Recently there has been a proliferation of reproduction Regency projects, no doubt as the result of the ever increasing number of events based around the Jane Austen theme. Muslin gowns, spencers and poke bonnets have been reproduced so many times that it becomes difficult to be original and innovative in your recreations, whilst also remaining true to an authentic historical precedent.
This article will take us back to basics, to the nuts and bolts of the regency lady’s outfit. We will look at fashionable colours and fabrics and how to apply these to suitable styles of gown, focusing on the middle of the Regency period. Having looked at this in theory, we will apply it to three of my own reproduction garments in order to demonstrate the differing effects these choices can have.
We will also be looking at how different choices would have been perceived through contemporary eyes. Through taking these different elements into account, it is possible to create an outfit that is not only stunning and original, but is firmly faithful to Regency methods of design and construction.
Before basic elements such as colour and fabric can be considered, it is first of all necessary to research the type of gown you will be making. This decision must be based upon the purpose of the gown. Many contemporary terms used to designate the style of a gown relate to the purpose of the garment as well as its cut. Therefore a thorough knowledge of the purpose is necessary before a design for a gown can be considered.
- Is the gown to be worn at home in private, or in public?
- For walking, or for dancing, or for reclining elegantly?
- For comfort, or for show?
Many of these purposes are reflected in contemporary terms such as ‘undress’ or ‘full dress’, but in many of these cases the styles of the garments overlap. It is therefore necessary to break this overall ‘umbrella’ term down further to describe function, and thus consider the suitability of your gown to its purpose.
Similarly important is an understanding of the age, social status and personal circumstances of the wearer of the gown. Even within the confines of an Austen novel, the gowns of a Miss Bingley would be vastly different to the clothing of a Miss Smith. The contemporary advice book to women, the 1811 publication ‘The Mirror of Graces’, counsels its readers as follows:
“Elegant dressing is not found in expense; money without judgement may load, but never can adorn […] In short, the secret of dressing lies in simplicity, and a certain adaptation to your figure, your rank, your circumstances.”
This advice must be applied today when we consider which contemporary sources to trust. What is the provenance of the exquisite extant gown you have viewed? Who was the sitter in that stunning portrait, and is the gown they wear one which would have been worn for any other purpose than simply the portrait?
Once a purpose has been defined, you can begin to choose the style of your gown. Construction techniques, and consequently bodice styles, were incredibly varied during this period. While some individual styles, such as the cross over bodice, had their heyday at the beginning and end of the period, many styles remained in fashion, within subtle variants, for its entirety. Three main styles will be considered here in a simplified form: the front closing, the back closing and the bib front. There are, of course, many variations even on each of these!
The front closing usually consists of a separate front lining and front bodice, which are attached under the arm. The lining, usually linen, either crosses over and pins or hooks at the front, or has lacing. The dress fabric is the drawn up on a tie at the neckline and waistline and tied over the top.
The back closing is usually similar, with a separate lining lacing or hooking underneath a drawn up dress fabric. Alternatively, the back can be flat lined and fastened with hooks and eyes, or even, very occasionally, buttons.
The bib front, also known as the drop front, has the lining constructed the same way as the front closing. The front panel of the bodice is attached to the skirt, which is pulled up and pinned or tied in place. While either of the first two styles can be used with a wide variety of neckline styles, the bib front is, in general, limited to a low, square shape.
The next element to consider is the sleeve. The elbow length sleeve had all but vanished by 1810, leaving the short and long sleeve, or indeed a combination of the two. The short sleeve could be incredibly tiny, or, more commonly, extended almost to the elbow. The larger, puffy sleeve was not seen at this date. The long sleeve during this period was generally quite loose and drawn in at the wrist, but there are also numerous examples of tighter sleeves, being cut on the cross to better fit the shape of the arm.
There is a stubborn myth that short sleeves were for evening wear and long for day. While this may generally be the case, as is indicated by examples that show a detachable longer sleeve under a shorter sleeve to allow for diversity of use, it is by no means universal. Jane Austen herself refers to a fashion for long sleeves in evening dress in a letter of 1814:
“Mrs Tilson has long sleeves too, & she assured me that they are worn in the evening by many”.
Numerous fashion plates also depict ‘undress’ or ‘day dress’ with shorter sleeves (though these are generally of the variety that ends just above the elbow).
The final major element to consider is the skirt. This could be trained or untrained, though generally the latter by the middle of the period, unless for very formal wear. They were usually constructed using a gored front section, and a rectangular back section, being shaped both at the waistline and at the hem. Generally the back section was gathered, but was also on occasion pleated onto the bodice. They were also beginning to receive decorative attention at the hem by the middle of the Regency, adding both aesthetic interest and weight to the bottom of hems. This was achieved through tucks and ruffles.
Fabrics and Colours
Once you have decided upon the purpose, status and style of your gown, you can move onto the more aesthetic elements of fabric and colour. Whatever the style of your gown, it is the fabrics and colours that you pick that will give it a character of its own. During the Regency period, there were three main fabric types used in fashionable dress. There was, of course, the ever popular muslin. There was also silk, seen in a variety of forms from Satin to Sarcenet. Finally, there were the vibrant printed cottons.
As well as extant gowns, it is also possible to gain snapshots of original fabrics through resources such as ‘Barbara Johnson’s Album of Fashions and Fabrics’, which contains a record of one woman’s sartorial life through fashion plates and fabric samples. The published facsimile of this is now out of print, but there are a number of secondhand versions on the market.
Another excellent resource is the fabric sample cards found in Ackermann’s ‘The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics’.
Each edition of the magazine often contained a page with an allegorical woodcut surrounding four fabric samples, with accompanying descriptions and details of where they could be acquired. This contemporary resource therefore gives us a glimpse of the selection from which the contemporary woman was choosing.
This particular example from November 1809 (right) contains both figured and printed cotton.
It is muslin, however, that is the archetypal fabric of the early Regency style, and which was still very much in use by the middle of the period. Muslin could be left plain, embroidered, tamboured, figured or dyed.
Cassandra Austen’s back view watercolour of Jane Austen shows a blue muslin. White remained the most popular colour, however.
Jane Austen tells us that Miss Tilney of ‘Northanger Abbey’ “always wears white”, while Edmund Bertrum in ‘Mansfield Park’ informs Fanny Price that “a woman can never be too fine while she is all in white”.
The 1809 portrait of Mrs Harrison Gray Otis shows how a simple, plain muslin can be used to great effect.
Muslin was used for a vast array of purposes, including accessories like caps and capes, as well as both for informal and formal use. It was also often accented with colourful silk accessories, like bonnets and Spencer jackets.
While muslin can easily be washed, and can appear extremely elegant, printed cottons provided a more practical alternative for informal use. These do not generally appear in fashion plates, but are documented visually in satire, such as the 1801 engraving ‘Fashionable Furbelows’ (right).
While extant examples do survive (Bath Fashion Museum’s Collections, BATMC I.09.912), the ratio of printed cottons to muslin dresses has probably been skewed due to the printed cotton gown being more disposable, probably being made up into patchwork quilts.
In cases like this, resources like ‘Barbara Johnson’ and the fabric sample cards in ‘The Repository of Arts’ are extremely helpful.
The final significant fabric is silk. Silks of this period were lightweight and crisp, the heavier brocades of the eighteenth century having long become unfashionable. Regency silk was available in a far more diverse range of weaves and mixes than today. Satin is one of the few still recognisable today, though it was far less glossy than its modern equivalent. Lustring is occasionally available today, and can be seen used in an extant gown here. Sarcenet and bombazine are also regularly mentioned, the former being a rather general term for a lightweight plain or twill weave silk, the latter being a twill with a warp of silk and a weft of wool.
Blue, green, yellow and red were all popular colours during the Regency, usually used to accent the stark white of muslin. However, many of the colours referenced by contemporaries can sound a little vague: pomona, for example, which is a green, and barbel, which is blue. Bright colours were rarely used for an entire gown, their use being confined to outerwear or accessories or the printed cotton dresses, although this is not universally the case.
To demonstrate how a consideration of each of these elements can enable the creation of an original, yet thoroughly authentic gown, three of my own reproductions will be examined.
The first of these is a printed cotton morning dress, worn with a muslin chemisette and cap.
Its purpose is to be used as a practical day time gown for wear whilst letter writing, or performing other daily tasks, probably by a woman of the professional classes or lower gentry.
Its style is front closing, gathered over ties, over a linen lining with a short sleeve extending to the elbow.
Its colour and fabric is a yellow printed cotton with a small, regular design, which will wash easily and allow splattered ink to be almost invisible! The fabric for this dress came from Reproduction Fabrics.
The second is a striped and sprigged muslin afternoon dress, again worn with a muslin chemisette.
The purpose of this gown is to be worn in the afternoon for social activities, or for more elegant accomplishments such as sewing. It could also be worn out to pay calls, or for walking, if worn with a pelisse or Spencer.
The style is back fastening with a flat linen lining, a button at the waist and a tie at the neckline. The sleeves are long and loose under short puffed cap sleeves.
The final gown is a plain white muslin evening dress.
The purpose of this dress is to be used at a supper and ball. It is therefore far more formal that the first two gowns, and probably would have belonged to a lady of the upper gentry.
Its style is back fastening with hooks and eyes and with a fixed lining. The sleeves are short but elaborate, with a ‘vandyked’ theme.
The fabric and colour is plain white muslin. The simple fabric is ornamented through the use of the ‘vandyked’ trim, which is also used at the hem. The fabric came from UK department store John Lewis.
 Ginsburg, Madeleine, ‘Barbara Johnson and Fashion’, in Rothstein, Natalie (ed.), Barbara Johnson’s Album of Fashions and Fabrics (London, 1987), p21.
 The Mirror of the Graces (London, 1811), p.61.
 Langley Moore, Doris, Gallery of Fashion 1790 - 1822 (London, 1949), p.12.
 Rothstein, Natalie (ed.), Barbara Johnson’s Album of Fashions and Fabrics (London, 1987).