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Spencers, Pelisses, and Reticules: the Fashions of Jane Austen’s World

One quick note before I begin: for anyone wanting to know more about the subject of my last post–the experiences of the women who lived with and followed the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars–I can recommend Following the Drum, by Annabel Venning. The book isn’t exclusively about the Regency era, but it’s still an excellent resource for anyone wanting to research the experiences of army wives and daughters in more depth.

And now on to the subject of fashion during Jane Austen’s time period, which was one of the most purely fun aspects of writing Georgiana Darcy’s Diary: getting to dress my characters in the gorgeous fashions of the day. Obviously entire books have been written on the subject of Regency fashions, so this isn’t intended to be a complete survey. This post is just to showcase a few of the images I looked at for inspiration when imagining Georgiana’s and my other characters’ clothes–and to give explanations of some fashion terms that modern readers may be unfamiliar with, since the diary format made it almost impossible to define them in the book.

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and during her lifetime saw a revolution in fashion almost as dramatic as the American and French Revolutions that also occurred while she was alive. Women’s fashions moved away from the old wide hooped silhouette of the Georgian period to a high-waisted, narrow silhouette. Here are two dresses typical of the Georgian era, the first actually from 1775, the year of Jane Austen’s birth. (For anyone who has already read Georgiana’s Diary, these are the kind of gowns I was imagining for Georgiana’s cousin Anne to wear to the masquerade ball.)

1775dressannesdress

And here, in contrast, are some examples of Regency women’s fashions, the kind of images I looked at when dressing Georgiana and my other characters for evening parties and balls. You can see how the heavy silks and brocades of the earlier century gave way to delicate muslins with neoclassical details that were meant to emulate the democratic republics of the ancient world.

balldressgeorgianaballgownregencyevening

One of the early readers of Georgiana Darcy’s Diary asked me, “What is a pelisse?” It’s a very good question, since anyone unfamiliar with Regency fashions will probably never have heard the term. Briefly, a pelisse was an over garment similar to a coat, but with a high waist and long skirt to follow the line of the gown it was worn with. The thin, fashionable muslins were leaving ladies in need of an added layer of warmth in cold weather. Below is a picture of a pelisse that may have been worn by Jane Austen herself, followed by a fashion plate of the day.

janeaustenspellise

pelisse

A spencer was another overgarment worn in chilly weather, but instead of following the lines of a high-waisted gown was a short fitted jacket only as long as the bodice. Spencers typically had long sleeves and a high collar, and often had military-style trimmings inspired by the army uniforms of the day.

spencer

And lastly, a reticule was essentially the forerunner of the modern woman’s purse. During the Georgian era, skirts were wide enough and fabrics substantial enough that gowns could be sewn with inner pockets. But the thin, flimsy muslins and narrow skirts of the Regency left little scope for pockets, and so ladies began to carry reticules, small pouches like this one c. 1840:reticule

Reticules could be matched to the fabric of a gown, but many ladies preferred to make their own with beadwork or netting–which in fact Charles Bingley admiringly considers a mark of female accomplishment in Pride and Prejudice.

For anyone wanting to know more about Regency era fashions, I can highly recommend Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, by Sarah Jane Downing.

This entry was posted Sunday, June 12th, 2011 at 2:27 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “Spencers, Pelisses, and Reticules: the Fashions of Jane Austen’s World”

  1. Brynne McKay Says:
    June 13th, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    And, of course, there is Hope Greenberg’s regency gown construction tips page, which is great if you are trying to sew a gown but also has a fantastic breakdown of the layers. :) http://www.uvm.edu/~hag/regency/tips/


  2. xo.sorcha.ox Says:
    June 15th, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Fashion in the time of Jane Austen by Sarah Jane Downing is such an easy read: Not too information-heavy, and packed full of pretty pictures. I often find myself taking it off the self for a quick browse. The artwork and fashion plates are stunning.
    ~S.


  3. Anna Says:
    June 16th, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Brynne, you’re too modest to tell everyone that in your avatar you’re actually wearing the regency era gown you made yourself, right? Which makes me GREEN with envy that you actually got to dress for a Regency style ball and dance! :-)


  4. Anna Says:
    June 16th, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Sorcha, that’s exactly what I thought of the Sarah Jane Downing book, too–it’s fantastic as both a basic introduction or as a refresher course/inspiration for anyone wanting to dig a little deeper. One of my favorite pictures is the photo of the blue embroidered shoes that may have been worn by Jane Austen herself!


  5. Laura Says:
    July 6th, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    How did I miss this blog post? June was cruelly unfair, allowing me little (if any) spare internet surfing time. Excellent post! Aren’t you glad you invested in that book?! One can never own too many books, especially on Regency fashion. I saw you’re latest blog too; I had better get stuck into my sketches! Hope you & the girls are well (I hope the girls are over the flu)?

    Laura x


  6. Laura Says:
    July 6th, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    And to note, although a fan of Regency fashion, I have a very soft spot (as you know) for 1760 – 1780 fashion, that first photo is just beautiful. Now, if ever I were invited to a masquerade or fancy dress, I would have to hire something like that to wear!


  7. Prue Batten Says:
    July 15th, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    From a feminine POV, I prefer the softness of Regency to the contrived nature of Georgian. Having said that, embroidery rules with both and i simply MUST pilfer the pattern on the reticule and embroider it for myself. It’s lovely.
    ps: I want a spencer, Regency style!



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