This blog post aims to give you a brief outline of how a Regency woman would be dressed. The thing is, so many authors assume their readers know what a spencer jacket is, what a shift is, what stays are, and if you don’t you feel rather silly asking!
I myself will admit, for the first time ever, that I didn’t know what a pelisse was for about the first six years of reading Georgette Heyer novels! So for all you people interested in Regency tidbits, hopefully this will provide you with a basic and simple guide to Regency women’s items of clothing and roughly what order they went on!
This was a thin down that does the equivalent of a modern day vest and slip all in one. It went on nearest to the skin and usually had capped sleeves which would have been hidden under the puff sleeves of the dress the lady would put on later.
Then came the stays. Now stays are a kind of corset, but unlike corsets from previous centuries, Regency stays were shorter. In fact, they resemble modern bras rather well except that they did not necessarily separate the breasts.
Stays would go on over the shift and be laced at the front or back (usually the former if you were dressing yourself which would be the case if you were not rich enough to have a ladies maid. In reality, that would be the majority of the population). They would be laced from bottom to top in order to ensure the breasts could be pushed as high as possible giving that wonderful shelf-like effect.
Older women did sometimes use long-stays which were basically a longer corset-like garment, in order to keep their stomachs in.
Some women also had a metal wedge-like implement that they would place between their breasts in order to separate them. This can be seen in caricatures of the period where women are drawn with breasts literally sticking out sideways! Thanks to my good friend Parnel Bennetts for that tidbit.
A dress with straps that goes over the shift and stays. The petticoat would probably have a patterned hem so it looked pretty when seen!
4. Drawers & Pantalettes
In terms of underwear, women could wear drawers or pantalettes but generally underwear wasn’t overly common – shocking, I know!
Drawers/pantalettes were basically like two separate trouser legs that had a waist-band joining them together. The reason they had separate legs with no joining seam was of course to enable going to the toilet! Although it must be noted that some drawers/pantalettes were joined.
I have actually tried some of these pantalette bad-boys on – let’s just say they are somewhat different from the ol’ knickers of the modern day.
A chemisette was basically a half-blouse which could be worn to cover a women’s décolletage during the day and keep her a little warmer!
The dress would be put on over the other layers of clothing and laced or buttoned up the back afterwards.
Depending on the time of day and the activity there were a range of dresses: morning dress, walking dress, riding habit and evening gown. Each dress would be made from different material, for instance a morning dress to be worn around the house was usually muslin as seen in the picture from the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
It’s also worth remember that women didn’t just go and buy dresses like we buy clothes now. Dresses were expensive, especially because they had to be made up for each individual, the easiest way to gain a new look was to merely alter your existing dress with say, a new trim or a fancy new chemisette.
Oh, the jackets! Me and my husband are rather big fans of coats so I like the range of jackets on offer to a Regency lady when going out:
Pelisse: a coat with long sleeves and who’s general length reached to about mid-calf.
Spencer Jacket: Ah, the favourite of Lizzie Bennet in the BBC adaptation. The spencer jacket was a long sleeved short jacket that finished around the same height as the empire waistline.
Redingote: This is a particularly handsome jacket which was long sleeved again, and was short to the empire waist in front whilst remaining long in the back, much like the Regency gentleman’s tail-coat jacket from which the design was taken. However, I have to admit, it was more popular in the 1790s which obviously falls before the Regency began – I just like it so darn much I shall include it!
Now this is a rather large topic. There was just so much a Regency woman could do regarding her headwear.
There were straw bonnets, satin bonnets, jockey bonnets designed like the flat-caps jockey’s wore. There were turbans and conical hats and for evenings women might wear feathers in their hair or ribbon or gauze to match their dresses.
Shoes differed according to the activity. For walking into the village a woman might were boots with a wooden heel whilst for a ball they would wear silk slippers sometimes ones that matched their dress.
A woman would have a purse with draw strings that she would carry not only money but any other nick-nacks she might have around with her. The reason for these reticules was largely because dresses did not have pockets and so they were essential for any woman wanting to carry things with her.
They came in many different styles and usually matched the clothing of the wearer if they were fashionable and had the wealth to do so.
So, there you go, a whistle stop tour of a Regency woman’s wardrobe bullet-pointed for your convenience. Of course, this is a broad overview and should be treated as such. There were many different fashions, materials, types of dresses and variations within each part of clothing but hopefully this gives those who don’t know, a basic understanding of a Regency lady’s dress.
Now you can sit back and enjoy that Regency romance you’re pootling through without being confused by the dress 🙂