Historical costume pics: gowns, petticoats, dolls, even men

Woman businesswoman working, files, clockThis past couple of weeks, I’ve been editing, nose to grindstone, so there hasn’t been much time to think about anything else. So today, Saturday, faced with a blank screen (and editing finished last night, yippee) I’m a bit short of blog ideas.

What, I ask myself, would Libertà visitors like to read about? What can I produce before midnight? And answer came there—pictures, specifically, costume pics. I know you like our costume blogs, because they get lots of hits. So today, I’m going to give you mostly costume pics. To let you drool a bit. What’s not to like?

The Regency Gown: really see-through?

Replica Regency gowns from TV seriesThe three gowns above are TV replicas. I found them in an exhibition at the Bath costume museum about Jane Austen novels in film and on TV. The replicas look, to me, more substantial than the originals. By that, I mean that the original materials often look very thin and flimsy. I don’t think that’s age. I think they were meant to be. In the early nineteenth century, evening gowns were often see-through. Even with a petticoat—and back then, there was usually only one petticoat which was itself very thin—the body underneath would be visible.

Regency evening gown white spotted muslin

An evening gown in see-through white spotted muslin (Hereford Costume Collection)

See what I mean? What you’re seeing in the image above is two or more layers of muslin, and it’s still see-through. Imagine how it looked when the wearer was covered by only one layer.

Here are some costume pics in close-up of the same gown, including the glorious hemline. Drooling permitted.

Neckline of see-through white spotted muslin evening gown Hemline of see-through white spotted muslin evening gown

The gown above isn’t a one-off in terms of see-through quality.  Try these two for size.

See-through yellow evening gown with hemline decoration (Hereford Costume Collection)See-through embroidered muslin evening gown, Hereford costume collection
(Hereford Costume Collection)

The yellow one is absolutely fabulous, I think. The lily of the valley hemline is stunning. It looks like appliqué, but I don’t think it is. It was probably woven into the original fabric. As for the one on the right… It’s see-through and a half, I’d have said. Even with a petticoat, it wouldn’t leave much to the imagination, would it?

Underneath the see-through gown: the (see-through?) petticoat

I mentioned thin petticoats above. There might also be no petticoat at all.
C. Willett Cunnington and Phillis Cunnington wrote what is possibly the definitive guide to the history of underclothes.  in their section on the petticoat (1791-1820) they quote this wonderful comment from the Chester Chronicle of 1803:

The only sign of modesty in the present dress of the Ladies is the pink dye in their stockings, which makes their legs appear to blush for the total absence of petticoats.

The Cunningtons also confirm my point about flimsy materials:

What was so shocking to the sense of prudery in Regency times was the novelty of a dress of such transparent material as to allow of a liberal revelation of the human shape, such as had not been seen in this country before.

And I have evidence in costume pics to back them up. Have a look at these petticoats, from the Hereford Costume Collection.

petticoat-gathered-back-flounced-hempetticoat-gathered-back-flounced-hem-closeupNote the gathers and fullness at the back. This one has a flounce at the hem as you can see from the close-up (right).

The close-up also shows clearly how thin the material is.

petticoat-gathered-back-scalloped-lace-hem-frontpetticoat-gathered-back-scalloped-lace-hem-backviewThis beautiful petticoat (left) deserves to have been seen, doesn’t it? I love the lacy scalloped hemline.

The back view shows the thinness of the material particularly well.

Again, there’s fullness at the back.

So, if our Regency heroine wears this under one of those skimpy gowns above, what’s going to be hidden?

Possibly not a lot?

Do costume pics prove even little girls had see-through dresses?


Hereford Costume Collection

Actually, no. I don’t think they did. But on their dolls, it was a different story. Above is a spotted muslin dress for a doll. It’s beautifully made and definitely see-through. (You can get an idea of size from the hand holding it.)

Regency doll (head missing)Regency-doll-underwearI can’t resist showing you this Regency doll from the Hereford Costume Collection, even though, sadly, she’s missing her head.

She’s wearing an over-the-knee pink tunic dress (suggesting a date of 1812-1820?), with gold trimming at the hemline, neckline and sleeves, over a long white petticoat with a fancy tucked hemline.

You can tell that the petticoat is see-through, once it’s lifted to show you what’s underneath 😉

Those gorgeous pantalettes are actually lined, as you’ll see if you look closely at the doll’s left ankle [click the pic to enlarge it].

Here are some more costume pics of Regency doll’s clothes. Some of them, especially the blue-green spencer, show signs of considerable wear. Not surprising, really. The child who owned these doll’s clothes would almost certainly have spent a lot of time dressing and undressing her doll.




The white cambric doll’s dress (left) is definitely see-through.

The printed cotton dress on the right is rather more respectable.

But then, it’s not an evening gown, is it?


Let’s not forget the gentlemen?

As I’ve said in a previous blog, there’s something about a gentleman in a military uniform. Remember this scene from the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice?George Wickham and Lizzie Bennet from BBC Pride and Prejudice

So I’m going to close this blog with costume pics of the real thing, rather than the splendid replica uniforms from the BBC TV re-creation of Regency England.

Regency military uniform jacket frontRegency military uniform jacket backThis is a real military uniform jacket (in the Hereford Costume Collection). It’s similar to the long-skirted officer’s coatee of the 27th Regiment of Foot, from 1810 (shown in Wellington’s Infantry (1) by Bryan Foster.)

It doesn’t have lots of gold lace trimming, as Wickham’s does, above, though the cut is similar.

It was meant to impress, from both front and back. Look at all those buttons. They don’t look as if they’re actually much use for buttoning the jacket (though there are working buttonholes), but originally they would certainly have been eye-catching.

What’s more, there were shiny buttons on the back, too. If you look closely, you’ll see that there are buttons on those pocket flaps. So when this army gent walked away, the eye would have been drawn to his waist. And then further down…

The effect was improved by those saucy turned-back coat tails, don’t you think?
Ladies were definitely meant to look. And to admire. I do. What about you?

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland

Joanna the costume fan. Happy sighs.

12 thoughts on “Historical costume pics: gowns, petticoats, dolls, even men

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    How gorgeous and how very naughty! Really, I hadn’t realised how see-through the clothes were. But I recall those Cunnington remarks from my copy, and there’s another quote from a newspaper on the lines of approving of some bit of clothing women were wearing because “at least it compels our fair to wear something” – the last italicised with emphasis! In Heyer too, there are all those references to damping petticoats so that they clung to the figure. Plus ca change, eh?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, I was tempted to include that other quote, Liz, but I thought one was enough. They were clearly pretty daring, those women back then.

  2. Sophie

    Good heavens. Could the owner of those dresses, not to mention the petticoats, have been rather fast?

    I’ve often wondered whether Georgette Heyer’s insistance on the perceived respectability of her heroines was her choice rather than a Regency priority. Even Deb Grantham, when she set out to provoke Mr Ravenscar, only resorts to coquelicot stripes, not see-through layers.

    Of course, candle light wouldn’t have been so – er – penetrating, I suppose. But even so…

    1. Joanna Post author

      Fast? I’d have said like lightning, m’self. And if you stood with the candlelight behind you, the skirt + petticoat would have been pretty transparent, I think.

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