I’ve been a bit slow about publishing recently, and there’s a good reason for that! This project has been taking up my whole life! I think it was worth it, though.
This project is the culmination of a couple of things I’ve been thinking about trying for a while. First: I wanted to make a spencer and petticoat set that hooks together at the waist, like this one circa 1815.
In the soggy heat of a Kentucky summer, a little trick like this can save me a layer on my upper body, plus it’s a fun little teaching moment at events, as most people don’t realize that women wore separates like this during this period.
Second: I wanted to make an outer garment trimmed with rouleaux (thin tubes of fabric). Rouleaux trim was a little journey of discovery for me, and you can read my tutorial on how I did it here.
This is a selection of the inspiration for my spencer. I copied much of the rouleaux pattern from the spencer at bottom right because there are lovely clear pictures of it, and it had a similar feel to the fashion plate at the top left, which I particularly liked. I went with back details from another spencer, combined with the same motifs as the front and my shoulder caps were inspired by the fashion plate on the upper right. My spencer will someday soon have a tasseled belt as in the center fashion plate, but I haven’t had a chance to finish it!
I started the process with the Period Impressions 1809 spencer pattern, which I have long since modified until I have a basic spencer that fits me nicely. It’s a great base pattern for making Regency outerwear.
The pieces are put together using a technique I love, where the lining and fashion fabric are sewn together simultaneously. You put the two lining pieces you want to sew together right side to right side, and the two fabric pieces right side to right side, and then put them all together so that one matching pair of fabric and lining pieces are together, and the other matching pair are on the outsides. Then you sew all four pieces together, and when you open up the fabric and the lining, the seam allowances are sandwiched between.
You can find lots of pictures and information on how the rouleaux were made and applied in my tutorial, so here is a little gallery of the process.
And here are a few of the back rouleaux details.
Just in case there weren’t enough little tubes of fabric involved in this project already, there is also quite a bit of piping: on the edge of the color, on the center front edges, and between the bodice and the waistband.
The shoulder decorations are just petal shapes with piping around the edges, which are appliquéed onto the top of the sleeve. There is a rouleaux bow at the bottom, and I’m planning to add some little tassels hanging from it when I get the chance!
Some of the trickiest bits of decoration were the rouleaux designs on the cuffs. It took a while of staring at a photo to realize that every other loop is made while laying out the pattern in one direction, and then the gaps are filled in as you work your way back up, so that both ends of the piece end up at the top. This also got topped with a rouleaux bow, and like the shoulders will one day have some dangling tassels. I had to lay out the design in kitchen twine first (first photo) so I would know exactly how to proportion it and how long each rouleaux piece needed to be.
The waistband has a row of piping along the seam.
To finish the front edges, I sewed on a piece of piping with an extra long seam allowance, and used that allowance to encase all the other raw edges on the inside.
Finally–closures! The front of the spencer closes with hooks and eyes. There are also 9 hooks inside the waistband for attaching the separate petticoat.
Petticoats are a nice, quick little project–if you’re deperate for an extra outfit for an event, but don’t think you have time for a new dress, try adding hooks to a spencer and whipping up one of these! I plan to make a couple of these, and put waistband hooks in all my spencers, because it’s just such a nice little trick to have a walking outfit without any added heat or bulk.
The petticoat is made the way I make most of my 1816 skirts–the back piece is a rectangle the width of my fabric, and the front piece is narrow at the top to fit my front underbust measurement, and as wide at the hem as I can make it. The front waist edge is slightly shaped to help the skirt stand out in a nice bell shape without too much pulling at the sides or awkward clinging.
The whole thing is gathered onto a matching waistband.
I worked eyelets in the waistband to correspond to the hooks on the spencer. There are two at center front, one in each side front, one at each side, one in each side back, and two at the center back. These two overlap on a single hook at the center back of the spencer, which keeps the petticoat closed without the need for any additional closures.
I wore this outfit during the day at Christmastide, and just about died of happiness. I’ve been working on the spencer since August, and it took so much longer than I anticipated. I gave up on a couple of other things I wanted to do in order to get it done, and I have no regrets! I am totally, completely in love with this outfit!
Sorry I won’t have a separate post about the bonnet–I started it ages ago and didn’t take any photos of that part of the process, and then it languished for a long time because I wasn’t happy with the brim. I finally pulled the brim off and drafted a new one, which I love! All the decorations came out of my stash, too, which made me happy! The veil is a scrap of lace left over from my wedding dress!
Here are a few progress photos of covering the bonnet.
And here are photos of the full ensemble at Christmastide at Locust Grove!
And here’s a little video that Brandon took, which shows everything really nicely! I’ve never felt more like I stepped out of a period movie! (In case I haven’t made it clear, I’m REALLY excited about this outfit!) I can’t wait to wear it again!
Happy New Year, everyone! I hope your 2019 is full of things that bring you as much joy as this project has brought me!
Since I started building 18th century wigs using period techniques at work, I’ve been doing more and more 18th century events. And you know what that means: I need more 18th century clothes!
In preparation for 18th Century Market Fair at Locust Grove this year, I set other projects aside to give myself time to build a new jacket and petticoat so that I wouldn’t have to wear the same outfit both days. When I bought this jacket fabric, I had hoped to get enough for a gown, but sadly by the time I bought it there were only two yards left, so I could only make a jacket. But I do love a smart 18th century jacket, so no real harm done!
This was a quick project, and I didn’t take as many photos as usual, so this will be a bit of a short post for me, but I love the way my new outfit turned out!
I started with the petticoat while at a cabin getaway with some friends. It is made from a lovely dark red wool from 96 District Fabrics.
And now, the fun bit: my new jacket! This is made from white linen with a woven yellow stripe from Renaissance Fabrics.
I was a dingus, and completely forgot to take photos of cutting and putting the main pieces together. Luckily, the body is basically the same as this jacket, except that I modified the back to a swallowtail, and sewed it all by hand.
My first photo is of the sleeves, all sewn together with their lining, and ready to be set. Since my other striped jacket has vertical stripes on the sleeves, I went with horizontal on these ones just to shake things up.
Setting 18th century sleeves is a fascinating process, in which you sew the bottom of the sleeve to the body, and then sandwich the top of the sleeve between the fabric and lining of the shoulder straps. This lets you really play with the pleats on the shoulder until you get a look you really like.
Brandon helped me drape the shoulder straps for this, and you can see his sense of humor in the notes to tell me which strap is for which side.
The edges are finished by pressing the fabric and lining towards each other and topstitching.
I pleated some lovely blue ribbon from Wm. Booth Draper to trim the neckline and sleeves, accented with bows.
And here’s the finished product in action at Market Fair!
Due to an overwhelming amount of demand on my social media as I’ve been posting process photos of my new green Spencer, I went ahead and put together a little tutorial on the style of trim I’m using.
Rouleaux are, quite simply, thin, bias-cut strips of fabric sewn into tubes. You probably have quite a few bits of rouleaux in your wardrobe without even realizing it in the form of spaghetti straps, coat hanging loops, and other utilitarian elements. However, these tubes aren’t just useful, they can also be beautiful.
Rouleaux trim is simply taking a rouleaux tube and stitching it down to a garment in the shape of a design, creating a beautiful, wearable piece of 3-dimensional art. While it is relatively uncommon (though not unheard of) today, rouleaux trim is was very popular in the early 19th century, particularly in the 18-teens and ’20s. I would not be at all surprised to see it crop up throughout the 19th century, but until I have examples of that, I will withhold a verdict. Similar techniques, however, were certainly employed though the 1800s and early 1900s using soutache braid, cord, or other thin, flexible items to create a design. If you want your pattern to match your fabric however, rouleaux is truly the way to go. All the early 19th century examples of rouleaux I have seen have been made with matching fabric to the main garment. They have also all been outer garments like spencers and pelisses, rather than gowns. That doesn’t mean those aren’t out there, just that I haven’t seen them–always keep an eye out for examples, don’t just take my word for it!
I’m going to show you how I do this technique. It’s the sort of thing that there are probably many ways to do, but this is the one that works for me.
You can read all about the spencer featured in the tutorial photos here.
Preparing the Bias Strips
Before you can make beautiful, rouleaux-trimmed garments, you’ll need to start with a whole lot of thin, bias-cut strips of fabric. It’s possible that some in the 19th century were done with strips cut on the straight grain as well, since it is a more efficient use of expensive fabric. I haven’t had a chance to examine any of these garments up close enough to be able to see the grain of the fabric, but based on how neatly the extant examples of rouleaux trim go around curves and tight corners, I would guess that many, if not all, are cut on the bias.
Note: What is the bias, you may be asking yourself? Bias cut pieces are cut diagonally across the grain of the fabric, rather than parallel to the selvedge edge (the finished, uncut edge of a length of fabric).
You can find the bias of a fabric using a marked cutting mat, a set square, or any other device that will show you a 45° angle to the selvedge of the fabric.
From there, you can simply cut parallel strips based on your first angled cut. The width that you cut your strips is entirely up to you (within reason), depending on how thick you would like your rouleaux to be. If you’re unsure, do a test piece a few inches long first, just to get an idea of what size you’ll get. I ended up going with half-inch strips, which got me a nice tube about 1/8″ wide out of my lightweight cotton twill fabric. Your mileage may vary depending on the thickness of your fabric.
I used a rotary cutter along my ruler to get strips. You can also use your ruler to draw lines and cut with scissors, whatever floats your boat and gets your some bias strips.
Next, you’ll need to sew your lovely bias strips into one very long bias strip. (Of course this depends on exactly what you are doing. If one bias strip is enough to do your entire design, obviously feel free to skip this part.
In order to keep your bias flexible, and your tube thin, you will need to sew the pieces together with the grain of the fabric, rather than across the bias. To do this, line up your two strips, right side to right side, at a right angle. At this point, you may have edges that line up nicely because they were the selvedge edges of your fabric, and are therefore already little 45° angles. If not, you will need to trim the ends to 45° angles so that they line up as in the photo above.
You will notice that the corners of each piece hang over the edges. This is exactly what you want. Stitch from one inner corner to the other. You want a nice, small seam allowance for this. This angled seam with keep the bulk of the seam allowance distributed along the strip, rather than all piled up in one place.
When you have finished sewing all your pieces together, press the seams open very well. You want the extra fabric from the seam allowance to be distributed as much as possible, so the last thing you want is for it to fold up on itself.
Sewing the Rouleaux
If you like, and if your fabric is light enough, you can bypass this entire method by sewing a narrow seam allowance on your machine, and turning the strip right-side out using a rouleaux turner (these little tools look like a thin piece of wire with a loop at one end, and a little latch hook on the other, and can be found at most fabric/craft stores).
HOWEVER, there are several reasons why you may want to/be forced to make your rouleaux by hand. First of all, you may prefer to hand sew for the sake of historical accuracy. Second, your fabric (like mine), may be a bit too thick to turn right-side out once you’ve sewn your desired size of tube, even with the seam allowance trimmed very tiny. I nearly cried when I realized the several yards of rouleaux I had sewn wouldn’t turn the right way out, no matter how hard I tried. I had already trimmed the seam allowance down to 1/16″, and every effort to turn the tube shredded the seam allowance until the piece was useless. If I wanted to use this technique, I would have needed to make my rouleaux much wider, which would have completely destroyed the delicate finished look I was going for.
Luckily, I put on my thinking cap, and came up with this technique inspired by the rolled hem in order to keep all of you from pulling your hair out the same way I did.
Start yourself off by pressing the edges of the very end of your strip into the center on the wrong side of the fabric, like so:
At this point, I like to hand the end of my strip to my sewing bird in order to take some of the tension out of my left hand. Using a sewing bird or clamp to hold your fabric in place is a great way to help yourself if you experience pain while hand sewing, or if you want to avoid pain in the future, or just generally want to make your life easier. If you don’t have a sewing bird or clamp, don’t worry. You can put the end under something heavy, use a regular old clamp to clamp in to the table, pin it to the knee of your pants, pin it to the arm of a chair or couch. Basically you have lots of options, but I do recommend that you find a way to hold one end still while you work. It will allow your to work much faster.
Here is a video illustrating the whole process of holding the folds in place, stitching, and pulling tight:
Attaching the Rouleaux
Before you can attach your rouleaux, you will need to draw or trace a design on your fabric. You can draw it out with a pencil or water-soluble marker, trace it with tracing paper and a wheel, prick and pounce, or use whatever other transfer method may strike your fancy. I based my design on the pink spencer shown above.
Note: I stitched my rouleaux to both the fabric and lining. Since the fabric is a light twill and therefore has a slight stretch, I wanted to make sure it had the structure of the linen lining to support the heavy trim. Your fabric may be sturdy enough to hold the trim by itself.
Note: these instructions are for a pattern that allows the ends of the rouleaux to disappear into a seam allowance. If your design is in the middle of a piece, far from a seam allowance, you will need to begin making your rouleaux by folding up the short end of the bias strip so that your tube has a finished end, and doing the same at the other end of the tube.
From now on, your stitch pattern will be as follows:
This process of moving the rouleaux above and below the stitching line as your sew will help keep tension even along the rouleaux, and ensure that it sits directly on top of the line, rather than leaning to one side or the other. Be careful not to pull your stitches too tight, or you could end up puckering and shrinking your entire garment piece!
Continue to stitch in this pattern. Here is a video to help you:
Now that you have the basic process down, here are a couple more tips to help you at tricky parts of your design.
Tip #1: Tight curves
When going around tight curves, take smaller stitches through the fabric to help the rouleaux follow the pattern smoothly.
Tip #2: Sharp corners
When making sharp corners, make sure your last stitch in the fabric before the corner comes up precisely at the point of the corner in your design.
Tip #3: Close parallel lines
When sewing rouleaux designs, you will often find yourself travelling back along a line to create a double thickness of rouleaux. When this happens, it can become tricky to maintain the stitching pattern we’ve established above.
In this case, use the thumb of your off hand to press the working rouleaux up against the first line of rouleaux. Stitch down into the fabric, and then up through the rouleaux like so:
The first rouleaux will help support the second and keep it standing upright. Once the two lines diverge again, continue in the usual stitch pattern.
Once you have completed your design finish off your rouleaux and thread just inside the seam allowance of your garment piece.
Ok! You’re all ready to go and create beautiful designs using rouleaux trim!
As always, if your have any questions, or if your would like to request a future tutorial, feel free to comment below.
There’s nothing like a time crunch to make me productive. This time around, it was the crunch leading up to author Sarah Vowell’s visit to Locust Grove, where the interpreters were appearing in the 1820s to celebrate General Lafayette’s tour of the United States.
I was already well supplied with an elegant 1820s gown, but Brandon was in desperate need of a civilian coat, since his character, Dr. John Croghan, was acting as host for the evening.
By the time we got back from a lovely vacation back home in Northern MI, I only had ten days left to make the jacket.
The first parts of jacket tailoring are my favorites: my love of precise handsewing means padstitching is right up my alley. I find it so satisfying to watch the fold and curve of a collar or lapel becoming more defined the more you stitch.
Padstitching is followed by another favorite of mine–catchstitching, which is an (ideally) invisible way to attach non-padstitched areas of the interfacing to the fabric, while still allowing a bit of flexibility to the piece.
The trick to catchstitching is not to pull things too tight. The purpose of the stitch is not to nail the interfacing in place, only to prevent it from folding up inside the coat. It’s much better to leave things a little loose than to pull your stitches too tight and pucker the outer fabric. I usually try to leave a sliver of daylight between the thread and the interfacing, just so I know for sure that I haven’t messed things up.
The lovely thing about jackets of the early Romantic era, as opposed to the Regency, is the existence of a waist seam. The decorative pocket flaps on this coat just get basted onto the tail piece, and the raw edges are hidden away in the seam. It also allows for some much needed waist shaping that doesn’t exist in earlier cuts. Amusingly, since they are false flaps (i.e. there are no pockets inside of them), you then baste through the tails and the bottom layer of the flap to ensure your decorative flaps stay perfectly placed and never actually, you know, flap.
I also want to take this moment to shout out Renaissance Fabrics–this herringbone striped wool is so gorgeous. That sheen you can see in the light is in no way exaggerated by the photos, it has an almost satiny finish. Extremely elegant!
The pockets themselves have nothing to do with the flaps. Their openings are hidden in the seam between the back and tail pieces, which itself is hidden inside of a decorative pleat.
On the Saturday before the event the next Friday, Brandon helped me out by jumping on his 1898 Wheeler & Wilson treadle machine to construct the sleeves and sleeve linings while I worked on the tails and the front facings.
These photos show the tail overlap in the center back from the inside and outside before I put in the tail facings, which I apparently forgot to photograph. That’s what happens when you’re steaming though a project!
In order to help it keeps it’s shape, a jacket like this gets two layers of front interfacing: one inside the actual front piece, and one in the front facing (the piece of matching fabric that is sewn in the inside of the front so that it can come around and make the outside of the lapel.) In this case the front facing lines most of the front, and comes all the way around to help stabilize the upper back as well.
Although it was not called for in the pattern, I supplemented the chest area facing interfacing with two layers of cotton batting to help facilitate the “pigeon-breast” shape that was fashionable for men in the Romantic era. Basically, the more you can get your torso to be shaped like a cone, the better. Some men even wore corsets to help create the large-chested, small-waisted shape.
Since Brandon made the sleeves, I don’t have a lot of photos of the process, but rest assured that they did go in, and get lined! Due to the fashionable shape, the sleeves also have a good bit of gathering and poof at the top to help add to the wide-chested illusion.
The final hurdle on Thursday night were buttons and buttonholes. Luckily, I only needed to make 3 functioning buttonholes. Since we were using brass shank buttons, I tried out a technique I’ve never actually used before, but definitely like. You poke holes with an awl where the buttons need to go, put the shanks through the holes, and pass something (tape, ribbon, in my case yarn because it was all I had that fit through the tiny shanks) though the shanks on the wrong side of the fabric. Then you stitch your tape down to the fabric, and that holds the buttons in place, and keeps them from flopping around as much as they would if you just sewed them to the front of the coat. It’s a technique I’ll certainly employ in the future.
And that was it! I even got done in time to finish hemming a white cravat that I’ve had in my workbasket forever.
Here’s the finished look, I think he looks pretty sharp!
For today’s lesson, I am going to focus on one technique that will allow you to do a couple of very useful things. It’s a very helpful little trick to keep your work looking neat and tidy.
It’s not complicated, and once you’ve learned it, you’ll find that a whole new world of possibilities opens up.
As far as I can tell, this technique doesn’t have a name, so I’m going to refer to it as a “false stop” because that’s exactly what it is: behaving as if you’ve finished the work, but actually moving on instead.
My old lap hoop, sadly, has broken off of its stand, and I need to fix it, so this tutorial was photographed in a small hoop, clamped to the edge of a table. This is a great solution if you can’t invest in a hoop with a stand right now, but you have other embroidery hoops around.
Imagine you have embroidered a motif, like this cute little flower:
It’s finished, but there’s no clear way to get from the flower to the next part of your pattern. You could cut the thread, but goodness, who wants more ends to weave in when you’re finished?! Not I.
So instead, you follow these simple steps:
Now that you’ve seen how useful a false stop can be for moving your thread from one place to another without breaking it, I’ll show you another way to use the same technique: turning sharp corners.
You may have noticed that tambourwork doesn’t like to go around corners. The turning stitch tends to distort and stick up in an effort to make the turn. Fear not! This can be avoided.
This technique comes in incredibly handy while working a complicated tambour motif.
I hope you have found this tutorial helpful. As always, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!
Since we were already going to be in Ben’s studio, and I already had my corset on, we took the opportunity to get photos of our costumes from last year’s North American Discworld Convention as well as the Ravenclaw gown.
Last September, we had the fun of going to a con entirely in celebration of our favorite fictional universe for our first anniversary, and winning the costume contest dressed as some of our favorite characters, Moist von Lipwig and Adora Belle Dearheart. Moist is a conman-turned-postmaster-general with a heart of gold, and Adora Belle his cynical but idealistic love interest on a mission to revenge herself on the man who swindled her family out of their business (amazingly in this case, not Moist).
These were some of my favorite costumes ever to work on, because instead of working off of a visual source, I was able to design them entirely using descriptions from the books in which they appear (Going Postal, Making Money, and Raising Steam), which is much more fun that simply copying someone else’s design.
I love how the photos turned out–if you know Discworld (and if you don’t, may I suggest you run out and track down a book RIGHT NOW), you may spot a few familiar names among the addressees of the letters on the floor. The one in Moist’s hand is, of course, the infamous S.W.A.L.K. letter to Antimony Parker. The last photo (Thanks, Ben!) is one of the only pictures of my profile that I LOVE! It just goes to show–if you want to feel great about yourself, go have your photo taken by Ben Marcum.
I made my entire outfit and Brandon’s coat, cravat and the wings and other modifications to his hat. Brandon made his waistcoat and trousers. My wig is from Custom Wig Company, styled by me, and is also the wig I use in my Snow White costume. Don’t worry! I don’t smoke. Adora Belle’s very necessary cigarette is a prop from New Rule FX. Moist’s Ankh-Morpork post office badge is from Discworld.com.
I didn’t find time to do any blogging about Brandon’s outfit, because we were desperately finishing it in the airport and hotel room, but you can read all about Adora Belle in the blog posts linked below.
It took almost exactly a year for the entire outfit to come together. Before that, though, I had been thinking, and researching, and planning, and sketching for nearly two years. At first it was just casual. At the time, my work consisted of four people: a Gryffindor, a Hufflepuff, a Slytherin, and me. So we cooked up a scheme to create four bustle gowns, one for each house. We wanted to make them, but mostly it was something to talk over in great detail over long days of tying hair. Unfortunately, the four house gowns never happened, but I couldn’t get the dress I wanted to create out of my head.
So I decided to do it anyway, despite the fact that I had nowhere to wear it, no goal in sight! I started planning in earnest: costing out silk, and saving money, shopping though patterns for good underthings, and base shapes, and thinking through the draping and drafting on elements that I knew I would have to do myself.
Now, more than a year later, I still have nowhere planned to wear it (hit me up with good events within a reasonable distance of Louisville, KY), but I do have something wonderful to share.
At the end of May, I had the fun of doing a photoshoot with the wonderful Ben Marcum Photography. I have done many kinds of shoots with Ben: headshots, my wedding portraits, beauty shoots, and cosplay. I can tell you this–if you are in Louisville, or coming through Louisville, and can find any excuse to have some professional photos done, go have your portrait taken by Ben. Especially if you hate having your photo taken. (Believe me, we also did some Adora Belle photos at the shoot, and next week I will reveal one of the only photos I’ve ever liked of my own profile!)
Even if you are nervous in front of a camera, Ben will make you laugh, make you comfortable, and make absolutely beautiful images of you every time. I always look forward to doing a shoot with him, because I know that I will have a great, goofy day, and come out of it feeling good about myself.
The wig I’m wearing is, of course, from Custom Wig Company, styled by yours truly. The beautiful cameos are from Dames à la Mode. The set was styled by Ben’s wife, my awesome boss, Heather Fleming. The books are a blend of antiques, and handmade replicas by Strano Books.
So without further ado:
You can read all about the ensemble’s construction, from beginning to end, on the blog.
Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have ideas of ways to add to the ensemble! At some point, I would love to make an evening bodice to turn the gown into a stylish and practical day-to-night outfit. I also have ideas for a feather mantle wired with LED lights so that it glows from between the feathers.
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.
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, your 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 lets 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. 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 to 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-like 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 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. 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 sometimes also see 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? 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. 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 mouse 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 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 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!
Now that you know how to get started, and do the basic stitch, you may as well start embroidering things a bit more fun than straight lines. I’ll start you off with something nice and simple. For this tutorial, I just sketched out a little gently curved vine with small, rounded leaves. It’s a motif that appears often in embroidery from the early 19th century, so it’s one I’ve done a lot.
You can extend this design to create a simple, lovely border for hems, ruffles, handkerchiefs, veils, sleeve cuffs, or just about anything!
Step 1: Transfer your design.
The first thing we need to do is get the design transferred onto our netting. I do this in one of three ways.
With a water-soluble fabric marker. I would have done this for this tutorial, but the only one I could find in my house was a white one, which would be absolutely useless on my white fabric! This method is fast and easy to remove, but no good if you’re planning to use the piece you are working on as a period demo.
With pencil. This method is also quick, which makes it my go-to. Pencil is dark enough to see well as you work, but generally rubs mostly out by the time a project is finished, and only needs a quick wash to remove it completely. If you are someone who stresses a lot about being able to remove the markings, though, I wouldn’t recommend this for you.
With a basting stitch. This is the superior method I have found, but it also takes a good deal more time and patience than the other two, so I often rule it out as too time-consuming. You simply run a basting stitch around the design with a needle and fine white thread. Later, you can either pull it out, or leave it in and trim the ends, as the tambour-work usually obscures the basting completely from the front.
Step 2: Find your path.
One of the great things about tambour is how quickly it works up. The best designs for this style of embroidery are those that can be worked all in one continuous line, especially when you are just getting started. An efficient embroiderer can create even a complex design without ever cutting the thread. (Our next lesson will cover how to skip from one place in a design to another without cutting the thread, and without pulling out your previous stitches.)
Many designs are easy to work out, you can see the path you will take just by looking, but if you are having trouble I would suggest copying your basic design on a piece of paper, possibly blown up larger, and working out the path there before you begin stitching. Believe me, it’s very annoying to get through most of a design and realize you made a mistake, and can’t get where you need to go! The last thing anyone wants is more ends to weave in because you were forced to cut the thread prematurely.
Step 3: Begin stitching!
If you read Lesson 1, then you already know how to start your thread, and you’re ready to begin stitching.
Once again, if you have any questions, or requests for future tutorials (tambour or otherwise), don’t hesitate to ask!
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!