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Perhaps one of the most surprising discoveries about Regency outerwear is the great variety seen in the styles of Spencer jacket worn throughout the period.
Unlike the Pelisse, which I examined in last month's edition, the Spencer does not have two clear-cut basic styles on which there are subtle variants. Instead, each individual Spencer seems to have a style very much of its own. The only clear delineation between styles is their use as summer, winter or evening Spencers, but even these boundaries are occasionally crossed.
Spencers on Film
What has come to be known as the typical Spencer, as seen in the 1995 BBC production of Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', is the type of Spencer that follows the same lines as the dress bodice, the only differences occurring in the fabric and the slightly more elaborate sleeve heads. This design, no doubt due to the ease of reproducing it and its immediately recognisable style, has been popular in recent film and TV productions depicting this period.
The most exciting Spencers seen in these productions have the addition of a peplum, which is a short pleated frill at the centre back, and which was a popular adornment in the Regency period. However, as with the Pelisse, the variety of Spencer styles actually seen in the period is not demonstrated in these productions.
The Spencer is Born
George, 2nd Earl Spencer
Allegedly, the Spencer came into being in the 1790s when George Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer (Plate 1) singed his coat tails when standing by the fire, and so he angrily cut them off. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the removal of the coat tails actually occurred after the same Earl Spencer caught his coat tails in brambles while out hunting. This style caught on as a male fashion, as a waist length, double breasted man's jacket, which was often adorned with military medals, the better to emulate Earl Spencer.
The Spencer soon became popular in women's fashion, as an ideal addition to the often very thin and chilly dresses which had become fashionable. The original style did follow the same lines as the dress itself (see below), just as Earl Spencer's had followed the lines of his tail coat, acting as a warmer second layer over the bodice. However, as the high waisted dress style evolved and developed, so too did the Spencer.
|March 1796, Morning Dress
from The Gallery of Fashion
|1798 - Fashion plate
||1799 Journal des Dames
As we cross into the nineteenth century and the high waisted style becomes more established, people appear to have become more and more adventurous with styles of the Spencer. The form of the little jacket broke away from the 'second bodice' style, seen at the end of the previous century, and became an item to be independently designed in its own right, and in its own unique style.
The Spencer shown right demonstrates these changes perfectly. Its design lends it to be used in the same way as a shrug or cardigan is worn today. It is open at the front, unlike its predecessors, and follows a different line to the bodice of the dress at the waist and at the collar.
This waist in particular is significantly lower, and does not have the same tight, close fitting lines as the gown, and the collar seems to have a more practical use that seen in the above Spencer from 1796 in that it would be an effective shield against draughts. The lady right also appears to be outside, as her left hand seems to be resting on a rock, rather than a table or sofa.
This would indicate that this Spencer was designed as a light jacket for summer wear, as opposed to the Spencer above left which, with the addition of the muff to the outfit, and that it was a design for March, was obviously designed for cooler weather.
The image left, taken from La Belle Assemblée, shows a far greater resemblance to the original style Spencer above. However, the very high collar with the ruff, and the interesting dip at the centre front give this Spencer originality and interest. Again, it sits significantly below the waist of the dress, unlike the other bodice-like Spencers. This length below the waist often seems to be a problem amongst reproductions, as many follow the waist line of the dress, which, when the wearer moves, can create gaps where the dress bodice is seen. By using styles of Spencer with a lower waist, which seem to have been more common anyway, this problem is immediately eliminated.
Also unlike the Spencer from 'Pride and Prejudice' this Spencer gives a splash of colour to the white muslin dress, adding visual vitality to a style which, by 1815, had been in use for twenty years.
Military style Spencer and matching gown from La Belle Assemblee 1813
Next, we move on to a very different style of Spencer indeed.
The Spencer at left is again taken from an edition of La Belle Assemblée, but this time from 1813. The Spencer jacket itself bears very little resemblance to the lines of the bodice of the matching dress which it covers; instead it looks more like a modern day shrug or bolero jacket in its cut, with the swooping line from the neck to the back of the garment.
This example is also trimmed with fur, denoting it clearly as a winter garment and showing its versatility when used in different forms. It also has a military design to its trimmings, recalling the military career of the garment's creator, Earl Spencer.
Walking Dress with Spencer, from Almanach des Modes 1814
The image left depicts a Spencer with the waist at its natural position.
Although the waist line of the dresses did raise and lower during the second decade of the nineteenth century, this is a particularly low example for such a relatively early date.
It is taken from the 1814 edition of Almanach des Modes, a yearly publication by Horace Vernet, which contained plates of "Incroyables" and "Merveilleuses". It is, therefore, perhaps a slight exaggeration upon reality, but it nevertheless shows that the Spencer style continued to be used as the waist lowered.
This particular example does, however, again show a Spencer which follows the lines of the bodice, as seen above.
The following photographs of extant Spencers are provided with the express permission and courtesy of VintageTextile.com
A Quilted Spencer
This Spencer is particularly unusual as it is made from quilted silk satin. The Spencers seen in the fashion plates above, as with the gowns of the period, could have been made from wool, linen, cotton or silk, but extant Spencers, in my experience, are generally made from wool or a wool-silk mix, unless they are specifically for evening or summer wear. This Spencer, as we can tell from its collar, weight and long sleeves, is meant for outdoor wear in cool weather.
We can see how this Spencer has been constructed in a similar way to gowns of the period. The two pale green linen strips tie at the centre front and act much in the same way as they do on drop front or front closing style gowns. This method of construction reduces strain on the main body of the garment and the front button fastenings, as well as keeping it all in place.
A Summer Muslin Spencer
© Vintage Textiles
This second extant Spencer is at the opposite end of the scale to the quilted one examined above.
This example was made for use as a light jacket over a gown during the summer months. The ribbon and buttons on this example are later nineteenth century replacements, but the effect is similar.
This Spencer is an extant example of the style generally used in films and more commonly reproduced, however what makes it original and interesting is the fabric and embroidery. It would probably have been worn over a short sleeved, low-necked gown to keep off the chill on a summer evening, without the need for a cumbersome shawl.
The fine embroidery on this example also denote it as a Spencer which most certainly would not have been worn when the lady was going for walks, as they are often depicted as being used for in film and TV. This is particularly the case with the embroidery around the cuffs , which shows no sign of damage from heavy use.
It is also possible to see in this image that the embroidery has been worked upon the pieces before they have been sewn together, as the pattern does not quite match up.
Adapting Spencer Patterns to Create the Unusual
There are many commercial Spencer patterns on the market at the moment, both from the big pattern retailers and the smaller historical pattern sellers. Many of these are usable as a base from which to draft a more unusual Spencer pattern. For example, the yellow Spencer from La Belle Assemblée 1815 can easily be reproduced by dropping the waist of the pattern and adding a shallow dip to the centre front, and possibly the centre back as well.
1819 Journal des Dames
A similar Spencer to the quilted satin one above can be achieved by attaching a band around the bottom of the Spencer and the front tabs to the lining, especially as there are patterns available already with a similar style of collar. The quilting itself is more time consuming to achieve, but would certainly be an outstanding garment. Of course, the simplest way to make an unusual Spencer is to use a more unusual fabric, such as that used to make the muslin Spencer.
Of course, the Spencers examined above are just a very small selection of the huge variety of Spencers seen in both fashion plates and extant garments.
Pleated peplums, like that seen on the riding habit in Janet Arnold's 'Patterns of Fashion 1' are also found. Indeed, Anne Elliot wears such a Spencer in the 1995 production of Persuasion, a particularly good film in that it includes some more uncommon styles of garment. Other Spencer styles seen in period prints and garments include examples which were open to the waist, have intricately piped detail to the sleeve head or were double breasted.
This variety of examples in historical sources makes the Spencer a garment with as-yet great untapped potential for reproduction.