Regency Indecency

May 12th, 2011

I am attending a neoclassical picnic later this month, and have decided to finally make that Regency-era dress I’ve been putting off for more than a decade. My mother bought me a copy of the Folkwear Empire Dress pattern, along with a length of sheer fabric printed with blue stripes and tiny blue flowers in the late 1990s. At the time, I was working for the George Read II House & Garden, an historic house build in the early 19th century, and had plans to sew an appropriate wardrobe.

So tonight, I grabbed some cheap muslin and cut out the Folkwear bodice. I’d already decided to use the skirt from Janet Arnold instead of making the gored skirt included in the pattern (I’ve never seen a gored Regency skirt…not that I know much about this period). Alas, after hastily stitching the bodice together and gathering it over my corset lace because I was too lazy to hunt for a proper drawstring, I discovered that I also hate the top of this dress. Please don’t misunderstand; it’s a lovely pattern and I adore Folkwear, but it just isn’t what I’m looking for this time.

Here’s what I’m trying to match:

Young Woman in White
Young Woman in White, circa 1798, oil on canvas,
attributed to the circle of Jacques-Louis David.

Well, perhaps not exactly. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to attend a picnic at a public garden with quite such a visible bust line. But I love the sleeves, the neck, the skirt, the hairdo, the shawl. I think I’ll add a straw hat too.

As for the pattern, I think Janet Arnold is going to be my best friend in this case. So I’m off to con my copy of Patterns of Fashion I. The big question that remains of course is whether she is wearing a bust-bodice or a bodiced petticoat (I am leaning towards the latter based on the volume of her skirts) and IS IT BONED??

P.S. I am saving the original blue striped and flowered material for an 1850s wrapper — it’s far too fussy to be properly Neoclassical — and I’ve pulled out a nice white-on-white striped sheer cotton that’s almost fine enough to be mull.

  • Zoh says:

    Shocking! I think the dress will look fabulous on you! Hopefully we won’t all be caught in a rainstorm for an impromptu neoclassical wet gown contest (?!)…

  • Tracey says:

    Hello, This is Tracey from the NYC Ballet who attended your hand-sewing talk in March. From James Laver’s Costume and Fashion, A Concise History (1988 edition):

    page 152:

    Women’s dress at this period was less extravagant, but showed an even more drastic break with the past. Paniers, bustles and corsets were all abandoned, as were also the rich materials of which dresses had formerly been made. Instead women wore a robe en chemise, which did indeed look like an undergarment, for it consisted of a white, high-waisted muslin cambric or calico garment falling to the feet and sometimes so transparent that it was necessary to wear white, or pink, tights underneath. Sometimes the material was dampened so that it clung to the body in imitation of the folds of the Greek dresses represented in antique statues.

    The good news is that this releases you from finding or making any complex historical undergarment! The bad news is that in fact the ideal situation IS a wet tee-shirt contest (all in the name of neo-classical appreciation of course!)

    • eva says:

      So nice to “meet” you again Tracey. And thanks for the quote from Laver — I was talking with a friend who grew up in France and she mentioned the whole idea of wearing a pink knitted sleeve under my dress, and it sounds like she was right on target! I am definitely relieved to have virtually no undergarments to make — there aren’t many pre-WWI periods that you can jump into perfect accuracy with just a dress and a petticoat. But I do think a large opaque shawl will be the key to wearing this outfit in public.

  • Ava Trimble says:

    I really want to make one of these style gowns, especially after having seen some portraits of more, er, generously endowed women wearing similar styles. I definitely don’t have the option of leaving my bosom entirely unsupported, but the regency gowns are so pretty! And impressively scandalous, too. Do you suppose I could get away with using an 1830s style corset for a regency corset? The bosom wouldn’t be quite as….high….but I could potentially shorten the straps or something.

    Are you going to do a lining for the gown, or wear a separate bodiced petticoat? Looking forward to seeing pictures!

    • eva says:

      Hello Ava — nice to hear from you — hope your thesis is winding its way up to a great finish. I discovered your new wordpress site and am eagerly awaiting pictures of your garments!

      You should definitely make an Empire gown! I’ve got the support structure nearly finished, and you’d be surprised how efficient it is. I didn’t think it would work at all, but it’s surprisingly, er, buoyant. I think it will end up as a separate bodiced petticoat because the bust support needs to open in the front, while the dress clearly needs to open in the back.

      I know next to nothing about Regency stays, and very little about 1830s. But I’m not sure they’re quite compatible. Don’t your 1830s stays pretty much cover the bust? I think the trick to proper Regency stays is that they just cup the underside and push them up into that shelf shape. The other thing they’re suppose to do of course is make the rest of you completely tubular…ouch! I’ve never worn Regency stays, but if they’re anything like an Edwardian corset, you can have ’em. If you’re not concerned with perfect period accuracy, I think the Sense & Sensibility pattern has transitional short stays…

  • […] headache. So far, I’ve been focused on building a viable under-structure for the bodice of my Empire frock. You’ll notice that I am now calling it Empire, as opposed to Regency, since the dress is […]

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