If you’ve read Leveling Up Your Regency Look: Part 1, then you’re all ready to start building your Regency ensemble. You’ve figured out which part of the Regency you want to represent, and you’ve thought about how time of day, social situation, activities, and character might affect the way you dress.
In this part, I will go through my best advice for building a Regency ensemble. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of garment construction and sewing here. For that you can look through some of the project diaries in the Regency section of the Projects menu above. In this post I want to talk about the details and steps that can help bring your Regency outfit to life. These are the things that can take the plain, white, empire-waist dress that is our cultural mental image of the Regency, and make it truly look like you just walked out of the period.
1. Start with the Undergarments
In Part 1, we talked about garment structures, and how they changed throughout the Regency period. All those varied bust and skirt shapes are not merely the result of a certain cut of dress; the dresses work with the undergarments to create the fashionable silhouette.
You can see how these two elegant ladies would find it very difficult to swap dresses without swapping underthings as well:
The first silhouette, from 1796, shows a natural waistline, with with a natural bustline somewhere around the upper arm. The skirt is full, and supported out away from the wearer’s body.
The second silhouette, from 1810, is drastically different: the waistline is high, and the bust more in line with the shoulders than the upper arm. The skirt is narrow, flat across the front, and clings much more than the first around the hips and legs.
So what all goes under there?
The under-most garment of all is your chemise. This is the Regency equivalent of an undershirt. It is a garment worn next to the skin, and is basically there to a) protect the wearer from any pinching or squeezing from her stays, and more importantly b) protect the outer garments from sweat and oils. It’s not a garment that adds much to the silhouette, but it is very important for keeping you comfortable.
Although sleeve lengths varied, chemises remained largely the same throughout this period: loose fitting, usually around knee length, with either a fixed or drawstring neckline and sleeve gussets in the armpits.
On top of the chemise come arguably the most important piece in your Regency wardrobe: the stays. Many people think of the “natural” look of the Regency being achieved without any shapewear, but not so! While many Regency stays are certainly more minimal than corsets and stays from other periods, they provide shaping that is absolutely essential to achieving your desired silhouette.
As the changing bust shapes and waist placement of the period make evident, there is no one pair of stays that will get you from 1790 all the way up to 1820. The stays of the early 1790s are very similar to what we see in the rest of the 18th century: conically shaped, but shorter than those from earlier in the century.
Through the 1790s and early 1800s, we see all sorts of interesting forms as fashion went through the shift from 18th century to early 19th. For the most part, these consist of stays with bust gussets which extend several inches below the bust in order to provide support underneath and help lift the bust. The gussets are the key here–they separate the breasts, creating a very different look from the smooth, uni-bust of the 18th century. The stays usually end in tabs around the waist, which help protect the wearer from being poked by allowing the ends of bones to spread away from the body, but not always. Nothing is settled in this particular part of the regency.
Finally, some time around 1805, we reach a corset style that will last, with some variation to accommodate currently fashionable silhouettes, all the way up until the Victorian corset replaces it in the late 1840s/early 1850s. This is what we now call long stays: a full-torso garment with both bust and hip gussets, corded, rather than boned, for mild support, with a stiff, center-front busk to keep everything from collapsing, and provide that all-important bust separation. Unless you are interpreting the very early Regency, you can’t go wrong with a pair of long stays.
There is no one female support garment ever that will keep everyone happy, but I like this one: it’s gives wonderful support to the lift-and-seperate look that was fashionable from the latter half of the 18-aughts up through the rest of the Regency period, the busk helps keep your tummy flat and contained, and it supports good posture. Plus the busk provides an excellent surface for impromptu percussion in those dull moments, but I digress…
If the idea of making stays scares the pants off of you, have no fear. Custom or pre-made stays are available from a number of vendors like RedThreaded. RedThreaded will even be set up at the festival, so if you want to try on her wears, or learn about stays from someone with much more specialized knowledge than me, go seek her out!
Finally, you will need petticoats: the amount and style of these varies a lot throughout the period, and usually mimics the style of the skirt. If the skirts are full and gathered, so are the petticoats, if they are flat at the front with an A-line silhouette, ditto. The farther you want your skirt to stand out from the body, the more you will need. If your aim is the narrow, drape-y shape of the early-mid 18-aughts, you may want only one, or even none. If you are in the early 1790s, you will probably want several full petticoats. If you are in the 18-teens, at least one petticoat stiffened at the bottom with tucks or helped along with a ruffle or two will be necessary to give you the A-line look, with more added as the hem gets wider later in the decade. It may seem counter-intuitive that adding more layers could make you more comfortable, but believe me when I tell you this: petticoats made from a sturdy material help keep your skirt from tangling between your legs, and for that reason, I would never be without them.
The high Regency waistlines mean that petticoats can’t support themselves by sitting at your narrowest point, instead, they either have straps, or small bodices, which can also help give you a nice, clean look under a more sheer gown.
As you are preparing to make your Regency ensemble, study the undergarments that go with the year you are trying to represent. Remember, especially in the early half of the Regency, there is a lot of overlap between different kinds of undergarments, so you may have several options. Think about what will make you the most comfortable while still creating the desired silhouette.
2. You aren’t making the pattern.
This is a favorite statement of my dear friend Amy: you aren’t making the pattern, you’re using it as a tool to make the dress you want.
There are quite a few Regency dress patterns available, both from the “Big 3” commercial pattern companies, and from smaller companies that specialize in historical patterns. Personally, I would always recommend working off of a pattern from one of these specialized companies, who tend to have a better knowledge of period construction and styles. If you must go with a more commercial pattern here’s my #1 thing to avoid: flat skirt backs. If the skirt of the gown has no gathering at the back, run away!
A few pattern companies to try, by no means a full list:
However, even if you are using a pattern, you don’t want to let it rule your life. The pattern is there to help you, not to force you to make a dress you don’t want. While there are Regency patterns available, there are many parts of the Regency that you won’t find an exact pattern for, and even if you can, that exact pattern won’t necessarily work well for your taste or your body. Make a mock-up or two, get comfortable with the shapes of the pattern pieces, and don’t be scared to make adjustments to make things look more like the dress you want to create. Look at extant dresses you like to see things like proportion and seam lines, and try to recreate these lines in your mock-ups.
Remember: a pattern is not the law, it’s only a guide, and changing it is allowed! When I like an adjustment I’ve made to a pattern piece, I transfer the piece with the adjustment to a new piece of paper, and put it in with the pattern, so that I can make that change–whether it be a higher or lower neckline, more or less gathering, or a narrower or wider back–whenever I like.
Don’t be scared! The worst you can do is waste a bit of mock-up fabric–use something cheap like muslin, or sheets from the thrift store–nobody dies! Play around until you get something you really love.
Now we get into the really fun parts: the pretties! There are zillions of ways to add personality to your Regency gown through trimmings. This is another place where you will really want to dig through fashion plates and paintings from around the year you would like to portray–you will find an endless variety of ribbons, trims, lace, contrasting silk, ruffles, ruching, appliqué, and other creative things I’m not sure there’s even a name for.
There’s far too much variety here for me to go into everything, so here are some of my favorite examples of wonderful Regency trimmings. As you can see from these examples, you can choose just one for a simple, elegant look, or mix and match multiple kinds of trim to create layers of detail. Always use your specific year research as a guide. Pinterest can be a wonderful way to find research, but make sure that you follow the links and ensure that information is coming from reliable sources like museums or universities.
Ok. I really have to stop now, or I’ll just go on sharing pretty trims forever. So, on to:
No matter how lovely your gown, or how perfectly shaped your undergarments, you’re bound to look (and feel) a bit naked without at least a couple additions to your outfit.
Hats from 1800-1801, 1807, 1812, and 1815
I’ll begin with the most obvious: a hat or bonnet. It would be very unusual for a lady in the Regency period to venture far out of doors with nothing to cover her head. Luckily, there are many options available to you. A quick search of Etsy for “regency bonnet” will turn up hundreds of items for your perusal, but as always, use caution in choosing. Consult your research, and remember, just because something is labeled “regency bonnet” doesn’t mean that it is suitable for the particular part of the Regency which you are portraying (or in some unfortunate cases, suitable at all). Find examples that resemble your research, and always trust sources from the period more than anything else.
On Etsy, Regency Regalia, and 1800s Millinery Shop have some lovely examples available–but there are many other shops that sell Regency bonnets as well, so don’t limit yourself to just the ones I can remember!
If you would rather see and try things on in person, Lydia Fast, and Shocking Bad Hats will be there at the Louisville Festival with their beautiful wears. My Lydia Fast bonnet is one of my most treasured possessions! Both shops also take custom orders.
If you are feeling ambitious, there is really nothing to stop you from venturing into the world of millinery (hat-making) yourself. It’s an enjoyable branch of sewing that can give your brain a welcome break from dressmaking. There are several patterns available from Timely Tresses, and Lynn McMasters. Making your own bonnet will allow you all the creative control you desire!
Now let’s talk about the plethora of other, less iconic accessories available to the fashionable Regency woman.
Since I’m afraid of going on all day, I’ll just do a quick run-through of some of the most commonly seen accessory items. As always, remember to base your accessories on research from you own particular year of interest.
Gloves–an absolute essential for the fashionable lady wandering about out of doors, or going to a dance. For day wear, I particularly recommend finding a pair of vintage kid gloves. If you can find ones that fit, there’s nothing more comfortable. They conform to your hands and fit like, well, a glove. They also allow for touchscreen use without the need to take them off every time you want to take a photo. For dancing, elbow length or longer is best. Try to avoid super-shiny costume gloves and seek out ones made of more breathable natural materials like cotton.
Shawl–as you can see from nearly every image above, shawls were a must-have fashion item throughout the Regency. Particularly in demand were the enormous wool shawls imported from (or copied to look like those imported from) India. In general, these have a large area of solid color in the center, surrounded by a border of intricate woven designs.
Caps–don’t let anyone tell you that caps are only for the old, or unfashionable! Also don’t let them tell you that caps are either a) only worn by married women, or b) required to be worn by married women. Caps are neither. There are images from the period of women in all stages of life looking absolutely lovely in caps, and just as many of women in all stages of life looking absolutely lovely without them. However, don’t let our modern prejudice bias you against this versatile piece of clothing! These garments provide a canvas for a wealth of detail: sheer patterns, lace, ribbons, flowers, pleats. Almost anything you can think of can be used to ornament the fluffy confection on your head. Caps can be worn by themselves indoors, or beneath a bonnet when venturing out, and they are a wonderful solution if you are having trouble getting your hair to behave. As with most items, caps vary widely over the course of the Regency period, developing to suit current tastes and coexist with the fashionable hairstyles.
Fichus–triangular scarves worn tucked into the neckline of a gown, or layered over the top to show off a sheer fabric or embroidered border. These are a nice, simple way to fill in a neckline for modesty, and protect your delicate complexion from a bit of sun. Very fine fichus can be seen both with day wear and evening wear. During the day, most women in the Regency covered their chest and collarbone area in some way. Fichus were particularly (though not exclusively) popular in the earlier Regency period, with chemisettes taking over the fashion a bit in the later Regency, though both styles appear concurrently for most of the time. I don’t mean to say that chemisettes were never seen in the 18-aughts, or that fichus ceased to exist in the 18-teens, merely that the bulk of fashion leaned towards one or the other at different points.
Chemisettes–to our modern eye, a chemisette is most similar to a dicky. They are a small garment a bit like a partial undershirt, which goes over the shoulders and ties below the bust. They appeared at some point during the early Regency, and gained in popularity throughout the period. They feature every sort of collar that you can imagine from a simple Peter Pan style, to piles of ruffles, either closed at the throat, or open down the center, and everything in between. Many of these collars are reminiscent of Elizabethan ruffs and whisks.
Ruffs–speaking of Elizabethan, if you’ve chosen to portray pretty much any part of the 18-teens, you can’t go wrong with a good ruff. The larger and more elaborate the better, especially as you get later in the decade. These could be either plain, embroidered, or lace, gathered or pleated, closed with a ribbon in front or back, or with an invisible closure. They could be worn with a chemisette, or on their own with a high-necked gown, over a spencer, or even on their own like a choker. There’s nearly no wrong way to do an 18-teens ruff–you can find period research to back up just about any style you can think of! A few also appear in fashion plates from earlier in the period.
Belts/Sashes–another item that appears throughout the period. A ribbon, or strip of matching or contrasting fabric at your waistline, either tied in a bow (front or back), or closed with a small buckle, adds a lovely touch to your outfit with very little effort or expense.
Reticule/Ridicule–a small bag, usually with a drawstring closure. They are generally made of silk, but there are also lovely netted examples and other varieties. They come in many shapes from a basic flat pouch, to fascinating 3-d polygons, and can be a wonderful canvas for embellishments like embroidery, ribbons, and tassels.
I felt that the next two accessory categories deserved their own sections, especially since most of us are much more likely to purchase them than make our own:
Luckily for us, shoes in the Regency are relatively simple: for the most part, women’s shoes are either slippers (flats), or boots about ankle or low-calf length. There is some variation over the course of the period as things like heel height and toe shape changed with fashion.
Slippers in general shifted from a long, pointed toe with a curved opening for the foot in the 1790s, to a more rounded point with a squared-off opening later in the period. Both leather and fabric uppers are plentiful. Looking through extant examples, you can find a staggering wealth of detail: brilliant colors, various materials, patterns, ribbons, rosettes, embroidery, bows. A little detail like contrasting ribbons, or clip-on rosettes can make a huge difference to a store-bought shoe.
Pink Slippers, 1790s, V&A; Yellow Slippers, 1810-1815, MFA Boston, Blue Slippers, 1815-1820, Kerry Taylor Auctions
Boots followed a similar trend of pointy to rounded toes over the course of the Regency period. The shafts also began to get shorter as the 1820s neared. Most (but not all) were made of either leather or sturdy fabric–generally Nankeen imported from China, and though as more utilitarian outdoor wear, they didn’t come in for quite the share of embellishment that slippers did, they can be seen in a wide variety of colors, and some do sport interesting details such as bows or fringe.
Boots with Red Laces, 1795-1815, The Met; Striped Boots, 1812-1820, V&A; Nankeen Boots with Bow, 1815, Museum of London; Leather Boots with Fringe, 1810-1829, The Met
Luckily, many modern shoes can manage a creditable Regency look, as long as you are willing to put in a bit of patient work to track down ones that look right, or a bit of work to add some period details.
If you’re ready to jump in with both feet, you can purchase beautiful reproduction shoes from American Duchess. They have some lovely stockings available as well. You can also purchase lovely boots from The Bohemian Belle, She will be at the Louisville Festival, and carries many other gorgeous Regency accessories, including stunning replica tiaras.
Which brings us to…
My favorite part about Regency jewelry is that it’s just as lovely now as it was then–I wear my reproduction pieces all the time in my every day life! You’ll see everything from simple strings of pearls, gold beads, or coral, to elaborate jeweled parures with intricate goldwork.
This is another place where I could easily fall down a rabbit hole of posting photos forever, but I’ll let you do that on your own. Here are just a few gorgeous examples, both extant, and in portraits. There is also jewelry to be seen in the portraits above!
Coral Jewelry, 1780-1800; Portrait of Mrs. John Halkett by Henry Bone, ca 1802; Portrait of a Lady by Charles Pierre Coir, ca. 1810
Portrait of Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun, duchess of Plaisance by Robert Lefèvre, 1818, Pearl and Diamond Earrings, ca 1800, Portrait of a Young Woman by Iosif Oleshkevich, ca 1810
Gold and Citrine Jewelry, ca 1820, auctioned at Christies; Portrait of Caroline Murat by Francois Pascal Simon Gerard; Gold and Paste Demi-Parure, ca 1805, Chateau de Malmaison
Luckily for us, there are some wonderful artisans out there recreating period jewelry. Here are just a few:
These jewelers are all incredible artists who put research and time into their work. Keep in mind though, they all work in multiple periods, so not everything they make was fashionable in every time period. They all show their research on many of their pieces, but always make sure that you can back up your jewelry choices with your own period research! Just because a lovely pair of earrings is pictured next to a portrait from the 1750s, doesn’t mean that style wasn’t also popular in the 1810s–if you rely on yourself, rather than others, to do the research, you may open up a world of new pretties for yourself!
Like most things in the Regency period, hairstyles varied greatly across the decades.
The early 1790s started out with the hairstyles that had come into fashion in the 1780s–a large mass of soft curls generally called a ‘hedgehog’, usually with looser, dangling curls at the bottom.
As we rounded the turn of the 19th century, the styles shrank, and the curls became softer and less structured. The bulk of the style moved from the top to the back of the head. The idea was to mimic the silhouette of styles seen in Ancient Greek art, which was much in vogue. Wrapped ribbons and scarves were the height of style in hair accessories.
Early in the new century, the long dangling curls began to disappear, creating hairstyles that sat on the back of the crown, close to the head. The curls remained soft, but where before they were dispersed all over the head, now they tend to be concentrated along the top of the head, leaving a more obvious upsweep of hair towards the bun at the back of the head. We are also just beginning to see the formation of the center part that will remain part of the style for decades to come. This style is soft, contained, and easily covered by the tight-fitting jockey hats that were very much in fashion.
Later in the 18-aughts, and into the early 18-teens, the styles were becoming more segregated, with the curls at the front and the bun at the back as two distinct sections of the style. The bun is at the point of the crown, and is large and quite flat. The curls at the front are more individual and distinct than before.
In the mid 18-teens, the styles moved higher, so that they sat atop the crown of the head, making the bun entirely visible from the front. They tended to be wider from the front and narrower from the side, although this is not a rule. The curls at the front were usually very small and contained at either side of a slick center part.
Towards the tail end of the teens, the buns underwent a brief flattening and widening before springing up with a vengence into the Apollo knot hairstyles of the 1820s and 1830s (if you don’t know what these are, do yourself a favor and Google it). The most obvious change, though, is the usual size and amount of front curls. The slick center part remains, but is longer–you can see the difference in part length between this and the portraits above. There are several inches here, only about an inch in the mid-teens, and a fraction of an inch in the late 18-aughts. Because more hair is included in them, the curls are larger and more substantial. Ringlets were popular, but in this portrait, rather than ringlets, each side consists of three rolls of hair, stacked one on top of the other, which create a widening effect and the illusion of a heart-shaped face.
As is always the way with fashion, there are no hard-and-fast rules here. I have given a general overview, but in period images you will find lots of overlap, and a huge range of styles based on varying interpretations of the norm, and on personal taste. As always, women found ways to tweak the styles in ways they felt suited them, and you can too.
Here are a few things to look at that will help you break down a style into bite-sized chunks:
- Where is the bulk of the style? In other words, where is most of the hair?
- If there is a bun, where does it sit? On top of the head? Right on the crown? On the back of the head?
- Is the bun curly, or is it smooth? Twisted? Braided?
- Where are the front curls? At the top of the head, or towards the sides?
- Are there front curls at all? You can also find simple updos or side braids, particularly in the 18-teens.
- How many curls are there?
- What size are the curls? Large or Small?
- How much hair is in the curls? Are they bulky, or wispy? It is especially helpful to look for part lines here, so that you can determine where the hair comes from.
- Is the hair sleek and close to the head, or does it have volume?
- Is there loose hair in the back? Curled or not?
It can be easy to become overwhelmed when trying to create a hairstyle you are not used to. Take a breath, and break down the hairstyle into parts. Separate your hair into the parts needed–generally one large back section for the bun, and two smaller front sections for the curls on each side of the face, then deal with each section individually. Most of us don’t curl our hair on a regular basis, so practice, practice, practice before you have to do it for real! How you wind a piece of hair around a roller or iron makes a huge difference in your final curl. If you want soft, fluffy curls, wrap the hair around the center of the curler or iron, so that each successive wrap stacks on top of the one before. If you want neat ringlets, start wrapping the hair at one end of the curler or iron, and wind it up to the other end like a coil, keeping the section of hair flat like a ribbon, with no twists.
As a rule, setting your hair on rollers overnight will give you a much better set than a curling iron can ever manage, so if your hair is difficult to get to hold curl, throw away the iron, and go for rollers or rag curls.
Experiment with product–a bit of mousse in the hair before you curl can make a huge difference, but different things will work for different people. I find that the most effective way of getting my hair to curl is a bit of mousse in damp hair, then rag curl it in the evening (use strips of fabric to wind your hair around, then tie the ends together to keep them in place), sleep on that, and let it down when it’s dry. Those curls would last me until my next shower without losing any shape or volume when I had long hair. I may have to write a whole post about Regency hairstyling, or I’ll go on all day here…
If you are interested in working with period styling products and other cosmetics, be sure to stop by LBCC Historical, who will also have a tent at the festival.
Nothing will make you feel like a real Regency lady like practicing a bit of deportment! Remember your posture–your stays will help with this, but keep your mind on it as well! Keeping your back straight will also help you enjoy yourself all day in period clothes without ending the day with a sore back.
Try not to hike up the front of your skirts. Taking slightly smaller steps will help keep your toes from catching your hem, and will make you appear more comfortable and graceful, especially if you are unaccustomed to long skirts. If there’s real danger of dirt and mud, gathering up the back volume of your skirt into one hand and holding it up and to the side will help more than anything. Since there is more volume there, it is more likely to hang lower than the rest of your hem, and as you walk, your feet splatter mud backwards, so you are much more likely to soil the back of your dress than the front.
Try a curtsy or two! Sweep one foot around behind the other and bend gently from the knees. Sink straight down, keeping your back straight, and bowing your head towards the person you are greeting. You don’t want to sink too low in this period, as the narrow skirts can cause ungainly bent knees to show. A slight lowering is all that is required for all but the most illustrious personages. A curtsy or bow is a mark of respect and acknowledgement for the people around you.
Finally, I saved my best piece of advice for last. It is so important, yet so easy to miss:
9. Don’t think of it as a costume.
Spending a happy day in period dress is all about attitude. If you think if it as a costume, your outfit will feel like something strange, unusual, possibly uncomfortable. You will focus on how it feels different from your normal clothing, and find it distracting.
So don’t think if it that way. For today, these are your clothes. They’re just what you’re wearing, nothing strange about it.
It may seem simple, or even silly, but changing this one little point of view makes all the difference in the world between wandering around in the 21st century while wearing a period costume, and truly immersing yourself in the period.
The less distracting you find your clothing, the more attention you will have left to enjoy all the fun of the Festival, or whatever Regency event you happen to be attending, so put on your clothes, know you look fabulous, and go have the time of your life!