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Posts Tagged ‘James Gillray’

Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Look at this lovely Regency lady in this image from 1814. Her petticoat peeps under her fashionably short gown, whose conical shaped skirt has been given a definite shape by the undergarment.

1814 Ball Dress, Costume Parisien

At the turn of the century, when lighter cloths were used to fashion gowns and when the dress silhouette was columnar and worn close to the body, the use of a chemise or petticoat was even more crucial, for the thin fabric would cling to the legs and work its way between them without the barrier of the petticoat. A few weeks ago, one of my posts created a stir when I revealed that drawers were regarded as optional underwear for Regency ladies, and readers wondered how a Regency lady could withstand the cold in winter.

Morning Dress, Ladies Monthly Museum.

While bloomers were optional,  a petticoat was an absolutely necessity. Dress fabrics were gossamer thin, and petticoats, made of sturdier linen or cotton, and reinforced with tucks and perhaps a thin line of boning at the hem, served to give shape to the hem of the dress, keeping it away from the feet and body. As skirts rose, the decorative elements of a petticoat peeped out under the skirt. Below, one can see a typical petticoat of the day (with corset on top of it). This one is short, but the tucks are evident.

Petticoat

Without this undergarment, the thin fabric of a ladies gown would hug her body, revealing her legs and her mons of Venus in stark outlines when she moved. Gillray’s cartoon of The Three Graces in High Wind demonstrates how revealing Regency dresses were, even when petticoats were worn.

The Three Graces in High Wind, James Gillray, 1810

Illustrators James Gillray, Isaac Cruickshank, and Thomas Rowlandson relished making fun of the new fashions. In the image below Gillray shows the effects of wearing a gown without underwear and taking the fashion features of décolleté and side slits to the extreme. Rather than creating an elegant effect, the lady resembled a tart.

Boilly’s painting shows how clearly the chemise, which ended above the knees, shows through the thin fabric of this lady’s gown.

Point de Convention, Louis-Léopold Boilly, ca. 1797. Image @ Wikimedia Commons.

This image from the Kyoto Costume Institute also demonstrates the transparency of Regency gown fabrics.

White muslin dress with whitework embroidery, 1810. Image Kyoto Costume Institute.

The unusual (and rare) practice of dampening one’s gown at the turn of the century was most likely followed by light-o-loves, courtesans, ladybirds, cyprians, and women of ill repute. Aristocratic women who were confident in their unassailable status might have gotten away with such licentious behavior on a dare, and their fashion inclinations might have been considered “au courant”, but no proper lady, no young miss on the marriage mart, no merchant’s daughter looking to improve her station in life, would for a moment consider walking out in public without the protection of a chemise or petticoat, much less wet her gown to make it more revealing. While caricaturists showed enormous zest in depicting the new revealing fashions, they exaggerated the trend of these flimsy gowns out of all proportion in their visual commentaries.

Isaak Cruikshank, Parisian ladies in full winter dress, 1800. Image @ Wikimedia Commons.

Addendum: I must add that another primary purpose of these undergarments was to protect the delicate outer garment from soiling. In Regency times people did not wash themselves frequently, and petticoats and chemises presented a barrier between unwashed and sweaty skin and the dress. Since undergarments were made of sturdier fabrics, they could be laundered more often. In addition, people with less means owned fewer gowns and employed fewer servants to do the laundering. Even these ladies owned a number of chemises (usually homemade) and petticoats that could be washed frequently, thereby protecting their every day AND special gowns.

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James Gillray, the famed Regency caricaturist, died in his fifties on June 1, 1815, an alcoholic, losing his eyesight, out of his mind, and penniless. In his hey day he was the quintessential commentator of his time, and people stood in lines outside his shop to purchase his biting political cartoons. He observed people and their habits as keenly with lines and color washes as Jane Austen did with her well-placed words.

He was a withdrawn, silent and lonely man, greatly slandered in his lifetime, probably by his victims and their friends. He worked in such a fury of creative energy that even his acquaintances years before his breakdown, wondered if he might be part-demented. He was so popular that there were often queues at the print shop, above which he worked, waiting for his latest cartoons and caricatures. At once the most ferocious and most brilliant caricaturist of his time, Gillray had a genius for turning public figures into monsters that were yet recognizable, his wild exaggeration being itself a criticism of their personalities.*

In the first print Gillray has captured the foppish, aristocratic bearing of the Prince Regent, even though all one can see is his back. Despite his proud bearing, not every sartorial detail is in place (note the untucked shirt peeking through the coat tails, and the Prince’s coat collar dusted white from powder falling off his wig.) The Prince has not yet attained the gross proportions of his later years. Two dandies (Sir Lumley St George Skeffington; Montague James Mathew) are well defined and delineated in the second caricature, one dark and menacing, the other angelic in features. Their boots are polished to a spit shine, and the evidence of their research into boot blacking is evident from the accoutrements Gillray has included in the background. In the third illustration, that of an old maid embarking on a journey, one can see that some things never change. Helped by strangers, this woman of a certain age brings her close family along with her – a dog and bird – as well as her needlework and her pitifully small amount of luggage.

*The Prince of Pleasure, J.B. Priestley, 1969, Harper & Row Publishers, NY, page 157

Images from the Princeton University Library

1 Prince of Wales, Gillray, 1802

2 A Pair of Polished Gentlemen, Gillray, 1801

3 The Old Maid on a Journey, Gillray, 1804

  • To read about the difference between cartoons and caricatures, click here.
  • Read more of my posts about James Gillray here.

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Progress of the Toilet, a series of engravings created in 1810 by James Gillray, a renowned and prolific British caricaturist, show three illustrations that depict a young lady being dressed by her maid. The details in these prints from an extensive print collection at the Yale University Library are striking and informative.

In the first plate, The Stays, Gillray depicts a young lady in her undergarments and wearing a cap, stockings, and slippers. On the floor sit a bowl and pitcher with water. Toiletries, pins, and jewelry are scattered on top of her dressing table. She inserts a busk between her breasts as her maid tightens her stays. Find a more detailed explanation about regency undergarments and regency fashions by clicking on the bolded words.


Elaborate powdered wigs of the previous century gave way to simpler hair styles, some cut quite short. In the illustration entitled The Wig, the maid prepares to place a short curly wig on her mistress’ head. Note that the mirror is now full length and that the side table looks different. Our young lady sits in a simple muslin day gown, with neck and arms covered, reading a book as her maid prepares her. A bonnet and an open robe or pelise (on chair) will complete her toilette. Find more regency hairstyles on this site.

In the third engraving, Dress Completed, we observe our young lady dressed for the evening and putting on evening gloves, which, typical of the day, are loose at the top. Her maid holds a shawl and fan, and her reticule hangs on a hook on the wall. The side table is no longer visible; her fashion plate book/magazine lies discarded on the floor. Our young lady’s slippers probably looked like this pair below. For a comprehensive view of footwear during this era, click here.

In The Mirror of Graces, 1811, a Lady of Distinction write, “Perhaps it is necessary to remind my readers that custom regulates the veiling or unveling the figure, according to different periods in the day. In the morning the arms and bosom must be completely covered to the throat and wrists. From the dinner-hour to the termination of the day, the arms, to a graceful height above the elbow, may be bare; and the neck and shoulders unveiled as far as delicacy will allow.”

Find regency clothing for sale on this site and a regency timeline in fashion here.

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