by M.M. Bennetts
It seems only fair that since previously I've given such a full and frank appraisal of a gentleman's clothes, circa 1812, I ought to offer the same care and attention to the ladies...
Just to be fair, you understand.
The first thing I should tell you is leave all your pre-conceptions behind. For many of the gowns of the era weren't constructed as we think women's gowns were...with fastenings at the back.
Imagine if you will that the top of the gown is like a short-waisted jacket--almost like a shrug or bolero-- into which you would slip your arms. (This is for the ladies in the audience...)
Then the attached skirt was gathered on a tape or ribbon which was tied at the front. The front of the gown, attached as it was to the front bodice, was buttoned, tied, or pinned in place over the bosom, probably at four points--two on each side, one just below the shoulder at the top of the neckline, and at the waist on either side. When these were unfastened, obviously the bodice front would fall--hence fall front.
Underneath, yes, the corset. Not the boardlike flattening corsets of 30 years previous. No, these were designed to make the most of a woman's charms by pushing up the breasts so that they (here's that classical reference stuff again) resembled the improbably high bosoms of ancient Greek godesses as seen on all the statues. In their results, if not their construction, Regency corsets were not dissimilar from today's push-up bras.
Underneath that, a shift. I fancy this would protect this tender skin from any biting or pinching that a tight corset might get up to... Be that as it may, it was a loose-ish, often white, sometimes pale pink or beige, slightly gathered about the neck slip which came down often as far as the knees, or longer. It might be made of cotton lawn, linen or silk.
The pale pink or the pale beige silk was designed to create the impression that the woman was wearing nothing at all under her gown.
And, for those who wish to know, yes, dampening one's petticoat, as Lady Caroline Lamb and others were said to have done, would cause the silk to cling to her waist and thighs so that everything was on show.
Stockings were worn, held up with garters tied about the thigh. Fancy garters were de rigeur if one was expecting to waltz.
Finally, colour. Much is made of the fact that they wore a great deal of white or pale-coloured muslin.
The fashion for white muslin goes back at least as far as Marie Antoinette in France. She and her ladies in waiting were known to wear simple white muslin gowns as they played at being milkmaids at le Petit Trianon at Versailles. And the fashion continued well into the early years of the 19th century. There was as mentioned above the desire to resemble classical Greek statuary and for their gowns to recreate the image of the classical draperies found on such statuary.
But white muslin also has the benefit of sending a clear financial message to the on-lookers. For the very nature of the fabric meant that it could not be laundered frequently and survive--hence the wearer could afford to replace her clothes as often as she chose. And, those pale colours soiled easily, and required frequent washing--so the wearer could afford the luxury of a laundrymaid.
And now you know...
M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century British and European history and the Napoleonic wars and is the author of two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame set during the period. A third novel, Or Fear of Peace, is due out in 2014.
For further information, please visit the website and historical blog at www.mmbennetts.com