Historical Costume 1800-1820 : the simple Regency gown?

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1807 white muslin wedding dress © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A Regency gown might not be so simple?

1807 wedding dress asymmetric embroidery on front

A Regency gown might look simple but the wedding dress shown above clearly is not. Mainly because of the hand-embroidered muslin, rather than the fairly standard design.

That stunning dress was worn by a seventeen-year-old bride, Mary Dalton Norcliffe, for her marriage to Dr Charles Best in York on 11 June 1807. It’s made of Indian muslin and the V&A suggests the embroidery was done in India, too. Not only is there beautiful embroidery all round the hem and train, there is asymmetric embroidery across the front of the skirt, recalling the classical toga. You may find it easier to see the white-on-white embroidery in the close-up, shown left.

The style of Mary Norcliffe’s wedding gown seems to have been bang up-to-date; the Lady’s Monthly Museum showed similar asymmetric decoration on a formal gown about a year later.

However, wedding gowns were special; not for ordinary everyday wear. So what was worn?

Regency gown for normal day wear : replica

1815 Regency gown front replica1815 Regency gown back replicaThe Regency gown for day wear was a simple style, as we know. On the left is the replica, in white, of a day gown made of border-print cotton, dating from 1815. On the right is the back of the replica, showing how it was fastened with simple ties at the neck and high waist. When you see it in plain white, there really doesn’t seem to be much to it at all.

(As with all the white replica gowns in this costume series, I am indebted to Hereford Museum’s 2015 exhibition Shades of White: the changing shape of women created by Professor Nancy Hills.)

The bodice front pieces are cut on the bias with a seam at the centre front and a low side seam with bust darts, as shown in the pattern below.  (The late and much missed author, Jo Beverley, queried whether the bust darts were original as she’d never seen any from that period. The Hereford costume curator has confirmed that the original gown does have bust darts.)

1815 Regency gown pattern for border print cotton

The neckline is finished with a three-inch double ruffle and the shoulder and back bodice seams are piped. Can you imagine the chore of making piping by hand? Both bodice and sleeves are lined with light muslin. And that back skirt section has to be cut four times, stitched together and tightly pleated into the back bodice.

So what appears to be a simple gown involved a lot of hours of work for the seamstress who was paid very little for her labours (and usually much less than the cost of the fabric).
Nothing new there then 😉

Regency gown for normal day wear : original

When we see the original gown, in border-print cotton, purple on white, it looks quite different and rather more special. Below is the detail of the cuff, showing the buttoned strap that creates a small ruffle effect. This close-up also allows us to see the delicate purple pattern on the cotton, possibly done by copper-plate printing.

This is the hemline (left), showing the border print in all its glory. Sadly, the photo of the dress as a whole (right) doesn’t really do it justice, as we can’t see the colour contrast.

1815 Regency gown, purple printed cotton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It must have been a challenge to determine how much cloth to buy. Easy to work out how wide the bottom hem was, but how much extra do you allow for bodice and sleeves?

All change! A day gown from 1825

By way of contrast, I’m including a day gown from 1825. Not strictly Regency, though still in the reign of George IV, this 1825 gown shows up particularly well in the white replica version.

A Regency gown tended to look simple in the 1800-1820 period, and generally had a vertical silhouette, even if it wasn’t really simple once you inspected it closely. But in the mid-1820’s, waists sank, skirts widened and much larger sleeves, including the gigot, appeared. Triangles replaced the vertical silhouette. It was impossible to say that such garments looked simple any more.

On the left is the white replica, showing the intricate detail of the sleeve construction. In the centre, one of Professor Hills’ students wears the replica so that we can see how much lower the waist is, almost at the natural level. On the right is the original 1825 gown, made from cotton gauze.

1825 day gown white replica sleeve detail1825 day gown replica in white

The original looks as if the cotton gauze is simply grey or black on a white background. Actually, it includes quite vibrant lavender and green irises, as seen in the close-up below. Delicate floral patterns on a light background — this one probably roller-printed — were becoming increasingly popular.

So the mid-1820s lady could wear much more romantic styles, and colour and pattern too, if she felt like it!

Eye Candy : a few more Regency gowns

However, this post is about the 1800-1820 period. So, for those who enjoy seeing Regency gowns, whether original or replicas, I’m adding a few more examples. These are Regency day gowns. Fabrics tended to be plain and often white. These images date from a few years ago when the Bath Costume Collection was exhibiting some of the replica gowns used in the BBC’s adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Northanger Abbey (1987). And yes, that is Mr Darcy in the background of the first picture on the left!

Finally, the picture below shows not a replica day gown, but a real ballgown, from the splendid collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (The silk underdress is a replica.) The ballgown is dated 1815, the same as our purple-print day dress, but there’s a huge contrast both in the luxury of the fabric — patterned silk gauze with an all-over design of pink dots — and in the gorgeous styling detail. Those puffed sleeves, resembling flower cups, are a true work of the seamstress’s art.

Possibly the simple Regency gown is not so simple after all?

Joanna Maitland, author

Joanna

Next time I’ll be looking at how the Regency gentlewoman stopped herself from freezing in those skimpy muslin gowns…

6 thoughts on “Historical Costume 1800-1820 : the simple Regency gown?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yup. And I did too, Jan, while creating this blog. It’s easy to spend hours poring through the V&A collection. It is, of course, Research. (Whereas, if I didn’t write historicals, it would would be mere …er… self-indulgence?)

  1. Sophie

    Goodness. that 1825 dress looks fussy by comparison. But definitely neither period’s style designed to flatter the short and plump. Sigh.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    Lovely gowns. Yes, Rowlandson’s sketches show how little the Regency style favoured the small and plump, but a bosomy figure must have done extremely well in them. Great blog.

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