Posts Tagged ‘Regency Gowns’

During the late 18th century, early 19th century, trains on gowns were de rigueur. I chose to show the two gowns below, since the styles were popular when Jane Austen was a teenager (first image) and wrote the first editions of Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice (second and third images).

1785-90 Sheer embroidered cotton muslin lined with pink silk taffeta - Galliera

Sheer embroidered cotton muslin, lined with pink silk taffeta, 1785-1790. Galliera

Silk Dress 1795 The Kyoto Costume Institute

Silk Dress, Kyoto Costume Institute, 1795

Robe ayant appartenu, 1797

Robe ayant appartenu, 1797

As Regency styles evolved and the 19th century  progressed, trains were worn largely on evening dresses.


1805-1810 French evening dress, V&A museum

1805-1810 French evening dress, V&A museum

I have often wondered how delicate muslin gowns survived the harsh laundering that was required to remove stains made from dusty floors and muddy pathways. Even the grandest ladies wearing the most expensive dresses promenaded on gravel walkways or shopped along city or village streets. How did they manage to keep their hems clean in an era when paved roads and sidewalks were almost impossible to find?

Dirt road, a view near New Cross Deptford in Kent, 1770. artist unknown Yale University, Mellon Collection.

Dirt road, a view near New Cross Deptford in Kent, 1770. artist unknown Yale University, Mellon Collection.

Until macadam roads became widespread, roads across most of Great Britain remained unpaved. Village roads were especially notorious for becoming muddy quagmires during rainy days. The deep ruts in this village scene, illustrated just five years before Jane Austen’s birth, say it all.


Detail of  the road in New Cross Deptford

Dresses worn by working class women stopped at or above the ankles, and for good reason! These women wore sturdy leather shoes that could withstand the dirt.


Paul Sandby drawing of two vendors, 18th c.

City streets were barely better than country roads. While sidewalks protected dress hems, roads were still made of dirt. People tossed out garbage from their windows, and horse droppings made crossings all but impassible for pedestrians.

Dirt road_St. George, Bloomsbury

Dirt road, detail of St. George, Bloomsbury

Crossing sweepers were stationed along major intersections, sweeping a clearing for anyone willing to give a tip. Not only did horses pull carriages and wagons, but drovers led animals to market through village and city streets. The stench from their droppings must have been unbelievable.

street sweeper and wheeled plank Vernet_street_print

This enterprising street sweeper places a wheeled plank at strategic points to help pedestrians cross dirty roads. Print by Carle Vernet.


With time, machines began to replace manual labor, as this unhappy street sweeper notes.

By 1829, machines began to replace manual labor, as this unhappy street sweeper notes in “The Scavenger’s Lamentation.” Observe the piles of horse and animal dung left behind.

Jane Austen mentioned wearing pattens when she lived in Steventon. These devices elevated shoes above the dirt, but by the turn of the 19th century, pattens were no longer considered fashionable and were largely worn by the working classes, such as the midwife below.

Rowlandson, Midwife going to a labour.

Rowlandson. AMidwife Going to a Labour.


early 19th century pattens. Museum of Fine Art, Boston

early 19th century pattens. Museum of Fine Art, Boston

I always view contemporary images for clues. Diana Sperling created some wonderful watercolours around the topic. In this painting, you can see how the trains of the dresses have somehow been hitched up in the back, especially with the first and third women.

dirt road_hazards of walking sperling

Hazards of walking, by Diana Sperling

After Elizabeth Bennet walks to Netherfield to visit her sick sister, Jane, Mrs. Hurst and Mrs. Bingley speak disparagingly about the state of her dress:

“She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.”

“She did indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”

“Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office.” – Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8

Bingley’s citified and nouveau riche sisters were horrified at Elizabeth’s lack of decorum. To them, appearances are more important than sisterly devotion. One imagines that they would not have ventured out until the sun had dried the mud and they could be assured of a carriage. From the image below, one can readily see why Elizabeth’s hems were in such sad shape after her long walk in fields made wet by heavy rain.

Dirt roads

One wonders how helpful pattens were when dirt roads became quagmires. Although she was young when she painted these watercolours, Diana Sperling demonstrates a decided sense of humor in her paintings.

In Northanger Abbey, Isabella and Catherine became quickly inseparable, even calling each other by their first names in an age when only intimate friends and family could be on such terms.

They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. 

They pinned up the trains of each others’ evening gowns to prevent tripping, but also staining, I suspect.  (It must be noted that guests changed from their street shoes to dancing slippers before entering a ballroom, which probably reduced the amount of dirt trailed inside.) Nothing could stop the girls from seeing each other, not even “dirt” or muddy streets.

There were many ways to protect trains. In this film still, Gwynneth Paltrow’s Emma hitches her train on a loop over her wrist.

Note the train in this image of the 1996 version of Emma

Note the train in this image of the 1996 version of Emma

These French images from the late 18th century provide the best evidence in how ladies would protect their delicate dresses out of doors. While we assume that ladies did not expose their ankles to the public (they certainly did not in the Victorian era, but the Regency was a different time), the illustrations point out the practical habit of hitching a train over one’s arm.

corte de pelo a la victima

This French fashionista with her short, pert hair cut, reveals her roman style slippers as she promenades with her train carried over her arm.

Les Merveilleuses, by carle vernet

While this 1797 satiric image by Carle Vernet is making fun of fashionistas, one can surmise that the habit of carrying long skirts over the fore arm was widespread.

Wind and open windows swept dirt and dust continually into houses and visitors trod in dirt. No wonder maids needed to sweep floors daily!

Regardless of the efforts to keep streets, sidewalks, and floors clean, one wonders about the condition of the hems on women’s garments. Clothes were expensive before the advent of mass-produced cloth and were carefully recycled, even by the well-off.

Laundresses took an enormous amount of effort to keep clothes clean. One can only assume that the majority of women wore clothes with stained hems, and that only the rich could afford the expense of keeping their clothes looking spotless. Eleanor Tilney wore only white gowns, which told contemporary readers more about her economic status than pages of explanations ever could. In Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris frowned on maidservants wearing white gowns. These white clothes were not only above their stations, but they would require an enormous amount of time spent on maintenance.

Also on this blog: Trains on Dresses



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I love puffed and gathered sleeves on regency gowns. The Probert Encyclopedia defines a mamaluke sleeve as “a long full sleeve partitioned into five sections, each section being drawn and seamed to fit around the arm.” Romantic Fashion Plates defines Marie Sleeves as full to the wrist but tied at intervals. Which source accurately names the sleeves on these gowns?  The three dresses shown in this post show sleeves with more than the five sections. Could the number of sections determine what the sleeve is called?

Muslin dress with mamaluke sleeves

The first dress (1816) was featured in the Jane Austen Fashion Exhibit last fall in Melbourne. Note that in the second dress (1819-1820) the waist is beginning to creep down. The skirt during this time is conical in shape and stiffened at the bottom, whereas the earlier dress has a columnar-shaped skirt that drapes in soft folds from the high waist.

The dress below is described as having Marie sleeves. Adding another wrinkle to identifying these sleeves is this description found in a glossary from Nineteenth Century Fashions: A Compendium: “sleeve with multitude of puffs top to bottom” (romance).  I’m not sure how these differ from Marie sleeves.” In a description for Marie Sleeves, the site states:

“long gauzy sleeves gathered at intervals to make a series of puffs down the arm. I think I have also heard these referred to as “Juliet sleeves”; may also be synonymous with Gabrielle sleeves, the point being, I think, that they were perceived as vaguely Latinate and Renaissancy in origin.”

So, now we have these sleeves described as Mameluke, Marie, Juliet, or Gabrielle.

1820 dress with marie sleeves, V&A museum

I’ve scoured images of Mamelukes, none of which feature these segmented sleeves. Mamelukes are members of a former military caste originally composed of slaves from Turkey, that held the Egyptian throne from the mid thirteenth century to the early 1500s. They remained strong until 1811. Regency fashion took inspiration from Mameluke clothing, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the sleeves were also inspired by this group of warriors – if only I could find a painting of a Mameluke wearing a shirt with partitioned puffy sleeves.

Mameluke, early 19th c.

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Glengarry riding habit, 1817

Glengarry riding habit, 1817, Ackermann

During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, riding habits echoed the high-waisted empire styles that prevailed and the fashion trends that were currently in vogue. The light blue Glengarry riding habit of 1817 (at right) is typical of the fashion of the day. The military-inspired dress was trimmed with lace, braids (image at bottom of post), and frogs. The hat was made of cork, a sensible light weight material, which was visually overpowered by the plumes of feathers that arched over the wearer’s face. Unlike later riding habits, regency riding costumes came in a variety of colors:

It must be remembered that riding dress fashions had not yet fixed on dark colors. Every tint of bright color was used, even figured materials. . . Cloth was of course the general material, but velvet was also used and even silk.  There seemed to be no limit to the equipments and trimmings of habits. Where undersleeves were worn in full dress, they appear on the habits. If fichus were the mode, fichus were worn on horseback, while artificial flowers decked riding hats, as well as long feathers. Necklaces even appear, and frequently chatelaines with watches and various trinkets. I have seen several old French and English fashion plates in which the rider carried a carefully spread fan. If ruffs were worn in full dress, ruffs appeared on horseback. If embroidery was worn, the habit was embroidered.  Two Centuries of Costume in America, MDCXX-MDCCCXX By Alice Morse Earle

Frog fastening

Frog fastening

Lady in riding habit, 1720

Lady in riding habit, 1720

Braiding and frog fastenings of the era were heavily influenced by the return of English troops from Egypt. Frogs had been used in the East since ancient times, and added a dashing, even exotic touch.

The masculine influence in riding habits began near the end of the 17th Century when ladies adopted masculine coats and waistcoats for riding and hunting. The tailored tops were paired with feminine petticoats, as in this illustration. Horse riding had always been an important and fashionable sport for the upper classes, but these masculine-inspired riding habits were condemned from the start by critics who argued that the bold outfits belied a woman’s innate modesty. Some women began to wear them in the most unexpected places.

Samuel Pepys wrote famously in his diary on June 11, 1666:

Walking in the galleries at White Hall, I find the Ladies of Honour dressed in their riding garbs, with coats and doublets with deep skirts, just, for all the world, like mine; and buttoned their doublets up to the breast, with periwigs under their hats; so that, only for a long petticoat dragging under their men’s coats, nobody could take them for women in any point whatever; which was an odde sight, and a sight did not please me.

It took a long time for these outfits to become generally accepted. Almost eighty years after Samuel Pepys wrote his remarks, Samuel Richardson reminded women in his Familiar Letters on Important Occasions (1741) that:

as sure as any thing intrepid, free, and in a prudent degree bold, becomes a man: so whatever is soft, tender, and modest, renders your sex amiable. In this one instance we do not prefer our own likeness; and the less you resemble us, the more you are sure to charm: For a masculine woman is a character as little creditable as becoming. (Women of Quality, Ingrid H. Tague, 2002, p 52.)

Not all men of the era became chagrined at the thought of a woman in mannish attire. In 1670, Cardinal Dubois, a Frenchman, wrote in his Mémoires:

Mme de Fontanges – let us follow our young beauty as she goes hunting with her prince. That day she was wearing an expensively embroidered riding habit and a hat covered with the most beautiful plumes procurable. She looked so elegant in this costume none other could have suited her better. Nicole-Cargill-Kipar’s Late 17th Century Clothing History

Riding costume, 1841

Riding costume, 1841

Despite their doubtful propriety, ladies continued to wear riding outfits, and as the 18th century progressed these costumes began to be more accepted.  With the changing fashion, the silhouette became more frilly and femininized and began to take on a higher waistline. In fashion plates the riding costume would be accessorized with a riding crop to distinguish the outfit from carriage costumes, which were made with similar sturdy, long-wearing cloth. By the end of the nineteenth century riding costumes had come full circle and taken on a more somber, tailored, and masculine look. Ladies’s riding habits began to be fashioned by men’s tailors as well as dressmakers.  In a New York Times article from June 1901, the author wrote: “the lady on horseback is as much of a man, down to the saddle, as circumstances permit.”

This description of the Glengarry Riding Habit (top image) was written in Ackermann’s Repository, September, 1817. A dressmaker named Miss M’Donald was responsible for its creation.

It is composed of the finest pale blue cloth, and richly ornamented with frogs and braiding to correspond. The front, which is braided on each side, fastens under the body of the habit, which slopes down on each side in a very novel style, and in such a manner as to define the figure to considerable advantage. The epaulettes and jacket are braided to correspond with the front., as is also the bottom of the sleeve, which is braided nearly half-way up the arm. The habit shirt is composed of cambric, with a high standing collar, trimmed with lace. The cravat is of soft muslin, richly worked at the ends and tied in a full bow, and there are narrow lace ruffles at the wrists. The headdress takes the form of the Glengary cap, composed of blue satin, and trimmed with plaited ribbon of various shades of blue, and a superb plume of feathers. Blue kid gloves are worn and half-boots. Sources: Riding Habits, Candice Hern, and Nineteenth-Century Costume and Fashion, Herbert Norris and Oswald Curtis.

Images of Riding Habits in the Regency Era:

History of Riding Habits

More links:

Image of 1841 riding habit from Redingote Fashion History.

Military influence in the Spencer jacket, with braided piping, 1815

Military influence in the Spencer jacket, with braided piping, 1815. Image: Kyoto Costume Institute.

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The popularity of the high-waisted regency gown is due to both to French influence in fashion and the Neoclassical rage that swept Europe during the 18th Century. Marie Antoinette is said to have inspired the round gown of the 1790’s, which is essentially a dress and robe joined together and tied in the front (view a rotating video of an early example at the V&A Museum or click on this link to view a typical round gown of the era). Later, Josephine Bonaparte who reigned supreme in her position as a fashion icon, influenced the slim, high-waisted, gossamer thin chemise dress of the early 19th Century.

The round gown, a precursor of the Empire gown, had a soft, round silhouette, with full gatherings and a train, and straight, elbow-length sleeves. These gowns were in stark contrast to the stiff, brocaded or rigid silk dresses of the roccoco period. The round gown’s train, which was common for a short time for day wear and lasted until 1805-06 for the evening, would be pinned up for the dance, as Katherine and Isabella did for each other in Northanger Abbey. One must question how practical these long white muslin dresses with their trailing trains were in England, a country renowned for wet weather and muddy roads.

In England especially, daytime dresses were more modest than their evening counterparts. A few French images depict young ladies wearing day gowns with plunging decolletes, but this was not generally the case, and it is a point that cinema costume makers frequently miss. Until 1810, a fichu or chemisette would fill in the neckline. At first, embroideries on hems and borders were influenced by classical Greek patterns. After Napoleon’s return from Egypt in 1804, decorative patterns began to reflect an eastern influence as well.

Around 1808, the soft gathered gowns gave way to a slimmer and sleeker silhouette. Darted bodices began to appear and hemlines started to rise. Long sleeves and high necklines were worn during the day, while short sleeves and bare necklines were reserved for evening gowns. The sleeves were puffy and gathered, but the overall silhouette remained sleek, with the shoulders narrow. The shape of the corset changed to reflect the looser, draped, shorter waisted style.

Due to the war between England and France, and the restrictions of travel to the Continent, the designs of English gowns began to take on a character of their own, as French influence waned. Between 1808 and 1814, English waistlines lengthened and decorations were influenced by the Romantic movement and British culture. Dresses began to exhibit decorations that echoed the Gothic, Renaissance, Tudor, and Elizabethan periods. Ruffled edges, Van Dyk lace points, rows of tucks on hems and bodices, and slash puffed sleeves made their appearance. The length of the gown was raised off the ground, so that dainty kid slippers became quite visible.

After the 1814 peace treaty, English visitors to France began to realize just exactly how much British fashion had split from its French counterpart. Parisian waists had remained higher, and skirt hems were wider and trimmed with padded decorations, resulting in a cone-shaped look. English fashion quickly realigned itself with the French, and the silhouette changed yet again.

Dresses now boasted long sleeves, high necks, and a very high waist, The simple classical silhouette was replaced by a fussier look. Ruffles appeared everywhere, on hems, sleeves, bodices, and even bonnets. In 1816-1817, the waistline fell just under a woman’s breasts, and could go no higher. There was only one way that waistlines could go, and by 1818, they began to drop by about an inch a year.

By 1820 the simple classic lines of the chemise dress had disappeared and completely given way to a stiffer, wider silhouette with a quite short hem. New corsets were designed to accommodated the longer waistline. Remarkably, Anglomania hit France, and the French began to copy the English fashion.

The rows of ruffles, pleats, appliques, and horsehair-padded decorations stiffened the skirt into a conical shape, creating a puffy silhouette. Big hats were worn to counterbalance the broad shoulders, much as big hair balanced wide shoulder pads during the 1980’s. By 1825 the waist had reached a woman’s natural waistline in fashion plates, but according to evidence in museums it would take another five years before this fashion caught up with the general public.

Leg of lamb sleeves (gigot sleeves) appeared, and dress decorations became intricate and theatrical.

By 1820 the basic lines were almost submerged in ornamentation. The romantic past held a treasure trove of ideas for adorning a lady’s costume. From the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came puffs bursting through slashed and the revival of the Spanish ruff. collars and cuffs developed points a la Van Dyke and sleeves could be a la Babrielle (after Garielle d’Estrees, mistress of Henry IV of France). Skirts were festooned with roses or made more flaring with crokscrew rolls … Fantasy seemed to now no bounds. (Ackermann’s Costume Plates, Stella Blum, page vi)

Read more about regency fashion trends in the links below:

Kathy Decker’s Regency Style, year by year

Jessamyn’s Regency Costume Companion

The Regency Fashion Page

1800s-1820s: Thumbnails

Ackermann’s Costume Plates

Regency Open Robe: 1795

Fashion Prints: Walking Dresses, 1806-1810

Museum Links to Clothing Images

Two Dresses, 1810, French


First image: Round gown, 1798, Metropolitan Museum

Second image: Round gowns, Heideloff Gallery of Fashion, 1794

Third image: Ackermann plate of a walking dress, 1818

Fourth image: Ackermann plate of an evening dress, 1820

Fifth image: Ackerman plate of a ball dress and young lady’s dress, 1826

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I missed the conference in Vancouver, and this link makes me wish I hadn’t. Find a lovely review of the conference and some great photos on Gimletblog, a family site. I simply love the dress Heather had made for the occasion, and the regency wear her husband wore. If you click here and here and here for her posts leading up to the conference, you can follow the progression of the gown. Click here for a peek at her fabulous Jane Austen site, Solitary Elegance.

Update: Can you stand it? Here are a few more views of this gorgeous gown.


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