header('Cache-Control: max-age=259200'); A Primer on Regency Era Women's Fashion – Kristen Koster
Nov 012011
 

This week and next, we’re going to take a look at how people dressed in the Regency Era. This week we’re going to focus on Regency Era Women’s Fashion and all the different pieces of apparel they were changing in and out of multiple times per day. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means and is rather representative of the upper classes rather than the working classes, but should give a good foundation in recognizing what an author is talking about and why they’re so focused on their characters being fashion conscious.

Before we get into the individual items of clothing, it’s important to realize some phrases we use today didn’t mean quite the same thing 200 years ago. For example, unlike when we say “She was in a state of undress.” or “She was caught en dishabille.”, the folks of the Regency era wouldn’t have batted an eye. It was quite common for ladies to entertain guests in their boudoirs while dressed in comfortable, but concealing gowns and robes. Therefore, the terms “undress”, “half-dress” and “full-dress” were degrees of formality, not coverage.

“Undress” meant simply casual, informal dress in the Regency period. This would be the type of dress worn from early morning to noon or perhaps as late as four or five, depending on one’s engagements for the day. Undress was usually more comfortable, more warm, more casual, and much cheaper in cost than half dress or full dress.

“Half Dress” is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to grasp about Regency Fashion. Basically it is any dress halfway between Undress and Full Dress. In modern terms it might be thought of as dressy casual or casual business attire in terms of formality, if not style.

“Full dress” was the most formal kind of dress in a Regency Lady’s wardrobe. Full dress was worn for the most formal occasions — evening concerts and card parties, soirees, balls, and court occasions. “Evening dress” referred to outfits suitable only at evening events, but was a specific subset of “full dress”.

Regency Era Women's Fashion: A variety of Shawls in Early 19th Century France

Variety of Shawls in Early 19th Century France – Wikimedia Commons

Regency Era Women’s Fashion

There’s a great post over at Word Wenches where author Kalen Hughes goes through the steps of dressing your Regency heroine from the skin out. If you visit that post, you’ll get better idea of how long it took to dress and the order everything goes on or off in.

Underclothes

shifts/chemise
The forerunner of the slip, the basic white linen garment underneath everything, often short-sleeved or sleeveless. Easy to wash compared to stays.
stays/corset
Less uncomfortable than those of Georgian or Victorian Eras and typically stays were worn instead of full corsets though the term corset was being applied to both. The ones we think of when someone mentions “corset” today are the Victorian ones.
petticoat
Usually only one was required and not a lot of volume was required for the high-waisted fashions.
stockings/garters, pantaloons
No panty hose for these ladies, but rather cotton or silk stockings, held up by garters.
chemisette
Basically a white lawn dickey with a high collar.
drawers
Proper ladies didn’t wear drawers, since they were considered to be quite “fast” and racy.
Regency Era Women's Fashion: Riding Habit

Riding Habit

Gowns & Dresses

Author Candice Hern also has a great page that details the various styles of dresses a woman would wear throughout the day named and appropriate for specific activities. These included:

morning gowns
visiting gowns
walking gowns
promenade dresses
carriage dresses
riding habits
dinner dresses/gowns
ball gowns

Regency Era Women's Fashion: Spencer jacket over a white muslin gown, 1798

Spencer jacket over a white muslin gown, 1798 – Wikimedia Commons

Outerwear

Regency Era Women's Fashion: Pelisse coat, October 1820, Ackermann's Repository

Pelisse coat, October 1820, Ackermann

wraps & shawls
A wide variety of wraps and shawls were worn for warmth during this time period.
spencer
A close-fitting, tight sleeved, waist length jacket modeled on a gentleman’s riding coat, but without tails.
pelisse
An overdress or coat dress. The pelisse fit relatively close to the figure (though not tight) and had the same high-waisted lines as the dress of the day. Pelisses were also heavily and variously trimmed with fur, swansdown, contrasting fabric, frog fastenings, etc. practically from their beginning. In fashionable circles, pelisses more or less replaced the fur-lined cloaks of the earlier periods.
redingote
From the French corruption of “riding coat”, a long, fitted woman’s coat, belted and open to reveal the skirt of the dress beneath.
cloak or mantles (a short hip- or thigh-length cape) or Mantelets
Worn in the evening, often as part of an ensemble for the opera. Short cloaks with upstanding collars would also be worn to the theatre.
capes
These were fading out of fashion for women during the Regency, but some still present

Footwear

slippers/simple pumps
The basic shoe pattern resembled a ballet slipper (without points, of course) and might be made from kid leather, satin, or velvet.
mules
Backless slip-on shoes with a slight heel.
half-boots
An ankle boot made of sturdy leather for outdoors or velvet/satin for evening.
pattens
A metal contraption strapped onto the lady’s shoes in inclement weather, to lift her above the mud, snow, or rainwater in the street.

Accessories

fichu
A standard accessory for any modest miss who felt too much cleavage was showing. Also called a “tucker” as you tucked it into the bodice of your gown.
tippets (boa), pelerines (a broad collar-like cape which covers the shoulders.) & muffs
Warming aids, but also fashionable.
parasol
One mustn’t get spots! Freckles were quite unfashionable during the Regency.
reticule or ridicule
Some people argue that ‘ridicule’ is the only proper Regency term for a ladies purse, but you’ll see ‘reticule’ used almost exclusively.
gloves
For propriety’s sake and during the day, to limit sun exposure.
hats, bonnets
Again, propriety insisted that one’s hair be covered and the bonnets helped keep that porcelain complexion spot-free!
turbans, bandeaux
Favored more by older women, these were quite fashionable.
veils
Mostly in conjunction with widows and mourning.

In the Boudoir or Bedchamber

nightrail or night dress
Practical and high-necked, probably cotton.
dressing gown
A long, comfortable house garment that covered the night dress
wrapper
A thin gown or robe worn for modesty

Next week, we’ll take a look at Regency Era Men’s Fashions.


Another source of entertainment are these digital Regency Paper Dolls for your Hero and Heroine.

Visit my post on Men’s Regency Fashions or my Regency Resource page for more information regarding a variety of other Regency-themed topics. If you’d like more information on a specific place or topic, please let me know in the comments section below.

  16 Responses to “A Primer on Regency Era Women’s Fashion”

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  1. You can see the echo of the regency nomenclature in modern military usage: “Dress Blues,” for instance.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Bart! The military influence on Regency fashion was very strong. I didn’t go into specific styles, but both men and women’s clothing borrowed heavily from military fashions.

  2. I’ve been asked if I can provide more images to go with the definitions. Time is probably my most limiting factor right now, but I’ll see what I can do. Thanks for the suggestion, Teresa!

  3. I’m constantly amazed at the impressive work on your blog!

    • Thanks! I’m trying to keep them interesting on a couple of different levels for both readers and writers of Regency Romances.

      I’ve had some great suggestions along the way and owe the whole idea to Alexia Reed’s questions and idea that I turn it into an ongoing series.

      Without you two, I’d be a sad, boring little blogger. =)

  4. Hi…I have been researching online for over 25 years and always like to find a new person who lays it out clearly…I haven’t read the whole thing, but I think you left out one very important category, which is the dinner dresses…full dress, maybe? but different from ball dresses 🙂

    • Thanks, Stirling. I’ll add that to the list.

      I went looking for more information on what distinguished a dinner dress from ball gowns and other more formal gowns and it seems that they weren’t quite as low-necked and often had longer sleeves. It seems shawls weren’t worn to dinner and this way the ladies could stay warmer while seated and not moving around so much.

      Love learning new stuff!

      • K…my take is that dinner dresses were worn after dinner to the theatre, soirees, dances that were not balls as in so many of JA’s books…and they only had one dinner dress unless they were wealthy, so they put the same dress and jewelry on every night (not much fun!)
        The ball dresses were much much more elaborate with lots of ribbons and puffs and jewels and embroidery (and as you say, probably skin haha)…they were probably kind of hard to sit down in….
        I find a lot of my customers (Saint Francisville Louisana annual Audubon Pilgrimage, if you want to Google it) want me to dress them like the un-wed heroines of the novels of the time, and I have to convince them that the older ladies wore jewel tones…it was an earned right!!!!

  5. Would it be OK if I mentioned your webside on my Facebook page?
    June Calvin

  6. Does anyone know how Regency ladies carried a handkerchief when not in use?

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