As all ladies of taste will know, creating an outfit is no mean feat. Style is an art, which requires endeavour, commitment and judgement. One must be careful to create the correct aesthetic. Our clothing is a representation of our inner selves and our aspirations.
The current preference for gentlemen (as directed by the esteemed Mr Brummell) is moving towards plainer, simpler fabrics with an emphasis on cut, quality and fit. The fashion for ladies (unless formal occasion requires otherwise) is moving in a similar direction. In general, a lady should aim for a natural look, with an air of romantic innocence, and perhaps a hint of Classical grace and elegance. Take the Grecian statues as your inspiration: careful draping and clean lines and silhouettes are the order of the day.
Of course, the well-dressed and sensible lady knows that, in both the town and the country, it is her accessories that will complete her outfit. Selecting the right accessories – with the right material, cut and pattern – is crucial in terms of both practicality and style. It is all very well to have perfected the look of the Romantic heroine awaiting her dashing knight in shining armour, but if you a shivering and up to your knees in mud, the more realistic gentlemen society has to offer may prefer a lady with the common-sense to dress for the occasion.
Bearing all of this in mind, Behind The Past has compiled an overview of the must-have accessories for the fashionable Regency lady. This should help you to navigate the tricky waters of sense and style.
The pelisse actually emerged from military uniform, as ladies’ fashion in the early decades of the century has drawn upon this as a source of inspiration. This origin is sometimes still seen in braided trimmings and frog-fastenings. Cut to follow the Empire-waist and narrow lines which are currently fashionable in gowns, it has become an indispensible item to a ladies’ wardrobe.
Its cut allows it to still show-off the silhouette of the actual gown, but it also provides much-needed warmth and modesty where the fashionable, thin muslin of the day may sometimes fail. It can also add colour and interest to an outfit. Coming in a variety of fabrics, such as wool, velvet and silk, the pelisse can be worn in both the town and the country depending upon the occasion. What one might wear for a country walk will naturally differ from a stroll in one of the gardens of London or Bath. Therefore, a lady really should have a collection of these coats, as far as her income and station allows.
The shawl really is in many ways a status symbol. First appearing in London in 1786, there is no disputing that the most desirable shawl is the true Kashmir one. However, technological and industrial advances have made imitations more widely available at a much more reasonable price. Naturally, a lady must discern for herself what price is appropriate for her shawl.
Whilst adding a touch of glamour, suggesting wealth and far-off lands, the shawl is also a practical item. It adds warmth and colour in situations where a pelisse, as an outdoor garment, would not be appropriate. The way the item is draped is a matter of utmost importance. One does not want to appear swamped or swaddled. Indeed, as mentioned above, one would perhaps be best served by looking to Antiquity for inspiration.
The reticule is another item to have emerged and gained popularity from the rise of muslin gowns and narrow silhouettes. Where pockets could once be hidden beneath a gown, this is now impossible. Many ladies have therefore chosen to carry their personal items in this small, rectangular bag.
However, more than a functional item, it is a work of fashion in its own right. It is often very simple to make up a reticule in the fabric which is the same as, or complementary to, one’s gown, pelisse or gloves. This therefore allows one to present a very ‘put together’ look.
One must make up ones’ own mind regarding the language of the fan, or whether such a language even exists. However, this is an absolutely essential item in hot, stuffy and over-crowded ballrooms and public assemblies. Flirtation and romance are, for many young ladies, the sum of their hopes and dreams as they ready themselves for a night of dancing. These dreams will almost certainly come to naught if they are red and ‘glowing’ or, worse still, out cold with a faint in the corner.
Ladies, if you take nothing else from this, remember to take a fan!
Downing, Sarah Jane, Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, (Oxford: Shire Publications, 2010).
Weston Thomas, Pauline, ‘1800 Accessories: Fashion History’, Fashion Era, http://www.fashion-era.com/1800_accesories.htm#Reticule Handbags.
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