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