The Jane Austen Festival in Louisville is fast approaching! Are you looking to amp up your Regency costuming experience? Maybe you love the festival, but have never dressed up. Maybe you made a dress last year, and are now intrigued by the whole idea and want to know how to make it more authentic. Maybe you’ve been inspired by the outfits you’ve seen at the festival, or in photos, but you don’t know where to start. Maybe you’re coming for the first time, and just want to jump in headfirst.
Whichever, if any, of these describes you, I’m here to help!
On the surface, Regency era clothing seems simple: empire waist dress, hair in bun, bonnet, slippers, done. And that’s all fine! I’m not here to tell anyone they can’t have fun in the basics. Costuming for an event like the Jane Austen Festival is all about finding an outfit that makes you feel comfortable and happy so that you can enjoy yourself! But if you’re ready to dig deeper, there’s so much more to Regency fashion than the basic sketch. I’m here to guide you through and help you get the most out of the six weeks (yikes!) that we all have left to get ready for the Festival this year!
1. Which part of the Regency?
While technically the actual Regency of Prince George for his father, the infamous Mad King George, lasted from 1811-1820, for the purposes of fashion, we usually look at a larger period. Using a broader definition of the Regency, from around 1790-1820, makes particular sense when we’re talking Jane Austen since, though her publishing history all lies within the political Regency, several of her books were written, and are probably set, earlier.
So we’re looking at a thirty-year period from 1790-1820. Fashion, even if the basic forms remain similar, can change a whole heck of a lot in thirty years, as any three decades of the 20th century can tell us, and there’s no one item of clothing that was fashionable through all thirty years, except maybe your stockings and shawl.
We begin in the early 1790s, when the fashionable silhouette still has as much in common with what we think of as 18th century fashion as it does with any part of the early 19th. The waist is still more natural, expanding into a large volume around the hips, with a large “pigeon-breast” created by a voluminous handkerchief wrapped around the shoulders and stuffed into the front of the dress.
Despite the silhouette, however, you can see how this fashion is moving away from the stiff, heavy under-structure of the mid 18th century, and towards the lighter, more diaphanous fabrics we associate with the Regency period.
As we move through the decade, you can see how wide ruching at the waist, or a wide sash, both of which cinch in the fluffy volume of fabric above and below the waist, begin to create the appearance of a higher waistline. As fashion moves forward, this separating band between skirt and bodice will grow smaller and smaller until it creates the empire silhouette we all know and love. Hairstyles, however are still the fluffy confections with dangling curls that we have been seeing since the 1780s. Keep an eye on those turban-like headdresses, though. Those are coming forward in time with us.
By the time we hit the late 1790s, the silhouette has come to distinctly resemble our basic mental picture of “Regency.” Here is the empire waist, the bonnet, the short Spencer jacket. But here we can also see the continuing influence of the 18th century. The skirt is still heavily gathered and voluminous, though some of the under-structure and padding that gave it its shape even a few years ago are gone. There is still a hint of the pigeon breast, which will hang on for several more years before a new bust shape takes its place.
Now we come into the early 19th century, and the Empire silhouette really starts to come into its own. The skirts, while still full and gathered all the way around the waist, have less and less support underneath, so they have become drapier, and more column-like, with elegant trains or ‘sweeps’ at the back. The hair is shrinking down as well, though it tends to retain the frizzy curl of the late 18th century, reworked into a different shape.
As we continue on into the 1800s, the skirts are becoming narrower in the front, with the volume beginning to concentrate at the back. This trend will continue through the rest of the period. You can also see examples of small hem decorations. The woman on the left has a braid of fabric around her hem, while the woman on the right seems to have embroidery. Notably, one of the dresses has lost its train, making it more convenient for walking. The busts are losing the rounded, pigeon shape, and beginning to migrate higher in order to make way for ever-higher waistlines. The hair is small and contained at the back of the head.
In the late 18-aughts, the trend of “lift-and-separate” as the fashion for bust shape is really beginning to take off, though you can still see a natural amount of chest and collarbone above the bust. You can also see that the skirt volume has completed its migration to the back of the dresses, creating an elegant sweep even without the added length and weight of a train. Hemlines have risen enough to show most of the foot. We are also seeing much more pattern and color than we have in the gowns up until now. These ladies are demonstrating both an evening look with very small short sleeves, and long gloves, and a walking dress with long, narrow sleeves topped by sleeve caps that mimic the short sleeves.
As we move into the early 18-teens, you can see that the bust has risen considerably above where it was even four years ago, and is beginning to encroach on the collarbone. This lift is created by the long stays of the period, and will become even more pronounced as the decade goes on. The waist, however, has not yet migrated up to meet the higher bust line. The hem of the skirt is beginning to widen towards and A-line shape, but there are still minimal petticoats underneath, so it retains its fluid drape. The front of the hair is growing slightly more elaborate, but most of the hair is still concentrated at the back of the head, so we cannot see the style from the front.
Now we come to the part of the Regency in which I usually live. As the 18-teens move along, embellishments become more and more elaborate, with hem decorations ranging anywhere from a single ruffle to an elaborate confection that nearly reaches the knees. Long sleeves were very fashionable for day wear, and sometimes for evening dress. The narrow sleeves with larger cap were still around, especially on outerwear, but even more prevalent were large, loose sleeves, gathered in at the wrist, such as the extremely elaborate ones on this fashion plate. For Louisville in July, I absolutely love these sleeves. Made from a lightweight cotton, they keep the sun off while acting like an enormous fan on your arm. Day dresses are often made with high necklines, accented with elaborate ruffs or lace collars.
Waistlines are as high as they can get without actually migrating above the bust, and in order to make this possible, ‘the girls’ are hoisted as high as a good pair of stays can get them, with virtually no flat collarbone/sternum area between bust and neck.
See how the skirt appears stiffer here than in our 1812 example? The volume continues to grow at the hem, and it is now supported by several layers of petticoats stiffened with tucks or ruffles and starch. Hemlines are rising still more, and dresses in this part of the Regency often show the entire ankle. The bow at the back of her waist is highly fashionable in the mid-18-teens, and her hairstyle is now sitting on the crown of her head. This fashion in hair also affected the fashionable bonnets, which had to grow high crowns in order to accommodate the style.
And here in the late teens, the Regency style is cresting its wave, and about to move on into the lower waistlines, wide shoulders, and enormous, bell-shaped skirts of the Romantic era. The waistline is still high in the late-teens, but won’t remain so for long, as the fashion began to move lower and lower over the next several years. The decoration is still elaborate, but the hem is widening yet more, and dropping down to cover more of the leg, though shorter styles remained in vogue for dancing. The bonnet is growing even more, and the brim is not only wide, but very tall and open, creating an oval frame around the face. Underneath, the hair is still high on the head, and the styles are getting wider.
The change over the course of the Regency period is gradual, with one style leading gently into another, bit by bit, but over the course of thirty years, these gradual changes add up into a vast difference in style from one end to the other. Compare our first image with the last one: the two are vastly different, and yet clear, minor changes, year by year, led from one to the other, and both looks are beautifully appropriate for the Jane Austen Festival, although the last image is from two years after her death.
You can see from this timeline how important it is to narrow your look down to a specific point within the broader Regency period. A gown from 1792, with a spencer from 1812, and a hat from 1818 would all look very strange together, because each of these pieces of clothing co-developed with one another as time went on. The 1812 spencer is perfectly suited to complement an 1812 gown. A dress from 1790 looks beautiful with its own understructure of false rump and petticoats, but very odd with the minimal underskirts of 1808. A tall 1819 hairstyle would be destroyed by the neat little hats of 1804.
Though it may seem limiting, narrowing yourself down will make coming up with an outfit much easier. Looking at images from the whole of the period can get extremely overwhelming, but once you have picked a year, or at least a small period of 3-4 years, it will become a lot easier to make decisions. It will also ensure that each part of your outfit complements the rest, and you will look like you stepped right out of a fashion plate.
There are many ways to pick which bit of the Regency you would like to interpret. The most obvious is to pick the part that you find most attractive, or that you think will look best on you. If this doesn’t help, start by thinking about your favorite Austen book, when was it written? Published? When does it take place? Would you like to bring to life the heyday of Jane’s youth in the 1790s, or would you prefer to live for the weekend as one of the public who first got to enjoy her works in the 18-teens?
Once you have figured out when you want to be, there are several other factors that will help you in creating the perfect outfit.
2. What time of day is it? What sort of activities will you be doing?
Throughout the course of the Regency, day and evening dress differ. Women tended to be mostly covered from neck to feet during the daytime, while evening dress tended towards lower necklines, and more bare arms. Fabrics also differ. Day dresses are mostly cotton or linen depending on status and the exact time period, while both silk and cotton were fashionable in the evening. As with everything, there are no set rules that apply to the entire period. Use your chosen date or date range to guide your research.
Think about what you might be doing–if you are planning to attend the ball, do you want to dance, or simply to observe and play cards? If you are dancing, you will need to think about how your dress will affect that. Is there a train that needs to be pinned up? If you are interpreting a part of the period where shorter hemlines were in vogue, I would advise that you take full advantage of that for your evening gown. If you do not plan to dance, explore the wonderful world of “evening dresses”, “opera dresses”, and “dinner dresses” to provide the event with a bit of variety. Not every dress worn in the evening needs to be a ball dress.
For daytime, a walking dress or promenade dress is the obvious choice for strolling through the shops of Meryton and taking tea with friends, but it is not the only choice. Are you a sporting lady? Consider the fun of an archery dress, or the elegant simplicity of a riding habit.
If you are interpreting the mid-late 18-aughts, you may want to wear a short sleeve with long gloves for day time. If you are looking to the 18-teens, consider a long, loose sleeve. Remember the two part sleeves from earlier, with the narrow long sleeve topped by a puffy short sleeve? Those long sleeves can simply be basted to the band of the short sleeve, so that they can be removed if you would like to wear the dress with short sleeves for evening-wear.
Plenty of people won’t want to make two different dresses for day and evening, especially if you only dress in Regency clothes once or twice a year. Don’t worry, there are plenty of options to make a single dress do double duty. Many Regency dresses have low-necklines, with the necks filled in by any number of things during the day. In the very early Regency, this might be a large square or triangular handkerchief. Later on, you could wear a light fichu (a smaller, usually triangular or modified triangle-shaped scarf that either tucks into, or sits atop the neckline of your gown). Later still, the chemisette comes into fashion. This is an undergarment much like a dicky which closes around the neck, and ties under the bustline, worn with any number of interesting collars or ruffs. It’s relative, the habit shirt, also has sleeves, and is lovely with a jumper-style gown.
In the evening, simply remove your fichu, chemisette, etc… and you have a whole new look.
The same thing can also be achieved with an outer garment. During the day, you can cover your bodice with a spencer (short jacket) or pelisse (long coat). These can be made of light materials so as not to add too much heat, and the pelisse can be left open down the skirt front. Both can add a lot of fun to your outfit. By changing out fichus, chemisettes, spencers, and pelisses, you can have a different outfit for each day of the festival out of a single gown.
Ok, you know when in the Regency you want to be, and you know what time of day or activities you are dressing for. What more planning could you need?
3. Personalize it!
Don’t just stop at “What year?”, “Day or Night?”–you won’t really feel comfortable in your outfit unless it feels like ‘yours’. Think about your Regency persona–this can just be an interpretation of your own personality, or you can choose or make up a character to be while you’re dressed up. Ask yourself some questions:
- What class are you from? Are you a Bennett? A Bertram? A Smith? Or are you a Mrs. Hill? Wealthy, poor, or somewhere in between?
- What do you like to do? Would you rather lounge around in a morning dress à la Lady Bertram, or traipse about the countryside?
- What is your personality like? Are you a Mary, or a Lydia? Introverted or extroverted? Plain, practical clothing, or daring frippery? Perfectly appropriate to any occasion? Likely to make a gaffe?
- What are you attracted to? Piles of ribbons, oodles of ruffles and lace, or sleek, clean lines?
- How old are you? Does this affect how fashion forward you are? Are you nostalgic for the past, or do you still love to keep up with the latest styles?
- What do you (or your character) want to show the world? Are you Lady Catherine, determined to project power and control? Fanny Price, always happier to fade into the background? Mrs Weston–suddenly thrust into a higher rank of life, or Miss Elliott–desperate to embody a level of wealth you no longer possess?
There are no wrong answers to these questions, simply use them to direct your research and help you narrow down an idea of what you, or your character, might have worn in this period. Looking at portraits and genre paintings from the time is a great way to get a sense of what people of different classes and personalities were wearing.
Look at the paintings below. What do the ways the subjects have chosen to be portrayed make you think about them?
This part has been a basic overview of the period, with some tips on how to make your outfit specific to the period, and right for you. Next time, we will look at some of the details that make a Regency outfit really come to life!