Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Layers of Regency Dress - Vivienne

I started reading Regencies in High School when I fell in love with Sense & Sensibility (the Emma Thompson & Kate Winslet version). I read Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey shortly after. Around my junior year, I also discovered Amanda Quick and devoured as many of her Regency romances as I could find.

One of the things I like about writing Regency and watching the lovely Austen-based films is the clothing. There was a move away from the elaborate, flamboyant excess of the 18th century toward simplicity and cleanliness. Gone were the brightly colored jacquard and damask silks and heavy powders and perfumes (to cover up the fact that no one bathed).

It was under the influence of Beau Brummel that simple, elegant men's suits became popular. Women moved away from the rigid structure and large dresses of the 17th and 18th centuries. The silhouette was softer and--comparatively speaking--the dresses were barely there.

But what went over and under the thin muslin gowns that were popular during this period?


(This is in order of being worn rather than alphabetical order.) *Note that all images link back to their original source.

Chemise - This was a basic white linen or cotton shift on top of which everything else was worn. (Think of the most basic short sleeved pull over white nightgown with no buttons)

Stays - Stays are basically a corset, but many times would be shorter than a traditional corset. I've seen some long ones and I've seen super short ones that are sort of like a bra. Essentially, the Regency version of a corset was designed to push up the breasts and flatten the front.

This image from Sense & Sensibility patterns shows a chemise and the short stays.

Busk - The busk is a little piece of wood that you stick down the front of your stays which helps keep the front of your dress straight under the bust. Obviously, you'd only have a busk if you wore longer stays.

You can see from this picture that there is a long white space in the middle, which is where the busk would go.

Drawers & Pantalettes - Ladies drawers were considered very risque because they were made to look like men's pants/underwear. Technically they came to fashion in 1806, but not everyone wore them (I think they were more common in the later Regency). Drawers were basically two short leg coverings and were tied around the waist with strings, leaving the necessary bits open for ease of using the privy/chamberpot. Pantalettes were drawers that were more decorative and designed to be seen, in case a lady should lift her skirt or stretch out her legs. Some women wore drawers instead of a petticoat.

This is a basic set of drawers.

Petticoat - Over the stays/corset, a lady would wear a petticoat. The petticoat is a long, basic white skirt. However, the importance of a petticoat cannot be overstated. Regency women liked dresses made of thin cotton muslin, which shows pretty much everything. If there wasn't a petticoat (or drawers) under the chemise and dress, your favorite Regency lady would look like a prostitute.

Stockings - Stockings were often white and made of silk, wool, or cotton. They were short (think knee-highs) and were tied off with garters just below or just above the knee. Some women might embroider their stockings.

Gown/Dress - There are different dresses for different times of day and different activities. So insert the appropriate dress here. Dresses might be made of cotton/muslin, silk, satin or velvet. White was one of the most popular colors of the period, though there were also patterned dresses. Remember that the muslin of the Regency was a thin, loosely woven fabric (think of something like chiffon or a lose batiste or thin, sheer cotton lingerie). Many gowns were low cut and designed to emphasize the bust.

Fichu - This might be worn over or under a Regency lady's gown for cool weather or for modesty. It is a triangular piece of fabric that might be tucked into the gown or worn over it as a shawl. Some were simple and sheer and looked a lot like a handkerchief, while others were frilly and elaborate. Most of the ones I've seen were white cotton or lace, but there are examples of printed fabrics and knitted fichus.

In this example, an 18th century lady has a fichu tucked into her dress.

Spencer - This a short jacket worn over a dress, usually made of a thicker material such as velvet or wool. It basically covers the bust and arms.

Here Elizabeth Bennet (played by Jennifer Ehle) is wearing a basic spencer as she walks with the dashing Mr. Wickham.

Pelisse - This was a long, fitted (in most cases) outer garment that was worn over a dress. Originally, it was a fur lined coat or cloak, but in the Regency, it might also be a thick silk long jacket that could be worn at a party. In the winter, this would be a woman's version of a greatcoat and would be made of a heavy fabric, such as wool or velvet, and lined with fur. In the summer, it might be a silk coat or it might be an over-garment that was worn as part of the dress.

This pelisse from 1811 is lined with fur.

This is an example of an indoor pelisse that would be made of a lighter fabric.

Reticule - A reticule is a small purse. It might be a simple satin bag or it might be embroidered and decorated. Many examples have drawstrings.

Here is an example of an embroidered reticule.

These are the basic items of a Regency lady's costume. I did not include cloaks (most of us know what a basic cloak looks like) and riding habits (which are special dresses designed for riding a horse). And of course, no lady's costume would be complete without hats, gloves, and shoes.


  1. Interesting and informative post, Vivienne. So glad I don't have to go through that every morning. I hardly have time to grab a shower and throw on jeans and a t-shirt.

  2. It is one of the reasons that women from the Renaissance to the Edwardian period needed a ladies' maid. While looking up pictures for this article, I ran across a really entertaining blog post on a lady's toilette (circa 18th century), which basically explained how the morning ritual was a long affair with bathing, dressing, having breakfast, entertaining guests, having her hair done, etc.

    Other than the bathing, it wasn't quite as private of a ritual as we might assume (if any of you have seen Marie Antoinette, you'll know what I mean as there is at least one scene of the queen getting up and having a crowd of people in the room to get her ready). While I'm not sure women in the Regency went to the same excesses as women of the 1700s, I do think the modern notion of privacy is probably something we got from the Victorians.

  3. Wasn't the Regency period during the 'Mini Ice Age"? This would explain why they could wear so many layers. It was much cooler in the summers. I sweat thinking of the wool jackets and layers of clothing.

  4. Wool would primarily be used during the winter time. It was more likely that you'd be in a dress with just a spencer or fichu/shawl during the summer. Also remember that the gowns would be VERY thin and fine, easy to tear (imagine a fine sheer silk scarf).

    I think you are right that the weather was colder than it is now. Some years, like the year in which my book is set (1816), were especially cold. 1816 was often called "the year without summer" because of a volcanic explosion in 1815 which negatively affected the climate in Europe. Many crops failed and even at times when the weather was fair, it was a few degrees cooler. It even snowed at Easter, which was a surprise at the time.

  5. Very informative post. The pictures were helpful, too.

  6. I can't imagine walking around with a piece of wood running down my torso- ouch!

  7. This is a wonderful breakdown! Love it. Thanks for the info.

  8. Serena, most women would have worn the short stays, which are more like a bra (see the first picture). The longer stays would be for an overweight woman or maybe if you wore it for a special occasion). But either way, think of the fact that the Regency costume is more comfortable and flexible than the 18th century dress with a farthingale and long corset and much less restrictive than a Victorian woman's dress which would include a shift, full corset, drawers/pantalettes, petticoats, bustle, and hoop skirt (crinoline). Put in perspective, Regency dress would have been very liberating for women of the time.

    I read an article by a woman who does Regency reproductions and she said that the busk was surprisingly comfortable, but something about the way it went in made the stays ride up. Also, my guess is a busk is probably more comfortable than whale bone, which is what they used to line the sides and back of Renaissance corsets.

    The busk also has it's own history with it either being given to a woman by a man courting her or being given to the man by the woman as a prize indicating her interest in him.

    All in all, I'd go with the Regency costume if I had to wear historical dress every day, though I love the silhouette of late Victorian dresses around the 1880s and 1890s. By that time, the crinoline was much smaller though, so you didn't have that gigantic hoop that could probably fit three or four people underneath it.