During the late 18th century, early 19th century, trains on gowns were de rigueur. I chose to show the two gowns below, since the styles were popular when Jane Austen was a teenager (first image) and wrote the first editions of Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice (second and third images).
As Regency styles evolved and the 19th century progressed, trains were worn largely on evening dresses.
I have often wondered how delicate muslin gowns survived the harsh laundering that was required to remove stains made from dusty floors and muddy pathways. Even the grandest ladies wearing the most expensive dresses promenaded on gravel walkways or shopped along city or village streets. How did they manage to keep their hems clean in an era when paved roads and sidewalks were almost impossible to find?
Until macadam roads became widespread, roads across most of Great Britain remained unpaved. Village roads were especially notorious for becoming muddy quagmires during rainy days. The deep ruts in this village scene, illustrated just five years before Jane Austen’s birth, say it all.
Dresses worn by working class women stopped at or above the ankles, and for good reason! These women wore sturdy leather shoes that could withstand the dirt.
City streets were barely better than country roads. While sidewalks protected dress hems, roads were still made of dirt. People tossed out garbage from their windows, and horse droppings made crossings all but impassible for pedestrians.
Crossing sweepers were stationed along major intersections, sweeping a clearing for anyone willing to give a tip. Not only did horses pull carriages and wagons, but drovers led animals to market through village and city streets. The stench from their droppings must have been unbelievable.
Jane Austen mentioned wearing pattens when she lived in Steventon. These devices elevated shoes above the dirt, but by the turn of the 19th century, pattens were no longer considered fashionable and were largely worn by the working classes, such as the midwife below.
I always view contemporary images for clues. Diana Sperling created some wonderful watercolours around the topic. In this painting, you can see how the trains of the dresses have somehow been hitched up in the back, especially with the first and third women.
After Elizabeth Bennet walks to Netherfield to visit her sick sister, Jane, Mrs. Hurst and Mrs. Bingley speak disparagingly about the state of her dress:
“She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.”
“She did indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”
“Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office.” – Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8
Bingley’s citified and nouveau riche sisters were horrified at Elizabeth’s lack of decorum. To them, appearances are more important than sisterly devotion. One imagines that they would not have ventured out until the sun had dried the mud and they could be assured of a carriage. From the image below, one can readily see why Elizabeth’s hems were in such sad shape after her long walk in fields made wet by heavy rain.
In Northanger Abbey, Isabella and Catherine became quickly inseparable, even calling each other by their first names in an age when only intimate friends and family could be on such terms.
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.
They pinned up the trains of each others’ evening gowns to prevent tripping, but also staining, I suspect. (It must be noted that guests changed from their street shoes to dancing slippers before entering a ballroom, which probably reduced the amount of dirt trailed inside.) Nothing could stop the girls from seeing each other, not even “dirt” or muddy streets.
There were many ways to protect trains. In this film still, Gwynneth Paltrow’s Emma hitches her train on a loop over her wrist.
These French images from the late 18th century provide the best evidence in how ladies would protect their delicate dresses out of doors. While we assume that ladies did not expose their ankles to the public (they certainly did not in the Victorian era, but the Regency was a different time), the illustrations point out the practical habit of hitching a train over one’s arm.
Wind and open windows swept dirt and dust continually into houses and visitors trod in dirt. No wonder maids needed to sweep floors daily!
Regardless of the efforts to keep streets, sidewalks, and floors clean, one wonders about the condition of the hems on women’s garments. Clothes were expensive before the advent of mass-produced cloth and were carefully recycled, even by the well-off.
Laundresses took an enormous amount of effort to keep clothes clean. One can only assume that the majority of women wore clothes with stained hems, and that only the rich could afford the expense of keeping their clothes looking spotless. Eleanor Tilney wore only white gowns, which told contemporary readers more about her economic status than pages of explanations ever could. In Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris frowned on maidservants wearing white gowns. These white clothes were not only above their stations, but they would require an enormous amount of time spent on maintenance.
Also on this blog: Trains on Dresses