During my studies at university I’ve been looking at the eighteenth century and various themes associated with it, and when I came back to looking at the Regency in my own time, I found myself viewing the fashions of that period very differently to before. You see, having some of the political, social and economic background to the situation (only some mind), it has changed my thoughts on how and why the fashions of neo-classicism and Beau Brummel became all the rage! I thought, as my readers (at least I think) love the Regency, and since I’m always going to be on this journey of discovery, I would share with you why I don’t think that Regency fashions were just a pleasant alternative to boned, panniered and bewigged outfits from the previous century anymore, and how now I can see there are so many other factors to consider.
To put forward my argument, influenced by Georgine de Courtais, simply:
‘Regency fashion is more seductive to the contemporary mind because of it’s immediate difference to the fashions preceding and proceeding it.’
There are three reasons to support my argument, and I shall attempt to lay them out. Firstly, the Long Eighteenth Century saw the Enlightenment. If you want a more thorough post on the Enlightenment – I’ll be doing one soon – for now, I’m going to assume you know roughly what it is 😉 The Enlightenment brought a certain rationalisation of thought and a desire to return to classical ideas, including democracy, which was most clearly observed in the French Revolution and it’s aftermath, though the ideal was perhaps not fully realised in France.
The eighteenth century in England also saw the rise of consumerism. It became a key part of the British mentality. Though brought into its fullness in the later period of the Industrial Revolution, changing agricultural techniques due to the Scientific Revolution, and developing manufacturing equipment increased the amount and variety of products available. What the rise of consumerism meant, was that no longer were belongings always kept until they wore out, people bought more than one of something, they began to follow the fashions. Their ability to do so came from rising wages; the aristocracy no longer held the sole purse strings when it came to surplus money to spend on luxury goods. Demand for goods rose as wealth filtered down to the middling and lower classes, and as demand rose, so gradually did production. Production eventually caught up towards the close of the eighteenth century and better than that, it offered more variety and novelty to the consumer than had previously been accessible.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly the French Revolution, beginning with the storming of the Bastille in 1789, was an attempt at outworking Enlightenment ideals. It was a huge event that sent shock-waves throughout Europe and which, as well as affecting far larger areas of the social, political and economic framework, affected clothing.
In conclusion, Enlightenment ideas had led to the admiration of classical civilisations, such as Rome and Greece, and this admiration gradually filtered into fashion with women’s dresses losing the rigid, falsified outlines of the Robe a la Francaise, and instead embracing the neo-classical loose-fitting almost ethereal designs of the Regency dresses. It also led to a more rational dress-style for men, a more practical style, discarding the frock-coat which could get in the way and instead embracing the cut-away Redingote and eventual tail-coat sported by the fashionable Brummel.
The rise of consumerism allowed fashions to change more easily, though no-where near the rate we witness today. It also meant that middling classes were able to follow the fashions, and that demand for exotic new materials such as muslin could be met by changing domestic manufacturing.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the French Revolution, which is not done justice here (partly because I’m still studying it 😉 ), had a great affect upon fashion. The changes due to the Revolution, saw the English aristocracy disown the excesses of previous generations in favour of the fashions of the rural middle classes. Disappearing were gaudy brocades and embraced were the buckskin breeches and many-caped greatcoat. Perhaps, as Christopher Breward suggests, this was the English aristocracy silently admitting their vulnerability in the face of not just the French, but also the American Revolution, and wishing to stabilize their position through finding a middle-ground with their social inferiors?
You see, the fascination of Regency fashions, I believe, comes in large part from the immense differences Women’s and Men’s dress encompassed during this short British period. The panniers and brocades of the Georgians, and the crinoline dresses of the early Victorians were miles away from the natural, simple designs sported by Beau Brummel and Queen Louise of Prussia. It was from the turmoil and development of the eighteenth century, that for a brief period in the past, fashions were altogether, suddenly different.
What do you think? Is that why you’re attracted to Regency clothing – or is it still the Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth swimming in the lake thing that does it for you? 😉 For me I think it’s a little of both!
Christopher Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).
Women’s Headdress and Hairstyles, Georgine de Courtais (London: B T Batsford Ltd, 1988).