During the 18th century and much of the Regency era, trains were popular on evening and court dresses, and at times on walking gowns. The length of the train shortened as the 18th century progressed, but even shorter trains swept over lawns and grounds and sidewalks. This fashion turned out to be quite expensive, for after several short walks, the fabric would be quite soiled or would need replacement. Oliver Goldsmith wrote in Citizen of the world (1760):
Nothing can be better calculated to increase the price of silk than the present manner of dressing. A lady’s train is not bought but at some expense, and after it has swept the public walks for a very few evenings, is fit to be worn no longer, more silk must be bought in order to repair the breach, and some ladies of peculiar economy are thus found to patch up their tails eight or ten times in a season.”
One imagines that the delicate muslin trains of the Regency era were as easily wrecked by wear and tear, and that only the rich could afford such an extravagant consumption. There were ways to save one’s train. In 1996′s Emma, Gwynneth Paltrow is seen holding up her train during the dance.
In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen described how Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland pinned up each others trains.
They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.”
One can only conclude that trains (or tails, as Goldsmith called them) were an extravagance that the ordinary working woman did not indulge in wearing, for until mass production made cloth more affordable, the added lengths of cloth, plus the constant need for laundering and patching, would make this fashionable feature prohibitively high for most women.
Note: That Isabella and Catherine met “in defiance of wet and dirt” meant something, for shoes and fabrics were so delicate at the time, that ladies tended to stay indoors on rainy days.