Regency Gowns: Who Would be a Seamstress?

white gowns worn by Bennet sisters in BBC 1995 Pride & Prejudice

BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice

Regency gowns are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Jane Austen adaptation on TV or film. We expect to see ladies floating around in high-waisted dresses, probably made of fine white muslin. We expect to see large quantities of bosom on display. But from our modern perspective of mass-produced clothing and home sewing machines, we rarely think about how these supposedly simple Regency garments were made.

By female hand and eye. Every last cut and stitch.

1896 poster for première of La Bohème

Original poster for Première in 1896

Whenever I listen to Puccini’s opera, La Bohème, I’m reminded of the fact that Mimi, the heroine, is a seamstress in the 1840s, when sewing was still done by hand.

Mimi meets the hero, Rudolfo, because she needs a match to relight her candle. To earn her meagre living, she has to spend hours sewing and embroidering. When it’s dark, she works by the light of a single candle. But, in spite of her honest toil, she is poor and suffering from consumption.
Once she becomes a “fallen woman”, the consumption kills her. (Well, of course it does! Female sin had to be followed by retribution in the 19th century. Needless to say, male sin didn’t qualify for the same terrible fate.)

Who made our favourite heroines’ gowns?

white muslin gowns Bath Costume Collection

Bath Costume Collection

Actually, in Lizzie Bennet’s case, we don’t know for sure. In Pride and Prejudice, there’s no suggestion that the Bennet sisters make their own dresses, though Lydia talks of remaking a hideous bonnet that she has bought. Since Mr Bennet is relatively well off, with an income of £2,000 a year, the Bennets may well have had their gowns made for them, by some Meryton-based Mimi.

In many of Georgette Heyer’s novels, by contrast, the heroines make at least some of their own clothes. cover of Frederica by Georgette Heyer

In Frederica, for instance, Charis’s “clever fingers” produce the exquisite ivory satin ball gown with white sarsnet overdress that she wears for her come-out, a gown that everyone assumes has been made for her by a modiste of the first stare.

cover of Arabella by Georgette HeyerAnd in Arabella, the family are deeply into recycling to save money. Two huge trunks of Mrs Tallant’s 18th century clothes are turned into useful items for Arabella’s London Season — an opera cloak, a fur muff, a ball gown, and much more — mostly by Mme Dupont, an elderly French émigrée seamstress in Harrowgate. Since it is the middle of January, Mme Dupont is more than glad of the work, even at out-of-season prices. The poor woman works very hard on the commission, but it takes more than a month before the gowns are ready and Arabella can start for London. How much did Mme Dupont earn for those weeks of toil? We don’t know, but probably only a small fraction of the fifty pounds that the Squire gave Arabella as pin money. Fifty pounds was more than the wages of five housemaids for a year!

Gown designs were simple, so weren’t they easy to make?

white spotted muslin gown Hereford Museum Collection

simple spotted muslin gown, Hereford Museum Collection

Those pale Pride and Prejudice gowns look simple, don’t they? A multi-panelled skirt, gathered into a plain bodice with a scoop neck, and long, set-in sleeves, or short puff sleeves for evening. In this “simple” spotted-muslin gown, the panels are joined with such skill that the lacy hem pattern (shown below) is continuous and the seams are merely a fine white line.

evening gown, spotted muslin, hem detail, Hereford museum collection

In this close-up of the bodice and puff sleeves, you can see the beautiful lacy edging to the neckline, and how daintily the skirt has been gathered into the back of the bodice. All by hand. How many hours did that take?evening gown, spotted muslin, bodice detail, Hereford museum collection

The closer we look, the clearer the seamstress’s skill becomes, especially as there were no paper patterns back then. The seamstress made her pattern from scratch, or used a previous gown as a model. Look at the incredibly complicated shaping on the back of the bodice of the gown below (from the Hereford Collection). Note, too, the piped seams and the mirrored pleating where the skirt is gathered into the high waistband. More hours of work for very little pay.blue-purple day gown, back detail, Hereford museum collection

Bright, isn’t it? Even after 200 years. Whatever Pride and Prejudice adaptations may suggest, not all Regency gowns were white or pastel.

Some ladies dared to wear a colour as vibrant and searing as the one below.
Whoever she was, this lady definitely wanted to be seen! So maybe there’s a story in this startling red appliqué dress?

red evening gown with appliqué decoration, Hereford museum collection

Red evening gown with appliqué decoration, Hereford Costume Collection

To be continued in a future blog, with more sumptuous gowns…

14 thoughts on “Regency Gowns: Who Would be a Seamstress?

  1. Sophie

    Absolutely fascinating.

    My grandmother was a dressmaker in the 1920s and spoke of how some materials were absolutely terrifying to work on – velvet because you had to make sure that the pile of each section of the dress was in the same orientation, or the colour changed; silk because it was so easy to mark; lace because it could be snagged. But at least she had a treadle sewing machine!

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      Do so agree about difficult materials. I once made an full-length evening gown in gorgeous red silk, brought back from Hong Kong but I made the mistake of using a pattern with parallel pin-tucks down the bodice. Nightmare! The ***** silk slipped all over the place as I sewed it. I did finish it…eventually. But it taught me a lesson about sewing silk. And I’ve never dared to sew real velvet.

      Reply
  2. Lesley Cookman

    After her early stint as a pupil teacher at a ballet school, my mother joined a firm of West End (well, Soho) dressmakers and was even sent to college by them. She ended up as a lingerie designer, and was a trained pattern cutter. Her workroom was in the posh showrooms of the company, and I used to go and “work” in the Wardour Street workshop in the holidays, and I can vouch for Sophie’s grandmother – I had to cut lace, satin and silk trimmings, and it was a nightmare.

    I do love the Liberta blogs. This and Louise Allen’s blogs are the only ones I follow.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      We’re blushing here in the hive, Lesley. Thank you so much. I hope we can continue to hold your interest with our blogs.

      So many writers have fascinating stories, about their own past, or their relatives’. Ballet teacher to lingerie designer is quite a job change. And have you used that background for one of your books yet? Seems too good to miss.

      Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Jan. And there will be more, soon. I am SO lucky to have the Hereford Museum collection on my doorstep, and the Berrington Hall NT collection just up the road. Bath isn’t that far away, either.

      I have a zillion costume pics and could rabbit on about them for ever, if the hive didn’t slap me down. Not everyone is a Regency costume junkie like me… 😉

      Reply
      1. Lesley Cookman

        We love it! And all Louise’s old plates. (No, not her feet.) Keep on keeping on. The only problem I have is that I have to keep re-reading Heyers and Austens because you remind me.

        Reply
        1. Joanna Post author

          Well, Libertà is the website for READERS and authors, isn’t it? So if we’re encouraging you to read and reread, we must be doing something right.

          Reply
  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    So true about the hand sewing taking ages, and yet often they worked all night to get a commission finished in time. House of Whatsit (forget its name) though set in the 20s, showed something of the life of a seamstress. My mother used Butterick patterns, I remember, but she also sewed from scratch. She was a natural and copied Cinderella’s wedding gown for someone out of our story book. My sister went to art college and although she became a painter she also studied pattern cutting and costume design and has made lots of costumes over the years, as well as her own and her daughter’s clothes. My mum used to make us dresses in replica materials of her own frocks she’d made. Me, I’m all thumbs! I did make a some clothes when I was young, but I haven’t the patience. Could certainly not have endured being a seamstress in Regency times.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m beginning to wonder if there’s some kind of link between writing and sewing, since so many commenters here have sewers or seamstresses in their family. Or maybe it’s just an age thing? In the times of our mothers and grandmothers, sewing your own clothes was pretty normal if you weren’t rich.

      I remember my mother sewing the most beautiful dolls’ dresses as Christmas presents for us. My doll, as I recall, had a red and white dress, made of stiffish white material with red spots, and with red binding round the frilly hem. It obviously made an impression, given how many years ago I had it. But, unlike Regency seamstresses, my mother had the luxury of a sewing machine. Hers was electric, too, not treadle.

      Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you, Julie. Yes, the comments are really fascinating, aren’t they? I may have to do more of this costume-blogging lark.
      If truth be told, Sophie is going to have to ration me, or I’ll be doing it every week 🙂

      Reply

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