browse our costume section.

Reprinted from Masterpieces of Women’s Costume of the 18th and 19th Centuries; Bernstein, Aline; Crown Publishers Inc, New York, 1959.

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Weddings During the Regency Era

regency era wedding

Weddings During the Regency Era

The bride was elegantly dressed; the two bridesmaids were duly inferior; her father gave her away; her mother stood with salts in her hand, expecting to be agitated; her aunt tried to cry; and the service was impressively read by Dr Grant.
Mansfield Park

Say the word “wedding” and most of us think about a bride dressed all in white, half a dozen brides maids (or more), a big bash with loads of guests and a huge cake. But what kind of weddings where common during the Regency era and Jane Austen’s lifetime? Did the bride wear white?

A Family Affair

Royal weddings tend to be big and there was no exception when Princess Charlotte married Prince Leopold in 1816.

As we have been gratified with a sight of the wedding dresses of this amiable and illustrious female, a particular yet concise account of them cannot but be acceptable to our fair readers.

The Royal Bride, happy in obtaining him whom her heart had selected, and whom consenting friends approved, wore on her countenance that tranquil and chastened joy which a female so situated could not fail to experience. Her fine fair hair, elegantly yet simply arranged, owed more to its natural beautiful wave than to the art of the friseur; it was crowned with a most superb wreath of brilliants, forming rosebuds with their leaves.

Her dress was silver lama [lamé] on net, over a silver tissue slip, embroidered at the bottom with silver lama in shells and flowers. Body and sleeves to correspond, elegantly trimmed with point Brussels lace. The manteau was of silver tissue lined with white satin, with a border of embroidery to answer that on the dress, and fastened in front with a splendid diamond ornament. Such was the bridal dress …

The jewellery of the royal bride is most superb; beside the wreath, are a diamond cestus, ear- rings, and an armlet of great value, with a superb set of pearls. The court dresses worn by the royal family and nobility on this occasion were particularly splendid; we are sorry our limits will not allow us to enter into particulars, but we cannot forbear noticing the singular taste and elegance, displayed in the superb lama dress, so beautifully wrought with silver lilies, of the Marchioness of Cholmondeley; we have never before witnessed so charming a combination of classical taste, splendour, and touching simplicity.
La Belle Assemblee (May 1816)

However, most weddings in Jane Austen’s time were private, family affairs. Even fashionable weddings at the church of choice of the day were but sparingly attended, usually only by close relatives or, if in the village church, by the local inhabitants. The bride did have a few attendants, mainly unmarried younger sisters or cousins. The groom commonly had his best man and the witnesses, of course. Usually the bride’s parents attended,as well.

What about the lavish party? Well, there wasn’t always one! Consider Charlotte Lucas’ wedding day in Pride and Prejudice,”The wedding took place; the bride and bridegroom set off for Kent from the church door.”

Most weddings were performed in church after the reading of banns. Unless the couple had a license the ceremony had to be performed in church before lunch time (hence the popularity of the Wedding Breakfast!).

The very rich, like the De Bourghs and the Darcys, would sometimes marry by special license in the family drawing room but it was very costly. Ever socially conscious, Mrs. Bennet exclaims over Mr. Darcy’s fortune, “Ten thousand a year, and very likely more! ‘Tis as good as a Lord! And a special licence! You must and shall be married by a special licence!”

According to Henry Churchyard of the Jane Austen Information Page, “All of Jane Austen’s couples would have been married according to the ceremony taken from the Church of England Book of Common Prayer; Emma Woodhouse refers to the part in which “N. takes M.” for her wedded husband “for better, for worse”. This “Form of Solemnization of Matrimony” has remained almost entirely unchanged from 1662 to the present.”

Bridal Fashions

How common the white wedding dress was during the Regency era is hard to say, but we have some reasons to suspect that it was more prevalent than many may think. Although no bridal fashion prints survive from before 1813, paintings of wedding scenes, such as Highmore’s 1743 illustration for Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, do depict brides in white. Veils seems to have become popular somewhat later in the century so most brides either wore flowers in their hair, a cap or sometimes a hat.

When Jane Austen’s niece Anna married Benjamin Lefroy in 1814, she wore “a dress of fine white muslin, and over it a soft silk shawl, white shot with primrose, with embossed white-satin flowers, and very handsome fringe, and on her head a small cap to match, trimmed with lace.”*

Although bouquets and flowers with personal meanings came into vogue during the Victorian era, flowers and herbs have been used in weddings since the beginning of time as a way of showing love and well wishes to everyone. The first recorded use of wedding flowers dates back to the ancient Greeks. Flowers and plants were used to make a crown for the bride to wear and were considered a gift of nature. Bridesmaids would make the floral decorations including garlands, bridal bouquet and boutonniere.+

Wedding Announcements

The newspaper announcement was, perhaps, the most socially important part of the wedding. Jane Austen, herself, once wrote, “The latter writes me word that Miss Blackford is married, but I have never seen it in the papers, and one may as well be single if the wedding is not to be in print.”

“I suppose you have heard of it; indeed, you must have seen it in the papers. It was in the Times and the Courier, I know; though it was not put in as it ought to be. It was only said, ‘Lately, George Wickham Esq., to Miss Lydia Bennet,’ without there being a syllable said of her father, or the place where she lived, or anything. It was my brother Gardiner’s drawing up too, and I wonder how he came to make such an awkward business of it. Did you see it?”

 


 

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Yvonne Forsling is a culitvator of exoctic Hibiscus and Regency Enthusiast. Visit her site, Yvonne’Space for a look into her passions and talents. Further discussion of Regency colour, as well as many other period plates can be found in the Regency Section of her website.

*Reminiscences by Caroline Austen
+ From Love to Know: Weddings

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Make A Regency Gown

 

In an age before preprinted patterns, dressmakers would look at the illustration of a gown in a fashion plate or magazine and make a pattern based on the picture. If they were lucky, a fashion doll (not unlike Barbie,for so many of us!) would be available wearing a small representation of the fashionable style, which the seamstress could then study to better understand the construction of the gown. “Draping a Toile” was the term used when the seamstress created a pattern by simply draping and pinning inexpensive fabric to create a sample of the dress, from which the actual gown can be made. A “toile” was simply the mock up of the gown before it was finished.

The following pattern should be attempted only by experienced sewers. The illustration shows a blue and white striped silk gown with velvet appliqué. It is possible to make this with the included pattern– but only after enlarging it (click on the pattern to see it full size, and ready to print) to the size indicated…and “draping a toile”. So go ahead– what are you waiting for? Create a dress the way Jane Austen’s would have been made!

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Period Costuming: Finding That ‘Regency Look’

 

Regency Dress for the Modern Occasion

This Evening Ensemble was researched, designed and constructed by Yvonne Roe, Gloucester. It is on display at the Jane Austen Centre. What to wear to the Ball? This age old question has tormented women for centuries. If you’ve ever been invited to an event requiring period costuming the question becomes all that much more difficult.

When period dress is encouraged for the occasion, it is often, by no means demanded. It is more important to come to the party than to spend all evening worrying about what to wear. When attending a function that includes dancing, comfort would suggest full skirted dresses (or a skirt and blouse) and flat soled shoes. A step up from that would be a formal or semi-formal evening wear. Now would be a perfect time to pull out that bridesmaids dress or prom gown you’ve been storing.

David's Bridal The basic components of a Regency gown are a floorlength (or slightly shorter) dress with raised waistline, and short (puffed) or elbow-length (striaght) sleeves. Accessories include gloves (elbow or opera length) shawls, fans, and any headpiece you might want to add. Headbands, turbans, feathers, flowers and ribbons were traditionally used. Jewelry of the time included pearls, coral, precious and semi-precious stones.

In order to obtain a period appropriate gown, you can purchase a Regency type dress, have a gown made for you or make one yourself. Fortunately, with Jane Austen’s popularity at an all time high, Regency styled dresses have come back into style. Check your local Wedding Gown supplier (like David’s Bridal), Department Store (J.C. Penney, Harrods, etc.) or thrift store for an acceptable update. There are also many seamstresses available on-line.

Many seamstresses own Regency Gown patterns already. For those that don’t, a few lists are posted at Austentation: Sewing History (These patterns are available in most fabric departments in the United States- Jo-Anns, Wal-Mart, Hancocks, etc.) and Online Resources.

Period Impressions Fabrics suitable for gowns range anywhere from cotton prints and stripes to silk or satin. Truly authentic gowns are fastened with buttons (preferably covered), not zippers as suggested in most commercial patterns. Try a corset or boned Chemise for that extra bit of “uplift”. These can be bought or made – there are many such patterns available on the lists provided.

The most important part is to come and have a good time.

Written for JASNA-CT. Their first Assembly Ball is scheduled for March 9, 2002, in Chester, Connecticut. Visit their site, www.jasnact.org, for further details.

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