Invariably, when we think of Regency fashion, we think of the empire style and a white muslin gown, such as this lovely, modern example from A Fashionable Past. Please click on the link to learn the details about the creation of this gown and spencer jacket.
Muslin today is a much coarser cloth than it was two hundred years ago. The following quotes are from several sources, some from the web and one from A Frivolous Distinction by Penelope Byrde.
… muslin was a somewhat sheer, very soft, drapey cotton fabric, sometimes with a rather loose weave, and almost invariably white – closer to cambric, or a slightly softer, looser version of what is now sold as voile or fine batiste. Think of a cross between a fine handkerchief and cheesecloth, if you can! (Jessamyn’s Regency Page)
However well muslin might wash it was, nevertheless, not very practical to wear light-coloured gowns, as Mrs. Allen complained in Northanger Abbey: ‘open carriages are nasty things. A clean gown is not five minutes wear in them. You are splashed getting in and getting out.’ White gowns could only really be indulged in by those with means and leisure; they were certainly a mark of gentility but might also be considered unsuitable in certain circumstances. In May 1801 Jane Austen wrote from Bath of a Mrs and Miss Holder: ‘it is the fashion to think them both very detestable, but they are so civil, & their gowns looks so white and so nice (which by the bye my Aunt thinks an absurd pretension in this place) that I cannot utterly abhor them’. In Mansfield Park Mrs Norris commends a housekeeper who ‘turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns’. (Byrde, p 16-17)
A renewed interest in the styles of classical Greece and Rome began in the last half of the 18th century. This revival of classicism had a tremendous influence, transforming not only fashion but also architecture and the decorative arts in Europe and North America. The simpler clothing of ancient Greece and Rome inspired women’s fashions. For example, a dress called a chemise was adopted to give women a supposedly natural look and to replace the ostentatious and ornate styles that preceded the French Revolution. Fashion, Valerie Steele
The chemise—named after an undergarment it resembled—was made of white muslin, had a high waist just under the bosom, and hung fairly straight to resemble a classical column. No petticoats or hoops were worn underneath it, and many fashionable women stopped wearing corsets as well. Over time, the chemise revealed more and more of a woman’s body. Today this style of dress is commonly known as the Empire style because it was especially popular during the Consulate and empire of Napoleon I of France, which began in 1799.Encarta Encyclopedia
La Belle Assemblee, 1807
Where doubt may be about this or that hue being becoming or genteel (as it is very possible it may neither be the one nor the other), let the puzzled beauty leave both, and securely array herself in simple white. That primeval hue never offends, and frequently is the most graceful robe that youth and loveliness can wear. (The Mirror of Graces, 1811, p22)
Click here for more links about white gowns:
- Update: The Importance of Wearing White :Jane Austen Centre