Everyone is familiar with the Empire waists and Grecian silhouette of the early 19th century. The classic styles and light fabrics were, no doubt, a relief from the heavily embroidered fashions of previous centuries. This simplification, which began during the French Revolution, transformed the fashion industry. Waists were raised to just below the bosom; sleeves were shortened and puffed; skirts became narrowed and elegant. Clean lines had come into vogue.
While these elements fluctuated during the next twenty years, the look remained much the same. Fabrics such as cotton prints and muslin replaced rich brocades and velvets. White was the color of choice. The desired effect was “Girlhood Innocence.” Cathy Decker, a fashion historian, has collected many original fashion plates from the early 1800’s, and has made them available for viewing on her website, The Regency Fashion Page.
Costume designers for the recent Austen films have carefully studied period plates to provide viewers with a smorgasbord of historically accurate ensembles. One of the most famous designers, twice Oscar-nominated Jenny Beaven, created fashions for both Sense and Sensibility and A&E’s Emma. Dinah Collins’ gowns in Pride and Prejudice are stunning, though the necklines are a little low for the projected time period. Alexandra Byrne, costume designer for Persuasion, gets the most praise for period correctness. Her fashions, from the opulence of the titled elite to the humblest fisherman’s wife, appear close to perfect.
In 1996, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion vied for the Best Costume Design BAFTA. Similar to an Oscar, the BAFTA is awarded by the British Academy of Film and Television Awards. Persuasion won.
With all these sources of inspiration, it’s easy to desire your own Regency ensemble. The hardest part is deciding how to get started. Jessamyn Reeves-Brown has created a fascinating page full of links to resources, tips, fashion plates and historical information. Jennie Chancey, a noted seamstress, designed what many call the easiest Regency gown pattern. Her site, Sense and Sensibility Creations, is a treasure-trove of information, help and links. Her patterns can be purchased from the site. One other site, Austentation, focuses on Regency fashion accessories– hats, bonnets and reticules. They supply a list of most of the Regency gown patterns available, along with other period costumes, seamstresses, supply sources and historical information.
Originally printed in the JASNA-NY Newsletter, Spring 2002. Reprinted and modified with permission from the author. For a complete study of Jane Austen film fashion, read Jennie Chancey’s article at Celluloid Wrappers.