My Regency Costume Cheat Sheet, by Suzan Lauder, Regency Romance Author

Example of Regency letter-writing by http://toracellie.blogspot.ca

With 17 verbose posts full of images, the challenge of an Absolute Basic Check List was a bit daunting. How does one summarize a lady’s needs for a full Regency costume suitable to wear at a function where people are knowledgeable about the era? Actually, some of the links shared at the end of this post do a pretty good job of it.

For procuring and creating the costume parts, however, the individual blog posts in the Thrift Shop Regency Costume Experiment series will be of much more use. That’s because of the numerous images of step-by-step construction of the re-purposed or upcycled items, museum examples of actual clothing from the Regency era, period fashion magazine sketches, and paintings of people in the era. There are also topic-specific links and how-to videos in many areas.

This post also has a number of overview links, links with more images of museum and purpose-made Regency wear, and a sort of “next steps” list for some readers: how-to links that require sewing skills.

For the Checklist, I’ve noted price ranges:

  • Lowest prices listed are the minimum you would pay for a good-quality finished version of the item (new, gently used, or repurposed/upcycled using minimum crafting or sewing skills), based on my experience with the guidelines set out for the Thrift Shop Regency Costume Experiment.
  • If there is a zero instead of a bottom price, it’s because this is an item you’d probably choose only if you already had one, and if purchasing, another choice on the list is preferable.
  • Highest prices are for purchase of a period-correct, attractive, good-quality (but not always top end), brand new item from a good vendor, custom-made to fit you in the case of clothing.
  • If there is a question mark instead of a price, it means the item is of such a personal nature, the top end cost is based on the buyer’s evaluation.
  • If you have the item on hand, it will cost nothing.
  • Most items can be obtained in the lower half of the price range.

Footwear

  • Simple ballet flats ($5-$20)
    • Fully enclosed (pump).
    • Round, pointed, or square toe.
    • Slim sole, separate heel under 1” high (not wedge), and any heel over ¼” should be a flared kitten heel.
    • Silk-look fabric, fine cotton, or soft leather.
    • Any colour except for black, dark brown. Wide stripes and large dots are fine.
    • No elastic, rubber, jute or coarse cotton, large trim items, folded leather detail, external seams, etc.
    • Ribbon ties up the leg with flat soles are optional (good for keeping shoes on while dancing).
    • Simple trim is optional.

      My second set of footwear for potential Regency Costumes: a pair of half-boots and two pairs of satin ballet flat shoes. The boots will have the buckle removed (perhaps for a man’s shoes!) and get dressed up with a ribbon and fabric rose across the base of the toes. The white and pink shoes will be cleaned, then the white will get white ribbons to lace up the legs. The pink shoes will have the fringe covered with a ribbon and the cut-away area disguised.

  • For day wear, flat, lace-up half-boots ($18-$155).
    • 8′-12″ tall, round toe, slim sole and ¼” heel maximum.
    • Light colours.
    • Softer leather, cotton, or denim.
  • Orthotics may fit if you buy a half size larger than normal.
  • Post: Put on Your Dancing Shoes!

Stockings

High-lift foundation garment for “the girls”

  • Custom made Regency short stays ($70-$190), for C cup and under, OR
  • Custom made Regency full corset ($95-$380), for D cup and higher, OR
  • Push-up bustier or modern corset that’s low cut and not too cinched in the waist ($0-?), OR
  • Well-fitted (or slightly small) demi-cup, push-up bra, such as a Balconette. ($20-$?), plus a waist cincher if needed for extra lift.
  • Post: Lift and Separate!

Chemise and petticoats or pantalettes

  • Authentic, custom-made, new, Regency undergarments from specialty stores or Etsy:

    Petticoat, early 19th c, American, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

    • Chemise ($45-$100) (worn under the corset for comfort), and
    • Petticoats ($35-90) or pantalettes ($35) (to “fluff out” the gown so it won’t stick between your legs), OR
  • In place of all of the above:
    • A floor-length full slip or nightgown, deep cut to match neckline of stays/corset/bra ($7-$38), or
    • A floor-length half-slip pinned to base of bra ($7-$20), or
    • Plain, lightweight, light-coloured cotton capris or pajama pants, or pants liners. ($5-$20), and
    • A low-cut camisole if needed with the last two items ($5-$25).
    • Super-fine woven cotton is best for comfort, but polyester will work.
  • Post: Twenty Layers of Unmentionables and no Panties!

Basic empire waist gown ($38-$400)no information

  • Floor length, empire waist.
  • Straight (non-fitted) skirt, flat in front and gathered in back.
  • Short, puffed sleeves and wide, low neckline for a dinner/evening/ball gown; long sleeves and high neckline for morning gown (to 4pm).
  • Simple-print finely-woven cotton, linen, or percale (not black-based), smooth silk, organdy, or synthetics that are good facsimiles.
  • 2m (6’-7’) by 1”-2” ribbon tied under the bust.
  • Don’t buy a pre-made “Regency” gown for under $100 on Etsy, as most are terrible!
  • $200-$400 should buy a nice, authentic, custom-made gown.1812 costume parisien
  • Posts: Floor length, Empire waist, and what else? Anne Shirley? (description of a Regency gown and examples); A Morning Gown plus some Frankenstein Gown Parts (what aspects of vintage gown styles to avoid; my gown purchases; morning gown modification from 80’s vintage); Were Regency gowns worn on the Titanic? (purchase tips for new handmade Regency gown; what to look for in a vintage gown to re-purpose).

Regency Hair Style

  • Centre parted, with ringlets around the face; fancy up-do with bun and curls or braids, worn close to the head. (How-to and video links in posts.)
  • If hair is too short for a fancy up-do, a hairpiece (bun maker, bun hair, and 1-3 braids for $10-$30), fall ($0-$50), wig ($0-$92), or a turban are options.
  • Ringlets can be purchased or taken from a doll or fall ($7-$60) and held on by a bandeau, or flat pin curls can be made.
  • For very short hair, comb forward in a “Titus” and hold in place with a ribbon, bandeau, or similar decorative item.
  • If desired, trim with ribbon, lace, bandeau, braided fillet, small silk flowers, feathers, tiara, diadem, combs, etc. ($0-?)
  • Posts: Faking Purdy Locks: The Modern Hairstyle goes Regency;
    Regency Bad Hair Day? Wrap a Turban! (my clip-on fall in an updo at end of post).

Headwear

  • Bonnet or hat ($6-$70)
    • Preferable if your hair looks nice when you remove your hat indoors.
    • Brim is sturdy, not floppy, and straw or satin-type fabric.
    • Capote hat or bonnet can be made from a wrap-around straw visor or hat, a 20” diameter simple, smooth, silk-like fabric cover, and a ribbon.
    • A good hat base is the narrower brim straw picture hat at Michaels, $5.
    • Add 1.5′-2.5′ of 1″-1.5” ribbon to make ties for a bonnet.
    • If desired, trim with several bunches of small fabric flowers and greenery; larger fabric roses; an ostrich, peacock, or other feather and brooch/medallion; hat pin; or combination, or other designs based on Regency sketches.

      Mock up of design of green and straw visor with green velvet cap.

      Mock up of design of green and straw visor with green velvet cap.

    • A nice range of new items can be found at the upper half of the price range above. Fancy items are double the top price listed here.
    • Posts: The Thrifty Regency Hat-trick! (Capote hat from visor and dinner napkin for under $10); How-to Times Two: Variations on Dressing up a Bonnet (The Pink Hat); Special Headwear for the Grown-up Lady (museum hat examples at the end of the post).
  • Lace cap ($2-$40)
    • Optional; for married or single-and-proud-of-it women only.
    • Similar to the idea of a turban, this will hide hair for women who can’t manage a Regency hair style and will be indoors where they must remove their hat.
    • Can be made from super-fine white cotton and/or fine whitework lace items such as doilies, handkerchiefs, curtains, cushion/pillow covers, or purchased applique items and ribbon.
    • Post: Special Headwear for the Grown-up Lady
  • Turban ($15-$40)
    • An alternative to the hat or bonnet that does not have to be removed when you go indoors.
    • A nice choice for evening wear if you’re unable to create an up-do.
    • Twist 2-3 silk or satin scarves (how-to and video links on this blog), or a length of silk or satin fabric (could be a table or dresser runner, a pashmina, small shawl or wrap) about 15″-20” wide and 40” long about your head behind ringlets; secure with safety pins and bobby pins.
    • A brimless, soft, natural fabric hat with a scarf or fabric wound around its base in textured waves works well also.
    • Fringe or ends with some type of embellishment or trim are recommended, and can be left to droop on one side.
    • Braid or cord can be woven around with turban cloth.
    • Add feathers, foliage, brooch, medallion, hat pin, or similar items.
    • Post: Regency Bad Hair Day? Wrap a Turban!

Jewelry ($0-?)

  • Simplest would be a medium-sized “jeweled” cross on a chain.
  • More elaborate choices include “jeweled” necklaces, armlets, bracelets, brooches, rings, earrings, and combs.
  • Almost all stones are are acceptable, but they should be cut stones. Costume jewelry is fine if it doesn’t look plastic.
  • Cameos and red coral were popular.
  • Drop earrings were on hooks not studs; clasped or open hooks are period.
  • Lover’s eye brooches were fashionable.
  • Post: Shiny things expose my inner crow!
Regency Opera Gloves, kid, Metropolitan Museum of Arts

Regency Opera Gloves, kid, Metropolitan Museum of Arts

Gloves

  • Cotton, silk, or kid leather.
  • Short or optional for day wear ($5-$25).
  • Evening gloves go above the elbow: 24”-31″ (opera-length) with a loose-fitted upper arm are period-correct ($8-$32 for synthetic; $50-$200 for natural materials); 19” minimum.
  • If synthetic opera gloves are worn, buy a matte and not shiny satin finish, as it looks fake.
  • Any colour but black. White and softer colours were most common.
  • Post: I never did mind about the little things…

Fan ($1-$10)

  • Optional, but necessary on a warm day or in a ballroom.
  • Folding hand fan.
  • Avoid plastic and obvious synthetic materials for the sticks and guards.
  • If the fan has any scenes on the leaves, they should be English.
  • Any colour. Trim can include feathers, sequins, metallic, mother-of-pearl.
  • Post: I never did mind about the little things…

Parasol ($20-$200)

  • Optional if your face is protected from the sun by a bonnet or hat, or you are in a ballroom.
  • Eight or fewer ribs is Regency-appropriate, but who’s counting? As long as it’s not a dozen!
  • Pagoda shapes were most common, but round parasols were also in use.
  • A shallow curve is fine, but avoid flat Asian-style parasols.
  • The fabric should look like silk or cotton if possible.
    • Patterns on the fabric itself were rare, and would be a wide stripe or large dot or similar.
    • Fabric on vintage pagoda parasols from the early 20th century might not be very close to a Regency look.
    • Do not buy a Battenburg lace parasol, as they’re Victorian.
  • Most trim was on the periphery of the parasol: fringe (almost any kind), tassels, or lace. Some had embroidery.
  • Any colour but black.
  • Post: I never did mind about the little things…

Reticule ($5-$65)

  • Small drawstring bag (under 8” by 8”).
  • Almost any colour or shape works, in a fine fabric, beaded, netted, or knitted.
  • Avoid printed satin, most open lace or crocheted styles, eyelet lace, or leather.
  • Beads or sequins should not look plastic.
  • No zipper, but metal snap clasp or gate closures are fine.
  • The smooth silk bat-wing or moon reticules on Etsy are overpriced ($15-$22) for what you’re getting. The beaded and embroidered ones are often very good deals.
  • Post: All the pretty little purses

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A few good overview web sites for a Regency costume:

These sites are summaries of what we’ve learned during the 17 previous posts in the Thrift Shop Regency Costume Experiment blog series, and I refer to them regularly myself.

Best site (pdf version) for showing the details one should search for: It’s All in the Details: Making an early 19th Century Ball Gown, by Hope Greenberg.

Best site (pdf version) for applying the other to real life: Miss Lisa Brown’s Guide to Dressing for a Regency Ball—Ladies’ Edition.

BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice, 1995

Less useful, but detailed, with lots of drawings and paintings is Wikipedia’s 1795-1820 in Western fashion.

An interesting article explaining Regency fashions while referencing the movie adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Dressing for the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice: Regency Fashion.

Lots of links for buying stuff new can be found at Regency Attire: Purchasing Your Costume by Regency Dances.org  Not all these items are accurate, as they try to cover numerous costuming situations.

 

Sites for examples of Regency gowns:

Museum gowns:
Real people wore these, so they’re a bit more accurate than fashion plates such as Ackermann’s Repository for Art, La Belle Assemblée, or Costume Parisién.
The Vintage Thimble tumblr
Kyoto Costume Museum Archives 1800s-1810s

Ideas from others’ modern interpretations:
The JASNA AGM Regency Ball in Brooklyn, 2012. Most of these are probably handmade from modern reproduction patterns. There will be non-Regency clothing represented as well, as not everyone is immune to the marketing of those selling the Titanic/Downton Abbey gowns.
The Jane Austen Festival in Bath is a similar situation.

Erica Duncan's montage of Regency fashion plates for each year between 1809 to 1828.  Original art from Ackermann's Repository for Arts. Click on thumbnail for much larger image.

Erica Duncan’s montage of Regency fashion plates for each year between 1809 to 1828.
Original art from Ackermann’s Repository for Arts.
Click on thumbnail for much larger image.

Pinterest has a lot of good images, but I’d suggest searches by clothing article rather than just “Regency,” as the number is overwhelming even then.The site will often offer sub-headings at that point, too. This is an example of a huge board. Take care, as some images are modern and may contain misinformation; that’s why I like to stick to museum examples. But sometimes those are mis-dated by some pinner, too. It won’t be long before you’re picking them out yourself, though, as there’s nothing like 50 Regency gowns compared to one 1830’s gown. Warning: Pinterest is like crack.

Resources for making your own gown if you can sew a bit:

A video tutorial from Follies Past shows how to make a Regency ladies’ gown from a bridesmaid dress, a set of curtains, and a lace blouse. This requires beginner sewing skills.

Old Petticoat Shop offers their Regency Dress Online Class for $97 plus fabric, notions, etc.

My Regency Journey from Tea in a Teacup goes through creation of an entire Regency costume, but made from scratch.

Diary of a Mantua Maker has two tutorials on fitting a Regency gown: the first shows common mistakes and the second, sleeve and bodice fitting.

Sense and Sensibility Patterns has a number of videos with tips on how to fit your gown or modify the design of a pattern, as well as some sewing techniques.

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Update: A nice little summary for evening wear, with some of the wonderful descriptions from The Lady’s Magazine and La Belle Assemblée: Mimi Matthews’ Elizabeth Bennet, La Belle Assemblée, and Early 19th Century Fashion.

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turban 1 croppedNEXT POST: The grand finale! Photos of my completed costume, plus an overview of my learning experience with the “experiment” and brief notes on what the summer bonus posts will look like.

Were Regency gowns worn on the Titanic?

Hey! There’s an Alfred Angelo prom dress at “Vinny’s Second Wife’s Closet” in your favourite colour! But before you buy it, rip it apart and remake it, check the prices of custom-made Regency gowns. They start at just under $100, and an appropriate, good-quality morning dress can be purchased for $150-250, a pretty ball gown will cost around $200-450, breathtaking concoctions go for up to $1000, and the sky’s the limit for exact reproductions of specialty gowns.

All of a sudden your $200 used, strapless polyester with the fitted waist and sequined empire bodice seems a bit dear. Think of the fun, though! Trying to adjust it to get gathers in back, shopping for fabric that’s a reasonable match for sleeves, never mind re-working the bodice to attach them. And you just cut a hole in the nipple area while removing that sequin!

One thing I learned is that a suitable re-purposed dress is not that easy to find in thrift and vintage stores, in fact, that’s how I made the list of what not to buy: those dresses were in the majority. In order to make this blog as authentic as possible, I didn’t depend on others and stuck to my “rules.” But the reader can freely ask friends and relatives to raid their attics, get advice or assistance from a seamstress, or buy a product.

I set my upper limit for a used gown at $100 for a dress with little modification required. The most I’ve spent so far was $50 for a pelisse gown, which I admit was a bad purchase. My morning gown cost under $35, and needs less than $10 worth of modifications, plus my time, and though not perfect, it will be close enough in style, with better fabric and yards more lace than a $150 made-to-order one on eBay or Etsy.

As with anything, you get what you pay for, and the cheapest purpose-made Regency gowns are not worth buying. Gowns under $150 are usually machine-made using inexpensive fabric and simple construction, are not fitted properly—and are being sold as Victorian/Regency/Steampunk/Pioneer/Hippie/Jane Austen/Titanic dresses! What happened to Downton Abbey? Author Melanie Schertz found one with that on the list, too!

idea for accessories with morning gownHowever, a strict budget and no time to shop in vintage stores changes things; if so, buy a simple pre-made Regency gown and augment it. For example, a white dress with simple gathered neckline and sleeves can be dressed up with ribbon and lace and pretty accessories. An overdress or robe can be purchased in a colour you like to make it into evening wear.1813 la belle assemblee evening gown1812 Costume Parisien Dress and manteau (train) trimmed with marten (fur) (Click on thumbnails to enlarge.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I still love the idea of vintage, though, because it affords a budget opportunity to have a gown that doesn’t look like it would be at home on the Titanic! In addition, I have a bit of a crush on Colin Firth, and his wife, green fashion advocate Livia Guiggioli, would approve of a re-purposed gown. She’d approve of Pemberley, too. Maybe he’ll buy it for her!

In an earlier post, I had a list of items to avoid in purchasing a vintage dress or re-using a dress from your closet. This time, we look at what to shop for and examples of good vintage dresses.

When I shop for a potential Regency gown in a vintage or thrift store, I walk down the dress aisles looking at the floor. Depending on the hanger bar height, if the dress touches or puddles on the floor compared to its neighbours, it has length. If the fabric and colour look okay, I pick up the skirt. Often the fabric looks okay from farther back, but is knit, and I drop it. Then I look at the whole dress, evaluating for necessary modifications. I’d guess that 90% get rejected due to unworkable designs.

The last thing is size. As we all know, marked sizes are inconsistent. In a second-hand situation, a clerk may have guessed for the tag, and the dress may have been taken in or home-made. I’ve always had problems with size, because my bust is a good size larger than the rest of me, so if the shoulders fit, the bust doesn’t. It’s important to try it on. I know it sounds creepy, but it’s rare for anything to be smelly, and I wash the clothing as soon as I get it home!

Ideal characteristics for re-purposing a gown:

  • Minimum 8” wide extra fabric at the bra-band level as you pull it out flat while wearing the dress (16” actual length since the fabric is doubled up) for back gathering; more is better. The early Regency hem brushes the tops of the shoes, so if a fitted dress is too long with your ballet flats, pull up the skirt to see if this gains extra fabric width for gathers at the top.
  • Regency fabrics or visually reasonable facsimiles (Jessamyn’s Regency Costume Companion has some great examples).
  • If no Empire waistline, there should be no sewn waistline front or back, or if so, the skirt should be long enough when pulled up under the bust. Later Regency was ankle length, and ribbon or lace can be used to add a couple of inches.
  • Bodice should be a close fit, but not too tight—you should be able to remove visible zippers and replace with ties, laces, or buttons and loops.
  • Puffed sleeves about 3-6” long (underarm) that don’t puff high. This is the most difficult requirement, as they were only common for short spurts a few times in our history. See photos below for alternatives that work and, in a later post, I’ll show some examples for faux-puffed sleeves using minimal spare fabric from your gown.
  • Non-Regency details should be easy to remove, hide with trim, or modify without being obvious.

Other details for Regency:

  • Back bodice either flat and fitted or gathered to mirror the skirt.
  • Front bodice style varies a great deal in Regency.

I’ve shown a few bodice examples, and while you’re looking at them, enjoy the sleeve style variety, too. You can click on the thumbnails to enlarge the image.

Evening dress 1818-20 cream silk and wool mix trimmed with green satin1810 cropped1810 cotton metallic thread met interesting neckline croppedcan do this with the net for blue dress croppedThe Rendezvous Reginald Edward Arnold croppedFrench School XIX century A young lady with a lyre cropped.met museum 1815 bodice and sleeve detail1810 orange croppedcotton muslin 1820 note back closures1805-1810 muslin with metal star embroidery and back ties croppedback bodice 1811

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dress, 1810-15, French, cotton, The Met cropped

 

 

 

Dresses requiring very little modification:

  • Hippie dresses.
  • Empire waist “round” dresses: gathered all around.
  • 80’s dresses, though the puffed sleeve may be large and high and the dress may not be long enough—but there’s nothing wrong with adding lace to the hemline, and we’ll look at other tricks in a later post.
  • Empire-waist gowns with straight skirts, but not fitted and flared. Then another dress can be used for an overlay or robe for the skirt with the gathering at back, and perhaps sleeves.
  • Regular-waisted dresses, if the skirt is long enough to be lifted up to under the bust and still barely brush the tops of the shoes.
  • Gowns that work otherwise, with sleeves large enough to be made into puffed sleeves.

The Thrift Shop Regency Costume Experiment is intended to be a minimal-sewing project, but in case some readers have greater ambition, there are more gowns that will work.

Sewing and fitting will be required:

  • Caftans, with a single fabric, not too heavily patterned. You’ll have to fit the bodice, modify the sleeves, and gather the “skirt” fabric in the centre back.
  • Too-large evening gowns, if the top of the skirt is big enough to make gathers in the back and the bodice suits being pulled into back-gathers with the skirt, or you do not mind fitting the bodice.
  • Sleeveless or strapless gowns with enough skirt fabric for empire with back gathers, plus other extra fabric for sleeves (a matching shawl or wrap, a bodice overlay that can be removed leaving an attractive bodice, a lining, or extra skirt fabric). It’s difficult to buy a coordinating blouse or fabric to make sleeves, because it’s almost impossible to match colour and texture.
  • A skirt from one dress and bodice from a blouse or a short dress—it’s better if the darker colour is on top.

Some bodice enlargement insert ideas (click on thumbnails to enlarge):1810 evening dress V and A cropped1805 croppedidea for bugle lace

 

 

To add a few inches to get extra fabric for gathering (click on thumbnails to enlarge):1812-July-Evening-Dress-blueRed gauze dress with chenille embroidery. A light open weave fabric woven in Scotland, gauze or leno, ca 1808

Notes on adding trim:

  • If you want to tie a bow in a waist ribbon, it needs to be about five feet longer than your waist measurement. If it is a wider ribbon, you can attach it to the dress to keep it flat, but I recommend a loose whip stitch unless you never want to change it for another look. An alternative is reinforce it with a second ribbon or stiff fabric of matching width an inch short of your waist size, attached on both edges with fabric tape in the middle section of the ribbon, to keep it from folding over.
  • If you intend to add lace to the bottom of the skirt, it can be flat or gathered. Pre-gathered lace can be bought in several widths, though colours are limited. If you find flat lace you want gathered, you need 2½ to three times the length of your hemline. Run a baste stitch and gather (hand sew ½” long stitches near the top edge for about 2-3 foot intervals; tighten the baste stitches uniformly to match the skirt edge). Attach with the fabric tape. If you attach outside, you should then attach a ribbon with fabric tape over the top edge to hide it. Overlap the ends the width of the fabric tape and secure.

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That’s it for the three-post introductory series on Gowns. My initial plan for this Experiment involved one complete outfit by the end of June, so I have success with my morning gown, and we’ll see the rest of the items in future posts. I also said if I had time, I’d include a ball gown. Counting forward, and knowing I can’t post every week, my time is tight! But I will continue posting my projects beyond the initial Experiment, and a ball gown and spencer are in my plans!

NEXT POST:  HEADWEAR AND HAIR, WHICH WILL LIKELY BE 2-3 POSTS. I HAVEN’T ENOUGH COURAGE TO TACKLE LYDIA’S HAT YET, BUT THERE WAS A SNEAK PEEK AT MY FIRST TRY AT A CAPOTE WITH THE WHITE MORNING GOWN LAST WEEK!

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Cool links:

Fashion examples from 1808 to 1828 from E.K. Duncan.

The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics, published in 1809 by R. Ackermann

The Mirror of the Graces, a ladies’ etiquette book from 1811.

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Images are from Pinterest, most originating from museum pages. If interested in the source of any particular image, contact me for more details.

Update:

A Morning Gown plus some Frankenstein Gown Parts

Poll time: Another instructional post on what to buy, or The Big Reveal: my Regency gown purchases to date? Okay, here’s the boring list… just kidding!

I started shopping for my costume for the 2015 JASNA AGM in July 2014. Early on, I decided my top dollar was $100 for a gown that required almost no modification to make it Regency-appropriate.

My second and third purchase for this blog, along with a $3.99 reticule, was a dove grey coat dress (far right) for $49.95 at Value Village, the most expensive item I’ve purchased to date. The pelisse-like style of this dress could not be passed up: the bodice has a double-lapelled crossover in front while the skirt has a faux front opening. It was intentionally purchased 4 sizes too large to allow modification for gathering in back. In the photo, the skirt is turned back so you can see it’s fully-lined.initial thrift shop gown set reduced

I consider this purchase a bit of a mistake that I hope I can wiggle my way out of! Even with the large size, it has minimal additional fabric at the under-bust level. The bodice is huge, and since the front opening is faked, it has an invisible zipper in back to make additional reworking complicated!

The skirt is flared, so between it and the bodice, there’s plenty of extra fabric to make a faux-puffed sleeve atop the long, straight sleeves. However, this flared skirt will look odd with the tiny amount of gathering. To make the grey dress into a pelisse that fits will be a lot of  work—and might not even be possible.

A navy blue strapless gown was purchased at Value Village for $19.95. The generous skirt has a pocket-pleated top edge that sits just above natural waist, so it’s about 2” too short for floor length at empire waist. This is easily remedied with a bit of lace at the hem. The bodice is tight, fitted and spaghetti-strapped, laced in back in a V-shape. The skirt has an underskirt; the top half is lining fabric that’s not an exact match to the gown, with the bottom two feet in black net crinoline (see photo above). These can be used to make sleeves and modify the bodice to attach them.

Unless I find a simpler solution, the blue gown will be my evening/ball gown; however, this gown will need to be almost entirely remade: remove the skirt at the top pleat cuts, then reattach with a flat front and back gathers, add lace to the bottom, add about two inches to the bodice to close the V-lacing for my comfort, make shoulder straps to attach sleeves, and make sleeves trimmed to disguise the fabric mismatch.

I made a bit of a panic decision when I bought it, as it seemed I’d never find anything suitable, it was cheap and had lots of fabric, and I had just realized my parking meter was expired! But completed, it will be unique!

My collection includes three short dresses for “spare parts” hence, the Frankenstein reference. I bought two garments for their trim from the Salvation Army Thrift Store. I spent $14.95 for the cream silk mini-dress, which has fabulous embroidered panels (perhaps instead of the lining and black net for sleeves and bodice trim on the navy gown!) as well as enough Vandyke (pointed) lace for a good-sized skirt bottom (navy, navy, navy!). The orange silk Indian blouse has elaborate pointed lace for $6.95. The fabric won’t work for anything Regency.

I already owned a multi-coloured paisley print silk dress with gold thread, a potential bodice and trim for a ball gown. I’m watching for a nightgown or slip dress in one of the main colours.

The star of the show is my most prized purchase: a white Swiss-dotted lightweight cotton 1980’s “Prairie dress” vintage wedding dress (on the left). This gown was $33.95 at WiN (Women in Need) Vintage and Thrift Superstore. I found it just after I had the difficult episode of social anxiety described in an earlier blog post, and it perked me up!

It features a lace-trimmed high neck; long, puffed sleeves with matching lace on the cuffs; lace-edged petticoats attached with the skirt (see photo above), and a separate, plain camisole. There are lovely lace insets and narrow pleats for subtle detail. The skirt is at the natural waist level, and well-gathered all around.

The dress fits well except for a tight bust area, and it’s back zippered, which means if I remove the zipper, the resulting relaxation of the fabric over “the girls” will result in a gap in back. I’m torn between being more Regency-correct and the work involved in figuring out a way to modify the bodice without too much work.

This is intended for my morning gown or day/walking dress. I’ve shown the simplest modification.white gown pinned up first example

The skirt was raised without removing it, and re-attached to the under-bust. I’ve safety pinned it every three inches or so, and when covered by the matching white waistband with ties (left of dress) or a ribbon for colour, it becomes a close enough facsimile to a Regency gown.

white gown showing folded zipperFor a neater finish than safety pins, no-sew fabric tape alone will not suffice, as it is not strong enough. The skirt can be tacked in place with the fabric tape, then either machine sewn or whip-stitched for strength.

No matter how the skirt is attached, if you keep the zipper, you must leave a width equal to the depth of the pocket of the zipper on each side, so you can operate it. I’ve propped it open for the photo, but it doesn’t droop since the zipper is stiff. I’ve been told you can hide the zipper with a shawl!

bath muslin 1815

1815 muslin morning gown, Bath Fashion Museum. Note the gathered skirt front that fits at the bottom of the waistband rather than at the underbust.

If raising the skirt makes it too short, you can add lace to the bottom of the dress or the petticoats as shown above, and/or raise the top edge of the skirt to a position where its top edge would be at the bottom of the matching waistband, as in the 1815 gown. However, around 1815, gowns were shorter!

bodice back

Detail of the back of a Regency gown bodice, showing shoulder seams several inches behind the top of the shoulder, diagonal seams to help fit the bodice, and sleeves fitted much farther back than a modern gown. This creates the a classic “diamond back” shape typical of the era.

A great deal more could be done with this dress: the skirt could be removed and all the gathering moved to the back, and at the same time, the petticoats could be attached to the camisole to make a separate garment that can be used elsewhere. The sleeves can be modified to look like a top puffed sleeve over a straight sleeve, from as simple as attaching a ribbon level with the bottom of the bodice, to as complex as adding lace panels to make them longer, with a slimmer cuff, which is more Regency. I mentioned the zipper earlier. Dare I go whole-hog and make a classic diamond-back? Yikes!

The thing is, the dress is close enough, in my estimation, with perhaps the exception of that zipper. What’s a Frankenstein without a zipper somewhere?

 

 

 

 

Newsflash:
Since I prepared the photos for this post, I bought a 1960’s jonquil dress (such a popular Regency colour!) that may need less work than the navy! Woo-Hoo!

Trouble is the bodice fits perfectly, but the skirt is 2” too tight—everywhere! I know! Who is built like that?

Good thing is a ton of sheer overlay plus a cape-like draping begging to be made into back gathers. I can put a period-style decorative panel along the centre front to accommodate my tummy and butt—I hope I can find the right fabric!

Also, I bought a cool hat, thinking it looked a lot like museum Regency ones, then realized the nice square-woven sections between the swirly fabric parts were made of synthetic ribbons—pretty much plastic! So I’m Lydia, with a very ugly bonnet that I’m going to rip apart as soon as I get home. Good bones, though.

 

NEXT POST: THE LAST IN THE THREE-PART INITIAL SERIES ON GOWNS WILL DISCUSS THE VALUE OF PURCHASING A CUSTOM-MADE REGENCY GOWN, AND WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN SHOPPING FOR A USED GOWN TO BE RE-PURPOSED FOR YOUR UNIQUE REGENCY GOWN. THERE WILL BE MORE GOWN POSTS IN JUNE TO SHOW THE FINAL PRODUCT AND SOME EASY TRIM TECHNIQUES TO MAKE YOUR GOWN SPECIAL AND FAKE SOME REGENCY DETAILS. BUT WE MUST MOVE ON TO HEADWEAR AND HAIR, RETICULES, JEWELRY, AND MORE UNDERWEAR KIND-OF-STUFF IN BETWEEN!

 

Floor length, Empire waist, and what else? Anne Shirley?

A summary of a Regency gown is like a list of what constitutes a good car. Past a few key items, it starts to become possible for variations too complicated for a simple post.

I don’t know how I decided upon my version of the simplest summary of the elements key to a Regency gown. I suppose I read enough different accounts by others, then looked at enough fashion plates, paintings, and photos of actual museum pieces from the era and formed an opinion. That’s what you do when you buy a used car, right? Preferences figure into it, but there are only so many cars around, and we don’t hitch horses to them or fly them.

I’m not an expert, but I’ve tried to learn as much as I can, and that’s what I’m passing on in this blog. A warning: I’ll overlook some construction details until later, since they won’t be found in a modern gown.

Elements of a simple and respectable gown for an 1811-1820 Costume:

Floor length. Surprise, surprise! Toes of shoes can be shown for early Regency; the entire shoe and even a bit of ankle in the late teens.
Empire waist: The skirt of the dress starts just below the bosom.*
Fitted bodice (see neckline for different dresses below).
A ribbon or narrow panel of dress fabric may be added at the high waist.

Skirt shape:
dresspatternembroid•  Not fitted too close to the body’s curves.
•  Front is one flat panel, with perhaps some easing, but front gathering is rare.**
•  Rectangular shaped front panel, sometimes with a slight flare at the hemline.
•  Front and sides fall straight to the floor, just large enough to skim past any wider parts.
•  Back may also be based on a flat rectangle but tends to be flared, sometimes into a slight train for early Regency.
•   Back is heavily gathered between the two diagonal back seams (back darts for a re-purposed gown) or full width.
•   No flounces; they didn’t come into vogue until into the 1820’s.

Some gowns had overlays:
•  A slip dress with the above dress as a sheer overlay for a ball gown.
•  Robes that look like floor-length vests, worn over a plain gown.
•  Sleeves could be part of the overdress or the underdress.
•  Skirt overlays, if any, are never diagonal, draped, pleated, ruched, etc.

grade 4Sleeves and bodice for “full dress”: an evening or ball gown:

Short sleeves:
•  I love a puffed sleeve! It must be an Anne of Green Gables thing. After all, I had red braids until grade 3, when Mom had three little ones to get ready before she went to work. I got a Pixie cut and cat’s eye glasses that year!
•  It pleases me to say the most common shape in a Regency evening gown sleeve is a short, puffed sleeve with length to match the high waist, and a narrow cuff.
•  Sleeve puffs have gathers at top and bottom, and go straight out, not up or droopy.

1811 Silk evening gown sleeve detail, Metropolitan Museum of Art

1811 Silk evening gown sleeve detail, Metropolitan Museum of Art

•  Especially in the later Regency, ball gown sleeves had keyholes, insets, scallops, loops, layers, knots, bows, braiding, petals, piped fabric, self-covered buttons, beads, gemstones, etc., as well as ribbons, lace and embroidery! I’m out of breath reciting that list!
•  Short, straight, fitted sleeves or very short cap-like puffed sleeves were less common. Sheer, long Juliet sleeves were sometimes seen below the top puff.
•  Sleeves just to above the elbow with a slight puff, or straight and slightly wide (similar to the sleeve opening), are early 1800’s.

1805-10 met front for good general example cropped

1805-1810 patterned evening gown, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bodice:
•  Very low cut in front and slightly low in back.
•  The opening is wide, to the point of almost no shoulder straps in some cases.
•  Many shapes are acceptable for the top front bodice, but most common is square or near-square. Princess and halter are not seen.

 

Sleeves and bodice for “undress”: a morning gown or day dress:

1814 swiss dotted back resized

1814 Swiss dotted morning gown, back view to show ties and gathers.

Long sleeves:
•  Most common is a Juliet sleeve: a long, straight, fitted sleeve to past the wrist, with a short, puffed sleeve over it (or a similar look).
•  Other styles for long sleeves may be peasant (long puffed top and bottom with cuff), fitted, or shirred (multiple puffs along the length).
•  Length can be ¾ to so long they scrunch up the arms and end at the base of the fingers.

Bodice is simple and neckline is high: from a few inches from base of neck, to high-necked or, in the later teens, rows of ruffle up the neck. We’ll talk about “Regency dickies,” in a future post.

Fabric:

•  Fine, sheer or near sheer cottons and linens, gauze, voile, broadcloth, sari fabric (without heavy sequins), heavy but smooth silks, taffeta, organza, polyesters that look like silk or satin. Fine rayon may work to mimic muslin or silk.
•  Almost all colours were stylish at one time or another in 1811-1820, from vibrant to muted, earth tones, and lots of pink. Avoid black as it was solely for mourning. Lavender or grey were used for half-mourning, but also show up in fashion colour palettes. Obviously fluorescents are out of the question, but not acid green!
•  For day dresses, prints or embroidered patterns should be small and widely-spaced White-on-white was common, as was a coordinating print on colours. Avoid prints that scream modern. An article in “Jane Austen’s World” has some examples.
•  Some patterns work for a ball gown, but it’s safer to go one colour. White-on-white fine cottons or similar; or solid, rich-coloured silks.
•  Striped cottons for day wear; sheer striped overdresses or monotone stripes for ball gowns are fine. Stripes are always vertical on the skirt.

bath fashion museum 1817-1821

1817-1821, from the Bath Fashion Museum

Trim:

Early Regency:
•  Trim was minimal.
•  On the main field of the skirt, embroidery patterns were no more than a wide pattern of a small size.
•  More elaborate trim would be at or near the bottom border of the skirt, on short sleeves, and all over the bodice.
•  Does not have to match the gown, though that was common.
Later Regency:
• Trim was more obvious, and there was just more of it!
•  An optional line of trim down the centre front of the skirt.
•  Skirt bottom trim may be as wide as one foot, in large patterns.
•  May include large fabric flowers, ribbon, lace, embroidery, piping, chenille, Vandyke (triangular points), pleating (both horizontal and bound vertical), piping, ruching, beadwork, ball fringe, etc.

Aspects of vintage gowns that will not work:
bad gown 1bad gown 4•  Knits, coarse cottons or linens, loud geometrics, fuzzy textures, obvious polyesters, leather, corduroy, raw or coarse silk (duponi), lamé.
•  Large prints, dark prints, animal prints, random geometrics, patchwork or multiple print panels.
•  Sewn-in details that would be hard to remove without leaving a shadow (e.g., long darts, long pin-tucks, studs) or without a lot of work (lots of sequins).
•  Large buttonhole fronts, either partway or all the way.
•  Lapels, cowl or boat necks.peasant dress cropped
•  Fitted and flared multi-panel skirts. This is the most common problem with modern empire gowns: there is not enough fabric for the gathers in back, even if you buy many sizes too large. You need lots of fabric in the bra line to waist area.
•  Pleated skirts, drop skirts, uneven skirt bottoms, flounces.
•  Low cut backs.
•  Ruching or draping of additional fabric on the skirt. If you can get beneath all this stuff, the dress usually is too fitted for the back gathers. Regency skirts are dead plain. Yes, they can have overlays, but they’re fairly simple until the hemline.

Compromises if all other aspects of the Regency gown are met:
•  Raglan sleeves are not the right shape, but okay if not too noticeable
•  Too-short skirts: up to 4 inches can be added with trims
•  Avoid sleeveless. You can add sleeves, but it’s just as hard to find a puffed sleeve blouse as it is to find a puffed sleeve dress, and it’s ten times as hard when you’re trying to match them.
bad gown 2•  Halter bra or brief spaghetti strap bodices require not only sleeves, but shoulder straps and either an entire bodice or significant modification. If the skirt is not too closely fitted and has enough fabric for gathers behind, plus extra fabric or great details, it may be worth it, but it could be a huge sewing project.

 

NEXT POST: ELEMENTS TO LOOK FOR WHEN SALVAGING A GOWN, AND THE GOWNS I’VE PURCHASED SO FAR!

 

* Between the last decade of the 18th century and 1810, the line between skirt and bodice (“waistline”) of gowns rose from the natural waist to close under the bust and stayed high. The neckline dropped as well, so in the late 10’s, the bodice tended to be what Austen called “abbreviated.” The waistline dropped again in the early 20’s. There were exceptions during that period, but this blog will only focus on the high empire waist most characteristic of 1811-1820.

** Gathered-front gowns started to fall out of style by the late 1700’s, and by the Regency were uncommon. Even though most Regency gowns had a flat skirt front with the gathering behind, some examples can be found with gathers all around. This blog will focus on the flat-fronted gown, but recognize that if a gathered-front gown is found, it does not have to be made over.

A follow-up to last week’s post:  How to fit Regency corsets and stays, by the Oregon Regency Society.

A Footnote:  Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley wanted to become a writer, and so did I for most of my youth. Sometime in my teens, someone told me it would be too hard and would never pay the bills, and I was uncertain of my ability. My path took me down the road less traveled for a while, but I finally made the detour and came back around to the busy intersection where I belong!

Gratefully, Suzan Lauder