Inquiring readers. My first JASNA AGM in Brooklyn started out with a bang. Not only did I room with the wonderful Deb Barnum (Jane Austen in Vermont), but the first workshop I attended was given by Lisa Brown, co-coordinator of the Rochester and Syracuse Regions of JASNA (and the official photographer at the AGM, it seems). She presented a fashion show and workshop demonstration of Regency fashions, including detailed instructions on how to rework 1970s and 1980s gowns into very creditable Regency costumes. A similar custom was studiously followed by Regency ladies, such as the Miss Bennets and Miss Austens, whose income precluded them from custom ordering as many handmade gowns as they liked. Two hundred years ago, cloth and trim were quite expensive, although changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution in weaving, dying cloth, and creating off the rack gowns would make clothes more affordable as the 19th century progressed. Jane Austen wrote frequently of refurbishing a new bonnet or reworking a gown to suit an occasion.
Lisa graciously gave me permission to use the videos I took of her fashion show and from my notes. The personal impressions are mine.
The Layers of a Regency gown
In Regency fashion, it’s all about lift and undergarments. The distinctive Regency “shelf” was created with straps tied from the side (not center) and short stays with busks and wires. The stays were drawn from the bottom to the top, and as the stays tightened the bosom (shelf) rose. During the extended Regency era (1795-1820) women wore fewer clothes than their mothers and aunts. Sheer fabrics, exposed bosoms, and bare arms in the evening were the hallmarks of the Regency style.
The typical dress layers included (from skin side out): a simple shift made of sturdy cotton or linen that could withstand repeated laundering; short stays; a petticoat; and a gown. While women wore stocking and garters, under drawers were not generally worn until later in the 19th century. If a woman opted to wear them, they would be crotchless (mostly for convenience.)
Regency gown fashion show
In this video Sarah wears a 1970s dress found in a vintage shop and a period bonnet. The sleeves look modern, but the overall effect is very charming. Sarah is the author of the delightful post: I was a Model in a Regency Jane Austen Fashion Show.
Nadia wears a modern reworked holiday dress that converted nicely into a Regency style costume. I felt that the skirt lacked authenticity in that there was no gathering of the fabric in the back.
Julie wears a simple gray gown. To me the accessories turned this vintage dress into a Regency look, for the dress details were too sleek to be authentic.
Joyce in a green silk tafetta that could have used some trim or a shawl or something to turn this dress into a show stopper.
Jaclyn’s brown tafetta dress is one of my favorites. The gloves, bonnet, puffy sleeves, low scooped neck, and slight gathering in the back added realistic touches.
Jane wears a cotton dress with spencer jacket and long ties. I imagine Mrs. Austen might have looked much like her.
Meg looks like she is going to market. On stage she showed her reversible cape, which she took off for the runway. Her outfit is typical of a married lady who, after her marriage, begins to wear a cap. After turning 27, unmarried women don caps as well, much like Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. Meg also wears a delicate fichu, an item typically worn during the day. It can be tucked in or worn out. The fichu indicated casual day dress. If a lady with a limited wardrobe wished to dress up for the evening, she would take off her fichu and add dressier accessories to spruce up her look.
Aniela is also off to market. On stage she wore a spencer, a spinster’s cap, and a tucked-in fichu, a garment appropriate for all ages. Walking down the runway, you can see her fan on a little chain. Angela is a resourceful young woman, who found her short, form-fitting “spencer” at Forever 21. All she needed to do to turn this day gown into evening wear was to take off her cap and fichu, change from short gloves to long gloves, and change her jewelry. Voila! She is ready to visit neighbors for dinner and join in a dance! Notice the Van Dyke points on her sleeve.
Lynn Marie wears a spencer and parasol. Lisa cautioned that only umbrellas made in the 40s, 50s, or 60s would do as Regency parasols. Umbrellas from that time period were still made pagoda style, with the fabric coming up to the top of the frame. Notice how Lynn Marie’s dress has the gathered pleats in the back. If you choose to make a dress with a print pattern make sure that the prints are small and set far apart. Modern prints are often too large and set too closely together. In choosing cloth to make Regency gowns and for the sake of authenticity, Lisa also warned us to stay away from fabrics that are reminiscent of the two Lauras – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Laura Ashley. Hah!
Joyce wears a dark sleeveless pelisse with a long train. An elegant look that flows beautifully when she walks.
Nadia wears long sleeves during day and gloves. Dark fabric was chosen for daywear, since the color was easier to keep clean. Lighter colors, such as whites and pastels, were worn at night. White was a symbol of wealth since laundering took a great deal of time and effort. A white gown easily became soiled and required enormous maintenance to keep pristine (imagine how dirty those trains must have become even if the woman was confined to walking indoors.) Jane Austen’s audience knew exactly how pampered Eleanor Tilney was when her character was described as wearing only white.
In her second costume, Sarah wears a long sleeved dress and a quaint Amish straw bonnet with lining, flowers, and a ribbon. Trims were expensive and transferred from dress to dress, on the neck or sleeves, or at the bottom of a dress. Between 1805-1815, embellishments at the hem increased from 1″ of trim to 2″, to 3″ or more in 1817, the year Jane Austen died.
Jaclyn’s polyester pink 1970s gown turns into a pretty Regency ball gown. Today’s enterprising seamstress can order Indian muslin in specialty stores and find sheer netting overlays at curtain shops.
Julie’s pink gown is based on Empress Josephine’s coronation gown. The elaborate satin overdress is worn over a simpler dress underneath.
Aniela wears a pretty pale dress, very simple in design. Her day look includes short gloves and a basket. This dress can easily be converted for a night time look by adding the right accessories.
Lynn Marie wears a dramatic ball dress from David’s Bridal. It was an age when showing one’s ankles was deemed scandalous, but showcasing one’s bosom was not. In fact, the Regency shelf was a display area on which a possible suitor could feast his eyes and the lady in question could show off her pretty necklace as well as her womanly assets.
Proper jewelry for that era consisted of small round shapes, such as seed pearls, small crosses, and delicate stones. To resemble a proper Regency miss, one should not wear posts or hoop earrings, long chains of pearls, or chokers, which were a Victorian affectation. Choose flat-heeled ballet style shoes or slippers, and half-boots with outer wear.
More on the topic:
- Lisa Brown’s Guide for Dressing for a Regency Ball
- Jane Austen Society Syracuse Region
- Mostly Maggots:Regency Era Clothing, English Country Dance and Jane Austen: Lisa’s blog