A Primer on Regency Era Women’s Fashion by Kristen Koster.
This is an overview of women’s fashions in the Regency Era and the apparel they changed in and out of multiple times per day. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means and is rather representative of the upper classes rather than the working classes, but should give a good foundation in recognizing what an author is talking about and why they’re so focused on their characters being fashion conscious.
Before we get into the individual items of clothing, it’s important to realize some phrases we use today didn’t mean quite the same thing 200 years ago. For example, when we say “She was in a state of undress.” or “She was caught en dishabille.” The folks of the regency wouldn’t have batted an eye. It was quite common for ladies to entertain guests in their boudoirs while dressed in comfortable, but concealing gowns and robes. The terms “undress”, “half-dress” and “full-dress” were degrees of formality, not coverage.
“Undress” meant simply casual, informal dress in the Regency period. This would be the type of dress worn from early morning to noon or perhaps as late as four or five, depending on one’s engagements for the day. Undress was usually more comfortable, more warm, more casual, and much cheaper in cost than half dress or full dress.
“Half Dress” is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to grasp about Regency Fashion. Basically it is any dress halfway between Undress and Full Dress. In modern terms it might be thought of as dressy casual or casual business attire in terms of formality, if not style.
“Full dress” was the most formal kind of dress in a Regency Lady’s wardrobe. Full dress was worn for the most formal occasions — evening concerts and card parties, soirees, balls, and court occasions. “Evening dress” referred to outfits suitable only at evening events, but was a specific subset of “full dress”.
Women’s Regency Fashions
There’s a great post over at Word Wenches where author Kalen Hughes goes through the steps of dressing your Regency heroine from the skin out. If you visit that post, you’ll get better idea of how long it took to dress and the order everything goes on or off in.
shifts/chemise – the forerunner of the slip, the basic white linen garment underneath everything, often short-sleeved or sleeveless. Easy to wash compared to stays.
stays/corset — less uncomfortable than those of Georgian or Victorian Eras and typically stays were worn instead of full corsets though the term corset was being applied to both. The ones we think of when someone mentions “corset” today are the Victorian ones.
petticoat – usually only one was required and not a lot of volume was required for the high-waisted fashions
stockings/garters, pantaloons – no panty hose for these ladies, but cotton or silk stockings, held up by garters
chemisette – basically a white lawn dickey with a high collar
drawers – proper ladies didn’t wear drawers, they were considered to be quite “fast” and racy
Gowns & Dresses
Author Candice Hern also has a great page that details the various styles of dresses a woman would wear throughout the day named and appropriate for specific activities.
wraps & shawls – a wide variety of wraps and shawls were worn during this time period for warmth
spencer – Spencer jacket over a white muslin gown, 1798 – Wikimedia Commons — a close-fitting, tight sleeved, waist length jacket modeled on a gentleman’s riding coat, but without tails
pelisse – An overdress or coat dress, the pelisse fit relatively close to the figure (though not tight) and was styled along the same high-waisted lines as the dress of the day. Pelisses were often lined or edged with fur and, in fashionable circles, more or less replaced the fur-lined cloaks of the earlier periods. (note 3) Pelisses were also heavily and variously trimmed with fur, swansdown, contrasting fabric, frog fastenings, etc. practically from their beginning
redingote – from the French corruption of “riding coat”, a long, fitted woman’s coat, belted and open to reveal the skirt of the dress beneath
cloak or mantles (A short (hip- or thigh-length) cape) or Mantelets — worn in the evening, often as part of an ensemble for the opera. Short cloaks with upstanding collars would also be worn for a theatrical evening out
capes – these were fading out of fashion for women during the Regency, but some still present
slippers/simple pumps – basic shoe pattern looked like a ballet slipper (without points, of course). Could be made of kid leather, satin, or velvet.
mules – backless slip-on shoes with a slight heel
half-boots – an ankle boot. Of sturdy leather for outdoors or velvet/satin for evening.
pattens – a metal contraption strapped onto the lady’s shoes in inclement weather, to lift her above the mud, snow, or rainwater in the street.
fichu – a standard accessory for any modest miss who felt too much cleavage was showing — also called a “tucker” as you tucked it into the bodice of your gown.
tippets (boa), pelerines (A broad collar-like cape which covers the shoulders.) & muffs – warming aids, but also fashionable
parasol – one mustn’t get spots! — freckles were quite unfashionable during the Regency
reticule or ridicule – some argue that ridicule is the only proper Regency term for a ladies purse, but you’ll see reticule used almost exclusively
gloves – for propriety’s sake and during the day, to limit sun exposure
hats, bonnets – again, propriety insisted that one’s hair be covered and the bonnets helped keep that porcelain complexion spot-free!
turbans, bandeaux – favored more by older women, these were quite fashionable
veils – mostly in conjunction with widows and mourning
In the Boudoir or Bedchamber
nightrail or night dress – practical and high-necked, probably cotton
dressing gown – a long, comfortable house garment that covered the night dress
wrapper – a thin gown or robe worn for modesty
This Primer on Women’s Fashion in the Regency Era is cross posted with the permission of Kristen Koster.