Regency Costume

Regency Costume

With Pride and Prejudice celebrating its bicentenary in 2013, interest in the Regency period is greater than ever. Costume expert Grace Evans provides a guide to the fashions of the era

Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume at Chertsey Museum

Grace Evans

Keeper of Costume at Chertsey Museum

What does ‘Regency costume’ conjure up in the mind’s eye? Simple white muslin frocks with high waists? Or perhaps the dripping chemise of Mr Darcy as he emerges from the water in Pride and Prejudice? Much of our knowledge is drawn from the adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels which have crowded our screens over the past few years. The clothes we see in costume dramas are a great starting point, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Although the Prince Regent ruled in place of King George III from 1811 to 1820, in terms of dress history the Regency period begins around 1795. During the 1790s fashions underwent a radical shift in style. The resulting look – high waists for women and plainer dress for men – dominated fashion for the next 25 years. Clothing styles had been simplifying steadily since the early 1780s when Neoclassical influences began to take hold but, from 1789, the social upheaval of the French Revolution accelerated change. People no longer wanted to be associated with the old aristocratic order, and their stiff, lavishly embellished silks were discarded in favour of more ‘democratic’ clothing.

Men wore dark wool high-collared frock or morning coats. Waistcoats were often buff coloured or woven with simple stripes. Breeches could be of buckskin or dark wool – all garments derived from practical riding costume. Only the quality of fabric and cut differentiated the wealthy from the less well-off. It was also during this period that trousers (or pantaloons) were first worn.

The new look for women was fresh and unstructured, as light cottons were generally favoured and waistlines rose to just below the bust – a style intended to imitate ancient Greek statues. However, changes in fashions could take months or even years to filter through to remote areas and some of the older generation never adopted them wholesale. Knowledge of the latest styles spread gradually through a combination of fashion plates (illustrations circulated to tailors and dressmakers or printed in magazines) and word of mouth. It is a mistake to assume that white muslin was universally worn by women. Thicker fabrics such as cotton calico, linen and wool were commonplace and darker colours including browns, greys and purples were much more practical and popular for everyday wear, especially in winter. The poorest in society would have acquired clothing through the second hand market, but it was normal practice at all levels to alter items to give them a more fashionable cut.

Cotton was much more affordable and practical than silk, and ordinary women now had the means to be fashionable. Virtually all clothing was made to measure and hand stitched by the wearers themselves, their servants or dressmakers. Sewing was a skill acquired by most women regardless of rank, and fabrics were readily available from local linen draper’s shops. The finest hand-woven cotton muslins were imported from India, but the cotton weaving industry in Britain was already well established by the late 1700s, boosted by new innovations associated with the Industrial Revolution: the spinning jenny and the power loom. All this made it much easier to get the look for less.

Though men’s wear remained sober, around 1810 more colour and surface decoration began to creep back into women’s dress, and garments gained greater structure. The waistline finally began to drop to its natural level from 1820 as the Regency period drew to a close. The tightly corseted and complicated clothing which dominated the rest of the 19th century must have seemed deeply impractical to those who had experienced the freedoms of the Regency era.

Man wearing morning walking dress

A fashion plate from November 1806 showing a gentleman in fashionable day wear derived from 18th century riding dress. His morning coat is sharply cut away to form tails at the back and his pantaloons are tucked into ‘hussar’ boots. He carries a riding hat – an early form of the top hat. Around his neck he wears a cravat – a large triangle of linen or fine cotton muslin which was rolled and wrapped around the neck, fastening with a knot at the front.

morning walking dress
The cravat is seen here, carefully folded and tied in a knot at the throat. Much care was taken in the tying of it

Hussar boots, with their distinctive curved tops and tassels, were highly fashionable at this time. They were inspired by those worn by Hungarian cavalry and fitted well with the riding dress theme of Regency menswear

Short hair, layered and combed forward ‘à la Titus’ had replaced the powdered long hair or wigs worn by men for much of the 18th century

The riding hat, with a stiffened crown, was adopted for day wear along with other aspects of riding clothing. It is clearly a fore-runner of the top hat


The image shows a rear view of a ‘spencer’. Spencers were short jackets cut in line with the high-waisted bodices of the period. They were made from silk or other more sturdy fabrics, and were designed to offer some warmth and protection when worn with light cotton dresses. This example is intricately decorated with leaf shapes edged with piping and ‘rouleau’ loops. It dates to around 1815.

This spencer includes shoulder pieces which resemble epaulettes. Fashions from around 1815 were inspired by military uniforms. This was due to the influence of the Napoleonic wars, and in particular the Battle of Waterloo

The intricate design of ‘rouleau’ loops seen here picks out the diamond back seams of this spencer. The diamond back was an 18th century method of constructing bodices which extended into the early 19th century

Green boots

Described as ‘half-boots’, these are made from green morocco leather with ribbed wool. They have leather soles and stacked heels. Used for practical day wear, they date to around 1820. Stouter, all-leather versions gave better protection for walking in winter, while pattens – wooden over-shoes with metal rings designed to raise the wearer above the mud – were still worn at this time, especially by the less well-off who could not afford to travel in carriages.

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Green boots
Hand worked thread eyelets are seen here. Metal eyelets were not developed until after the Regency period

Flat shoes and boots were very fashionable. They worked well with the simple lines of the dresses worn. All shoes and boots were made as ‘straights’ at this time, meaning that there was no left or right

Walking dress 1818

A fashion plate from February 1818. Towards the end of the Regency period women’s fashions became more complicated and elaborate. The subject wears a pelisse – a type of fitted coat that followed the high-waisted line of the dress beneath. It is made from dark coloured silk or wool with bold surface decoration. Despite the general fashion for white, colour was creeping in at this period. Note her lavishly trimmed bonnet. Bonnets were purchased plain and trimmings re-worked to match different outfits. She also carries a ‘reticule’ or hand bag. These developed as a practical measure since pockets ruined the line of narrow gowns.

walking dress 1818
The bonnet features a high crown, echoing that seen in men’s hats. The later Regency period saw a return to lavishly decorated accessories, and hat trimmings were particularly bold. This was a way in which ordinary women could afford to follow fashion. Hats could be re-trimmed many times with ribbons which were not expensive

Small reticules or hand bags were common during the Regency period. In them women might have carried items such as a coin purse, bone note tablets for writing on, a propelling pencil and a toothpick case

The lavish blue trimmings on this pelisse are typical of the more decorative nature of later Regency fashion. The wearer’s wealth was once more being displayed through her clothing

White cotton muslin gown

Dating to around 1803, this classic white cotton muslin gown, sprigged with hand embroidered rosettes, epitomises early Regency era fashion. Extremely light and flimsy with a small ‘puddle train’, it has a bib front which is fastened by means of pins or stitches at the shoulders. Tiny gathers at the small of the back add a little volume behind. A small pad was originally stitched inside to help the dress to hang straight. This high fashion gown is very narrow and would probably have been worn by a young woman as evening wear with only a single cotton or silk petticoat beneath.

white cotton muslin gown
The softly gathered bib-front of the dress was pinned or stitched in place at the front of the shoulders – a normal way to fasten clothes at this date, a method which seems strange to us. It was to die out by around 1815

The extremely fine muslin of this dress was probably Indian in origin and features a design of hand embroidered rosettes

Small trains were a feature of women’s dress during the late 18th and very early 19th centuries. They were a status symbol. Only women who travelled in carriages and lived in clean homes could hope to keep a train from becoming soiled and dirty in moments

Walking dress 1815

This fashion plate from July 1815 shows fashionable walking dress. The puffed sleeves and starched collar are historical references to Tudor dress – an emerging trend. Another feature of the image is the presence of a large, colourful shawl. Shawls provided warmth over light dress fabrics, but they also added interest and structure to the silhouette and a touch of colour and exoticism. The best shawls were imported from the East Indies, but many were also woven in Britain, providing a relatively cheap way to add a fashionable element to an outfit.

walking dress 1815
The puffed sleeves and the starched ruff-style collar are inspired by Tudor costume. This period saw a craze for historical clothing, which was linked to the Gothic Revival

Coloured shawls remained fashionable until the late 1860s. During the Regency period they broke up the monotony of all-white dresses, adding colour and echoing Classical drapery

White gloves are worn here, even though this outfit is intended for summer. Women were expected to wear gloves at all times when out in public

Note the shorter skirt which made it practical for walking. There are also many ruffles towards the hem. This was the start of a fashion for hem decoration which really took hold during the 1820s

Buckskin breeches

Derived from riding dress, buckskin breeches were a hard-wearing and practical element of everyday men’s wear. This pair dates from the 1790s, and has the name ‘Lovett’ hand written in ink along the waistband. They are fastened with buckskin-covered buttons and have a ‘fall-front’. The thinner and more pliable the buckskin, the more expensive and flattering the breeches.

buckskin breeches
Most men’s breeches were made with a ‘fallfront’ opening. It fastened with buttons at the centre front and then a flap was lifted up and buttoned over the top

The best buckskin breeches were soft and pliable, making them very comfortable to wear. They were also extremely practical and hard-wearing, and they were worn by the less well off as well as followers of fashion. Daring young men wore them as tight as possible

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