Saturday, November 05, 2011

A Regency Moment

Last month, at the Regency Readers’ Day in London, I had the opportunity to try on Regency costume, courtesy of Jane Walton of Hands on History who specializes in both original and reproduction historical costumes. It was a taste only because Jane’s rack of clothes was in a public room and there was a limit to how far I was prepared to undress. Fortunately, my underwear was respectable so I stripped off my outer layer and Jane handed me a shift.

The shift was the basic item of female underwear; made of hard-wearing linen and easily washable. We know that, in 1789, Jane Austen bought enough Irish linen to make six shifts and four pairs of stockings. It was also surprisingly warm, which was just as well because it was a chilly autumn day.

Then I was handed what looked like an outside pillow-case with sleeves. This was my muslin gown and, at first, I just couldn’t see how one wore it. Jane explained that the drawstrings around the neck, wrists and under the bust allowed it to be gathered in and assured me that ‘one size fits all’. Sceptically, I put it on. Jane adjusted the drawstrings, arranged the gathers and, instantly, it was transformed into a charming gown. I looked at myself in the mirror and began to feel Regency. Together with the shift, it felt both light and warm. Suddenly, all those Regency heroines wearing the flimsiest of muslins in cold weather began to be credible.

I realized that turning a length of muslin into a wearable garment would be quick work for experienced needlewomen like Jane and her sister, Cassandra. Jane Austen’s letters to Cassandra are full of shopping for muslins. When staying with her brother Henry in London in 1811, for example, she went to Grafton House, and bought ten yards of a ‘pretty coloured muslin’ as well as some ‘bugle trimming’, silk stockings (extravagant!), a ‘very pretty little bonnet’ and a pelisse – but the buttons were expensive.

It was time for my spencer, a cropped jacket in a red, thick velvet-like kerseymere (I’d always wondered what kerseymere looked like) with some distinctly military silver frogging. It was close fitting, boned and it made you stand up straight.

Then came the poke bonnet. Oh dear, it looked as though I was going to be blinkered like a horse. But no, in spite of appearances to the contrary, the brim started quite far back on the head and I could see perfectly easily. Jane tied the ribbons in a de rigeur bow at the side.

So there I was and it all felt surprisingly warm, comfortable and natural – see photo. Shame about the watch, though.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Melinda Hammond said...

You look lovely, Elizabeth, hte "one size fits all" is useful, too. I do think the Regency fashions are quite modern and must be easier to wear than the earlier hoops and full skirts!

I will look out for more of Jane's workshops.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree about Regency costume being easier to wear, Melinda, although I wasn't wearing stays which I might have found more constricting.

Jane was very knowledgeable and I'd have liked the opportunity to talk to her in more depth.

Anonymous said...

I have a question, which I hope no one will take the wrong way. Sometimes, from descriptions in romance fiction, it's made to appear that women of the Regency period wore no underclothes except the "shift," while in others they seem to have worn some kind of pantaloons. In some, I've read that wearing the latter garment was considered "fast."

Adam Thomas said...

Nice blog.. Keep up the good work !

Bookshop UK

Jane Jackson said...

You do indeed look elegant, Elizabeth. Your description of what garments are made of, how they are shaped, what they feel like and how they are fastened and arranged etc makes the daily dressing routine so much more real for the reader. It's these small details that give a story an extra dimension.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

To Anonymous: thank you for your interesting question. The wearing of 'drawers' didn't become general until the 1840s and, initially, they were open crotch. It is true that they were, at first, thought indecent because, according to St Paul, women should not seek to wear garments that were appropriate to the male. Drawers were seen dangerously near trousers, and so indecent for women.

The same 'logic' was applied to women wearing hats (male and therefore 'indecent') as opposed to bonnets, which were female and therefore OK.

Thank you, Adam, for your appreciative comment. Glad you enjoyed the blog.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Jane. I do agree with you about selective details on clothes helping to illuminate a character and his or her situation. You do this to good effect in your own books, I've noticed!

Grace Elliot said...

Very interesting post. I made myself some chemises from a reproduction regency pattern and wear them as nightdresses. They are the most comfortable thing I own! (Any excuse to spend more time in bed.) Grace x