One of my priorities when reproducing the fashions of any era is to be able to create something which can be simultaneously historically accurate and individual and distinctive in style. It is becoming harder and harder to accomplish this with Regency fashion due to the huge amount that is reproduced every year, partly due to the enormous popularity of Jane Austen.
In response I've made it my task to uncover some of the lesser known extant examples of Regency clothing, and over the next few months I will be providing a detailed insight into some more unusual examples of Regency outerwear. These are often found packed away, unseen, in the archives of museums for years, dropping into an oblivion of forgotten fashion styles...
The Pelisse, reproduced
Whilst not as popular as the spencer jacket amongst reproductions, the pelisse seems to have been recreated generally to follow the same lines. The typical pelisse is very similar to the example in Plate 1 (right), which is in the collection of the Fashion Museum in Bath.This style, with its high seamed waist, long straight sleeves and small collar, typifies most reproduction pelisses. It is also used as the base style for more elaborate pelisses of the second decade of the nineteenth century, when piping, ruched decoration and appliqued designs become popular.
It's a style often seen reproduced for TV and film, such as in the recent BBC production of Sense and Sensibility, no doubt pushing its popularity forward even further. It can be a relatively simple garment to make, compared, in some cases, even to the dress worn underneath.
The basic form of the pelisse seems to be a natural progression from the Redingote and the military pelisse.
The Redingote was a development of the riding jacket into a more general purpose coat, which was worn towards the end of the eighteenth century, while the pelisse's military namesake was the short fur-lined jacket worn by hussar light cavalry soldiers.
Indeed, many of the first early nineteenth century garments referred to as pelisses retained many military inspired features. These tend to be most obvious in the decoration, which includes frogging, braid and fur, but also in the more rigid and fitted cut of some garments, giving them a style very reminiscent of a military uniform.
However, there is a subtly different, yet very distinct, second style of pelisse, which is often wholly ignored when it comes to reproducing the fashions of this era. It retains many of the same features as the pelisse style referred to above, but is entirely devoid of any waist seam.
Instead it flows from shoulder to calf in a single graceful line, forming an elegant and refined silhouette. In many ways it is far closer to the original military pelisse in style. This type of pelisse generally appears intended to be more of a summer garment, as the examples I have come across are in lightweight silks and have a very floaty, gentle, breezy quality, again helping to form a softer, prettier silhouette than the more commonly used style. They universally appear to have long sleeves and generally small collars, to keep the breeze off the neck, and often have no fastening at all. They are also a very simple style to recreate, which does not help to explain the lack of reproductions in existence.
Plate 2 (right), taken from an 1811 edition of Ackermann's Repository, shows a military inspired version of this style of pelisse. The frogging and fur decorations can clearly be seen, but from the flowing and light way that the fabric drapes over the woman's body, it would appear to be made from a light weight silk. This example, unlike the extant examples examined in detail below, appears to fasten over the body. However it retains the same silhouette and softer appearance.
Thanks to the Fashion Museum in Bath, and Hampshire County Council Museums and Archives Service., I have been lucky enough to be able to examine a number of extant examples of pelisses in this style in detail.
The Jane Austen Pelisse
The first of these currently belongs to the Hampshire County Council Museums and Archives Service.
However, its alleged original owner was none other than Jane Austen herself. It certainly has a strong connection to the Austen family, and has been linked to a pelisse referred to by Jane Austen as "my brown bombasin" in a letter of 1813, which fits with the date attributed to it due to its trims and other datable elements such as the sleeve heads. However the Jane Austen pelisse is pure silk, rather than the silk and wool mix of bombasin, although its brown colour and long sleeves seem to coincide with other fashion choices Jane Austen was making in this period.
The pelisse itself (right) is made from a light to medium weight twill weave silk, with a small oak leaf repeat pattern in a lighter golden brown.
It is trimmed around the collar with a ruched strip of the same fabric, and around the cuffs and front edges with a thin gold silk cord.
It is lined with a very lightweight off-white silk, and is stitched using a deep burnt gold silk thread.
This combination of silks seems to be very common for this style of pelisse, whilst the waisted style are generally in plain silks and wools.
The construction is also very typical for this style of pelisse. There are five main panels, all of which follow the bodice shape of a gown of the period, but then flare out to form the gored skirt, which would finish at some point down the calf, a few inches shorter than the gown worn underneath.
In the pictures below, you can see just how thin the silk of the lining is, as the oak leaf pattern is very visible through it.
You can also see the tiny stitches used to carefully backstitch the sleeves in.
This also gives a very good view of the ruched detailing around the collar, which gives the garment a lighter, pretty element.
This can very easily be reproduced today by regularly gathering up a bias cut strip of fabric and stitching it into the seam.
For more details and pictures of the Jane Austen Pelisse, see "Jane Austen's Pelisse coat c. 1814".
The Fashion Museum's Silk Pelisse
The next pelisse I will examine, pictured right (plate 5.), is currently on display at the Fashion Museum in Bath.
It is in very much the same style as the Jane Austen pelisse, and is in a very similar weight twill weave patterned silk. There are, however, two main differences in this example.
Firstly, the lack of trim. This indicates that it is slightly earlier in date than Jane Austen's pelisse, probably from around 1807 or 1808. This gives this style of pelisse a very good range of dates, another attribute which should lead it to being reproduced more often.
Secondly, the thin silk ribbon which is attached to the base of the collar indicates that this example could also be fastened, which Jane Austen's could not.
Plate 5. © Fashion Museum
This general lack of fastening certainly defines this style of pelisse firmly as a piece of clothing for the warmer months of the year, filling in a definite gap in the reproduction garments currently used, which has previously only been filled by a shawl.
It is again possible to see the very thin silk lining on these pelisses. On this example it is held in place by two rows of tiny running stitch, creating an intricate and interesting detail, without being difficult to achieve or taking away from the simplicity of the garment.
Plate 5 detail © Fashion Museum
The Fashion Museum's Muslin Pelisse
The style of the first two pelisses contrasts greatly with that of the next pelisse examined here. Again taken from the collection of the Fashion Museum in Bath, this example (plate 6.) shows the style interpreted in a very different way.
This is definitely a far more elaborate, expensive and fashionable version of the pelisse. The top layer is in a very fine muslin with intricate whitework in vertical stripes down the pelisse. This is framed by a wide, even more delicately worked border. Again it has the same general construction, with five basic panels, and the same long tight sleeves. However this example has no collar, adding to its very elegant high status appearance.
Plate 6 © Fashion Museum
The whole thing is lined with a bright saffron yellow silk, which is the same sort of weight as the lining of the previous two pelisses examined.
This bright yellow shimmers through the whitework, perhaps indicating that this pelisse was made for use when attending evening occasions, as candle light would bring out the yellow highlights perfectly. This would also be exaggerated by the hem of the muslin being separate to that of the silk, allowing flashes of the yellow to appear as the wearer walked. This sort of effect would be far harder to recreate effectively on a normal waisted style of pelisse.
Plate 6 hem detail © Fashion Museum
Creating the Pelisse
Although there are currently no commercial patterns available for this pelisse style, it is relatively simple to draft.
A trick way to do this is to take the bodice pattern for the more common style of pelisse and use it as a base from which to draft the new pattern.
Cut the original bodice pieces out of a toile fabric (preferably not calico, as it would be too stiff for this style) but instead of cutting across the bottom of the pieces, continue from the side, slowly tapering out. Ignore the dart placements, instead letting it drape at the front. Once the angles of the gores in the skirt have been adjusted to sit correctly, it can be made into a paper pattern.
These examples are certainly very different and exciting compared to what is normally seen amongst Regency reproductions in general. Between them they also demonstrate the great assortment of styles and looks which can be formed from the same basic design, which would certainly create variety if attending an event wearing your creation.
This style very successfully achieves my aim of creating a good balance between the historically accurate and the exciting and new, enhancing the fashions of a very popular era.
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