Historical Costume 1800-1820: Keeping Warm in a Pelisse

© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

1819 pink velvet pelisse trimmed chincilla © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

It’s winter. Dark and gloomy. Though, here in UK, it’s still quite warm. Or at least not as cold — yet! — as winter sometimes can be.

We have houses with central heating and double-glazing to keep out the cold and the draughts. Back in the Regency, they weren’t so lucky. Though, to be honest, I remember a house we bought in the 1970s that was incredibly draughty. I used left-over curtain material to sew a draught-excluder in the shape of a snake for the gap under the sitting-room door.

And I grew up in a non-centrally-heated house with a draught screen as part of the standard furnishings, about six feet high and with four brocade-covered panels. We had draughts and we definitely needed it.

So Regency folk weren’t alone. (And, unlike me in Scotland, they might have had draught screens as beautiful as the Chinese example below, dating from 1825-1865.)

chinese screen © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Chinese screen © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Modern women have learned to wear layers to keep out the cold. We wear trousers, or thick tights, and boots if we need to. Or thermal underwear. Fashion can go hang if the weather is bad. But Regency ladies don’t seem to have had so much choice.

How did a Regency Lady Keep Warm in Winter?

replica Regency gowns with spencers

Bath costume collection

So how did the Regency lady keep warm when the wind was howling or the snow was falling?

1817 pelisse and spencer fashion plate © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1817 pelisse and spencer © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I’ve blogged before about the spencer. It could look incredibly elegant but it didn’t even reach to the lady’s natural waist so it couldn’t keep much of her warm.

One alternative was the pelisse, a type of overgarment that conformed to the high-waisted style of Regency dresses. In the fashion plate [left] from the V&A, one lady is wearing a full-length pelisse; the other wears a spencer. The pelisse is heavily decorated which would have added extra layers of fabric and extra warmth.

The images below are of a very similar pelisse, dating from around 1818. Interesting colour, isn’t it?1818 brown silk pelisse © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The decoration is equally elaborate, as you can see, but the pelisse might have been quite warm, being made of silk taffeta and lined with holland (a plain linen or cotton fabric) except for the front skirts which were lined with cream silk. Again, there are several layers of fabric in places like the shoulders and the front. It does look better than a spencer for keeping a lady warm though rain would have played havoc with that silk fabric — imagine how it would have spotted.

Pelisse Eye Candy for Costume Lovers

1825 redingote male © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A lady’s pelisse was also sometimes termed a “redingote”.

But “redingote” can also refer to a man’s double-breasted topcoat with a full skirt. The OED says the French word is a corruption of the English “riding coat”. Made me smile.

You may enjoy the gent in the 1825 purple redingote shown here. Check out his beautifully curled hair and the astonishing height of his neckcloth. [Click on any of the images for a larger view so you can see the detail.] The backview of the redingote is shown in green on the chap in the background holding the horse.

Ladies’ pelisses weren’t always as elaborate as the brown silk example above. In earlier years, they could be pretty simple like the red and black version shown below. It is from a Parisian fashion plate and uses the name of redingote (spelled with two t’s).

1800-5 pelisse print © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

This pelisse/redingote from about 1800-05 is made of red fabric with a black velvet collar and cuffs to the plain sleeves. It has simple tabbed fastenings and is not full length. It isn’t clear whether it would have been warmly lined or not. In summer, pelisses were generally unlined; in winter they were lined. But the colour of this one was certainly warm. And eye-catching.

Within a few years, though, pelisses were becoming more elaborate and using lots more fabric. Have a look at this rather sumptuous version [below left] from about 1810, with a heavily gathered back and a high collar. The cut of the back and the sleeves looks fiendishly complicated for the seamstress. And next to it, in green, is an 1814 example of the height of French fashion for the pelisse or redingote: this elaborately stitched coat is made of finest merino wool and lined with astrakhan, and it’s just the right length so that the lace frill of her gown shows enticingly under the coat hem. Her ankles, too. Well, why not?

1810 pelisse print © Victoria & Albert Museum, London   © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

1810 pelisse and 1814 green redingote © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

To round off my illustrations of pelisses that might possibly keep a lady warm, I’m including two more prints, from 1816, each of two ladies wearing colourful pelisses. Pale pink edged with green, anyone? And if you look closely, you’ll see that the lady in the pale blue pelisse has tucked a purse into her belt.

© Victoria & Albert Museum, London  © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Parisian fashion plates of pelisses, 1816, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Alternatives to a Pelisse?

Of course, a lady could have wrapped herself in a shawl to keep warm but that wouldn’t have been nearly so fashionable. The model below is carrying a rather splendid shawl. She appears to be wearing a pelisse, too, but actually that’s a pelisse robe, a gown masquerading as a pelisse and dating from about 1820.

1820 pelisse robe © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

1820 pelisse robe © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

I’ll be blogging about gloves, and other accessories like shawls at a future date. And some day, there may even be a blog about what the lady wore under those glorious Regency gowns 😉

Joanna Maitland, author


8 thoughts on “Historical Costume 1800-1820: Keeping Warm in a Pelisse

    1. Sarah Mallory

      Great post, Joanna, informative and fun, too. Thank you. As to freezing in the name of fashion. I can remember standing on the bus stop as a (young) teenager in a miniskirt, thin coat and high-heeled open sandals and it was SNOWING!

      1. Joanna Post author

        Never did anything quite as bad as that. Or, at least, I can’t remember doing so. You were obviously a truly hardy young woman. With great legs (and still have) 😉

    2. Joanna Post author

      I think they were probably hardier than we are, at least nowadays. When I grew up in Scotland, with no central heating, we were used to the cold. These days, if the central heating stops working, it’s a calamity.

    3. Ann Ferland

      I grew up in Minnesota when we were not allowed to wear pants to school and miniskirts were the fashion. I saw girls at the bus stop when it was 10 F wearing nothing but nylons on their legs. Furthermore, I attended the Irish Oaks in a year in 2011, when there was blowing sleet and the racecourse dollies were there, outdoors, in their low cut, short-skirted dresses, worried that their fascinators would blow away. Competitors for the “Best Turned-Out” contest, I assume.

      1. Joanna Post author

        Wow! Yes, I sometimes wonder at the women who are at race meetings on “Ladies’ Day” when it’s raining or blowing a gale. As you say, Ann, they tend to be in skimpy outfits, spiky heels — how does that work on grass? — and hats that can blow away. I’d say “madness” but then I’m past trying for “best turned out” in anything 😉

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