Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Advice from a Lady of Distinction

by Maria Grace

Clothing made a (Wo)man
Ackermann's 1809

During the Regency era, fairly strict rules defined how a lady of quality should dress according to the time of day and her anticipated activities.  Theoretically, one wore Undress in the morning, Half-dress in the afternoon, and Full Dress for (formal) evening events. If it sounds like a gentlewoman had to change clothes several times a day, you’d be right. To be active in society, a Regency era lady had to have the right garment for the right occasion, and that added up to a lot of gowns (and corresponding expense.)

Unfortunately wearing the wrong sort of gown at the wrong time could be a devastating social blunder. Ladies (and gentlemen) were judged by their dress. If you did not dress properly, it was a sure statement about your fortune (or lack thereof) and your place in society. In a very real sense, a man or woman was made by their appearance, for better or worse.

Given the very negative impact dressing improperly could have on a young lady in society,  one could hardly blame said young ladies and their mothers for seeking advice from those who might know better than themselves. Enter ‘A Lady of Distinction’, the esteemed authoress of The Mirror of Graces  (1811). This unnamed woman (women publishing anonymously was common in the era) says of herself in the preface:
These pages were not intentionally at first written for publication, but originally composed by the desire of some female friends, who live at a remote part of the west of England; and who, aware of her consummate knowledge of the world, and experience in all that is honourable in the art of captivation, had applied to her for certain directions on the subject. She indulgently complied with their request, and in the elegant treatise we now present to our readers, gratified her friends with as fine a lesson on PERSONAL and MENTAL accomplishments as could ever flow from the experienced and delicate pen of a woman of VIRTUE and of TASTE.
What better recommendations to heed her advice could we have? Moving on…

Importance of good taste
While good taste has always been, well good, in just about every era, it took on a moral aspect during the Regency era that has a lot in common with a lot of modern standards about dress. We might raise an eyebrow, or comment unfavorably upon the lady who shows up to the grocery store in her pajamas, and some would go so far as to condemn her character for it. The Regency era was just a judgemental, perhaps even more so
1809 Ackermann's Walking Dress
In the words of A Lady of Distinction:

Fine taste in apparel I have ever seen the companion of pure morals, while a licentious style of dress is as certainly the token of the like laxity in manners and conduct. To correct this dangerous fashion ought to be the study and attempt of every mother, of every daughter, of every woman…p. 19
…I beg leave to observe, that I never yet met with a woman whose general style of dress was chaste, elegant, and appropriate, that I did not find, on further acquaintance, to be in disposition and mind, an object to admire and love. P 63-64
Effectively, the taste with which a woman dressed herself was a reflection of her morals, her character, and to some degree her virtue as well. As if deciding what wear wasn’t tough enough to start with!
Attention to one’s station in life, and not trying to leave that sphere to which she was born (as Lady Catherine was wont to say) reflected good morality as well. Upward mobility as we understand it today was considered inappropriate at best and vulgar at worst.
As there is a proprietary in adapting your dress to the different seasons of your life, and the peculiar character of your figure, there is likewise a necessity that it should correspond with the station you hold in society.
This is a subject not less of a moral concern than it is a matter of taste. … It is not from a proud wish to confine elegance to persons of quality that I contend for less extravagant habits in the middle and lower orders of people:  it is a conviction of the evil which their vanity produces that impels me to condemn  in toto the present levelling and expensive mode. P.85
Apparently A Lady’s fear was that spending too much money on clothing and the like would drive a poorer family into ruin and thus reflected bad character and moral. Because of course, those of the lower orders could not make intelligent and informed decisions on how to spend their income. I have a hunch that, though she does not say it, there is also a concern that a girl from the lower orders might be mistaken for one of higher rank or station and some poor young man might extend his attentions to the undeserving girl he might meet at a public assembly.

Dress According to Your Age

1809 Ackermann's- Dancing Dress
In addition to dressing for one’s station, one must also dress according to one’s age. A Lady of Distinction does not mince words in making a distinction between what is appropriate for young ladies versus older matrons. She says:
In the spring of youth, when all is lovely and gay, then, as the soft green, sparkling in freshness, bedecks the earth; so, light and transparent robes, of tender colours, should adorn the limbs of the young beauty … Her summer evening dress may be of a gossamer texture; but it must still preserve the same simplicity, though its gracefully-diverging folds may fall like the mantle of Juno…In this dress, her arms, and part of her neck and bosom may be unveiled: but only part. The eye of maternal decorum should draw the virgin zone to the limit where modesty would bid it rest.” P71

Where in doubt may be about this or that hue being becoming or genteel (as it is very possible it may neither be the one nor the other), let the puzzled beauty leave both, and securely array herself in simple white. That primeval hue never offends, and frequently is the most graceful robe that youth and loveliness can wear. P. 122
In contrast, by the time a woman sees her thirtieth birthday (which by the standards of the day was approaching what we would consider middle age), she should be reconsidering her mode of dress:
As the lovely of my sex advance towards the vale of years, I counsel them to assume a graver habit and a less vivacious air. Cheerfulness is becoming at all times of life; but sportiveness belongs to youth alone’ and when the meridian or decline of our days affects it is every heavy and out of place … At this period she lays aside the flowers of youth, and arrays herself in the majesty of sobriety, or in the grandeur of simple magnificence… Long is the reign of this commanding epoch of a woman’s age; for from thirty to fifty she may most respectably maintain her station on this throne of matron excellence.” P 81
 Our authoress actually has quite a bit to say about how disgusting and inappropriate it is for an ‘older’ woman to seek to draw attention to her appearance as might be appropriate for a younger woman. To have men pay attention to her appearance was regarded vulgar and repulsive. Modesty was the name of the game for the matron of the Regency era.


Not unlike today, the amount of skin to be shown in the name of fashion invited some very strongly worded commentary.
Custom regulates the veiling or unveiling the figure, according to different periods in the day. In the morning the arms and bosom must be completely covered to the throat and wrists. From the dinner hour to the termination of the day, the arms, to a graceful height above the elbow may be bare; and the neck and shoulders unveiled as far as delicacy will allow.  P. 95
1809 Ackermann's Although the focus is
to be on the hats,
notice the neckline and the gloves.
Just how much unveiling delicacy allowed might be a bit debatable. Apparently it was not an absolute degree of exposure, but also related to the ‘charms’ of the beauty being exposed.
To the exposure of the bosom and back, as some ladies display those parts of their person, what shall we say? This mode (like every other which is carried to excess and indiscriminately followed) is not only repugnant to decency, but most exceedingly disadvantageous to the charms of nine women out of ten.  …  When a woman, grown to the age of discretion for her own choice: unveils her beauties to the sun and moon;” then, from even an Helen’s charms the sated eye turns away loathing. … Were we even, in a frantic and impious passion, to set virtue aside, policy should direct out damsels to be more sparing of their attractions. An unrestrained indulgence of the eye robs imagination of her power, and prevents her consequent influence on the heart. And if this be the case where real beauty is exposed how much more subversive of its aim must be the studied display of an ordinary or deformed figure! pp92-93
 If the prevailing fashion be to reject the long sleeve, and to partially display the arm, let the glove advance considerably above the elbow, and there be fastened with a drawing string or armlet. But this should only be the case when the arm is muscular, coarse or scraggy. When it is fair, smooth and rounds, it will admit of the glove being pushed down to a little above the wrists. p. 130

So immodesty was even worse for a plain woman than an attractive one—who knew?
So there you have it, to be perceived as a woman of virtue and taste was no simple feat. Good taste had to be acquired—probably by studying tomes such as The Mirror of Graces along with fashion magazines like Ackermann’s Repository. One needed to dress according to her age and her station in life, keeping in mind both her own physical assets and appropriate modesty while realizing one’s entire future could rest upon making the right impression on the local society. No pressure right?


Regency Etiquette: The Mirror of Graces (1811). Enl. ed. Mendocino, CA: R.L. Shep;, 1997.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.




  1. Fascinating and relevant to my current WIP. Thank you, Maria Grace. I particularly found this remark you made to be insightful: "I have a hunch that, though she does not say it, there is also a concern that a girl from the lower orders might be mistaken for one of higher rank or station and some poor young man might extend his attentions to the undeserving girl he might meet at a public assembly."


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