Ladies’ Regency Evening Dress a Guide, compiled by Katy Bishop
The Commonwealth Vintage Dancers
This page is meant to be a basic guide to the styles of the early
19th Century to help you complete an outfit to wear to a ball. Please
remember that period outfits are not required at our Regency balls; this page is a guide for
those who wish to further immerse themselves in the period by either putting together a modern
outfit evocative of the period or reproducing and outfit from the underwear out.
(most of the images on this page are French fashion plates from Costume Parisien)
The styles of the early 19th Century are known by several different names,
depending on what country you are describing:
Regency (England, 1811-1820)
Federal (United States, 1785-1815)
Napoleonic (France, 1799-1815)
A PERIOD LOOK FROM MODERN CLOTHING
How to get a quick period look from modern clothes
Most of the information on this page is meant to help those who are interested in making
a complete reproduction outfit. If your interest is in finding an easy
solution to what to wear to a ball, something that is just evocative of the period rather than an exact reproduction, a
period look can be achieved with modern clothes
and thrift store finds with a few alterations and some creativity.
The basic silhouette for this era is a long, columnar, dress with very high waistline and short slightly
puffed sleeves. The outfit is completed with long gloves, small fans, flat ballet slipper style shoes and hair
piled on the head, usually in curls and waves.
A modern evening or bridesmaid dress with high waistline, just below the bust, with a skirt full enough to dance
in is a quick way to get the feel of the period. If the dress is strapless a short shrug, shawl
or fitted jacket can be added.
Make a quick period short jacket (Spencer)
A quick way to make a period Spencer jacket to camouflage a strapless dress is to find a pretty
long sleeved silk blouse, cut it off at 2-4' below the
bust, make a waistband to fit your ribcage from the cut piece and attach it to the bottom of the blouse, gathering,
darting or pleating the fullness into the waistband.
Evening Dresses The prevalent silhouette of this era
is most notable for its very high waistline. Necklines are fairly low and square or rounded.
The bodice could have a back opening with drawstring ties at the waist and neckline, a bib-style front opening
(with underbodice) or a V neck. Sleeves are most often short and slightly puffed; they can also
be elbow length or long. The
skirt is generally flat in the front, slightly flared, and gathered at
center back. There were no trains on dancing dresses.
White was very popular inspired by ancient Grecian modes, in cotton,
linen or silk satin. Light-weight sheer overdresses in embroidered net or fine sheer silk, over satin, in
contrasting colors was also fashionable. Trim could be seen at the hemline, neck, waist, sleeves and
down the front of the dress.
Undergarments To achieve the silhouette and support your dress properly the correct
undergarments are very helpful. Contrary to popular belief, corsets and petticoats did
not disappear during this period.
Chemise (Shift): The chemise has very simple shaping, open,
square neckline and short sleeves, in either lightweight
linen or cotton. The chemise is worn under the corset to help keep the corset clean.
Corset (Stays): Corsets were worn in this period. To achieve the
proper high-waisted silhouette, the corset is invaluable.
The bust is shaped by gussets or gathered bust cups; cording and minimal boning was used to provide a bit
of stiffening. For more support choose a longer corset to flatten the stomach and hips. Those with slim figures can choose
a shorter style which mainly supports the bust.
Fabrics are firmly woven cotton or linen, medium weight.
Petticoat: The petticoat had either shoulder straps or an attached bodice of slightly heavier
cloth (that might take the place of a corset). The line of the petticoat follows the
shape of the dress. The hem can be corded if more body is desired (late in the period). Petticoats
were made of cotton, linen or fine wool flannel.
Costume Parisien, 1807
Additional Undergarments, these are not as commonly worn
Drawers: Drawers appear in ladies clothing after 1800, didn’t seem to be commonly worn
until the 1830s.
Bustles: Small bustle pads could be attached to the dress at the back waist to keep the skirt
from collapsing into the small of the back. The pad was a very small pillow, about 1-2"wide and 6" long.
Pockets and Reticules: A pair of pockets can be worn under the dress attached by a tape at the waist.
Pockets were not particularly fashionable so a reticule (also called a ridicule or indispensable)
or small cloth purse, can be carried to hold indispensable items.
Gloves, Shoes & Stockings: Long white kid leather gloves (other colors appeared and disappeared as
fashions and the latest fads changed). Slippers, flat, of white satin or kid with decorative
ribbons or rosettes. Stockings usually white cotton or silk, opaque.
Fans: Fairly small folding fans (paper or silk leaf).
Pelisse & Spencer: The Pelisse is an outdoor garment, basically a coat, with or without sleeves,
to be worn over the dress. Short, three-quarter length or long and front opening. The Spencer is
a short jacket worn over the dress, long sleeves, front closure. Mainly an outdoor garment or might
be worn for evening wear indoors. Fabrics vary.
Cloaks & Shawls: A loose cloak can be worn. Shawls are large, long rectangles or large squares folded
crosswise, wool, wool and silk blend, or very lightweight cotton, often with Indian paisley
designs or white on white embroidery.
Jewelry: Simple pearl or bead necklaces, cameos and classical style earrings finish the ensemble. Jewels
with neo-classical motifs and designs were very fashionable.
Hair was piled on the head, often in styles imitating those seen on Greek and Roman sculptures.
Hair was usually wavy or curled, with a bun or fancy braid at the back of the head. There were
usually small ringlets at the forehead.
Head-Dresses: The hairstyle could be completed with many different types of headdresses. Sinple bandeaus, consisting of
single or multiple circlets, in gold, pearls, ribbons or jeweled bands, also circlets made of twisted cloth in colors to coordinate
with the gown. Circlets of flowers, jewelled tiaras and Turbans are also popular, and are especially useful to disguise short hair.
Ostrich feathers can add a regal touch.
Making Your Outfit
Patterns, books & other resources
Which Pattern to Choose?
How do you make the decision of which historical pattern to choose?
There are several small pattern companies that produce only historical patterns, many of them produce good patterns.
When using any of the
patterns listed below combine their use it with your own research. Look at fashion plates, photos of
original garments, and if possible study actual garments.
You’ll have better success the more you know before starting sewing. Also, when using any commercial pattern
that may be used by other ladies attending the same event, making changes to neckline,
sleeves and trim will ensure that you won't walk into the ballroom to face several dresses
identical to yours!
1801 back view
notice the shoulder and back seams creating the distinctive
diamond shaped back panel.
Their patterns are taken from actual period garments or
antique patterns, with complete, tested, professional sewing instructions, and often the patterns come
with exhaustive historical
notes. Most patterns are available in a wide range of sizes.
Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion:
The Patterns Of Fashion books contain reduced scale drawings, on grid paper, of patterns taken
from actual garments. Guaranteed to be historically accurate.
Past Patterns, used in combination with Janet Arnold (if Past Patterns doesn't have the exact garment you need)
and Nancy Bradfield’s
Costume in Detail (see below) will give you a good historical
Recommended Patterns Folkwear: Folkwear has a good basic Regency dress pattern that is fairly simple to make.
Sense & Sensibility &
La Mode Bagatelle: Sense & Sensibility Patterns and La
Mode Bagtelle Patterns offer a slightly wider range to balance out the offerings,
especially additional undergarments.
Slightly less accurate than Past Patterns
or Janet Arnold but still good patterns.
When using these look at period illustrations and garments to tweak the dresses, like adjusting shoulder seam placement,
for a better fit and period line. There are also other smaller pattern companies that we have no experience with
so we cannot review them.
Then we come to the large commercial pattern companies, mainly Simplicity and Butterick. Neither of them
is particularly accurate, though Simplicity is better than Butterick, they are, in the end, costumes.
Butterick patterns are complete costumes,
don’t expect an accurate look, or a comfortable dress for dancing (the skirts are not cut full enough for dancing).
Simplicity is a bit better but will still need alterations for a more accurate look.
#030: A "Transition Stay" Fashionable Circa 1796-1806.
#031: Circa 1796-1806 Lewis & Clark Era Front Closing Gown.
#038: A Partially Boned "Transition Stay" Fashionable Circa 1793-1820.
Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction 1660-1860.
Drama Publishers, ISBN: 089676026X
Patterns taken directly from ladies garments, 1/8 scale. An excellent resource.
Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction 1660-1860.
Drama Publishers (1977); ISBN: 089676026X
Patterns taken directly from ladies garments, 1/8 scale. An excellent resource.
Other Publications Exhibition Catalogues, Fashion History Books, Fashion Plate Albums, Reprints
Ackermann, Rudolph (Author); Blum, Stella (Editor). Ackermann's Costume Plates: Women’s Fashions in England, 1818-1828.
Dover Books (1979); ISBN: 0486236900
Color reproductions of fashion plates.
Barreto, Cristina. Napoleon & the Empire of Fashion: 1795-1815.
Martin Lancaster (2011); ISBN: 8857206505
Napoleon & the Empire of Fashion Website
Costume in Detail: Women’s Dress 1730-1930.
Costume & Fashion Press (1997); ISBN: 0896762173
Detailed sketches of clothing construction. Details many of the dresses in Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold.
Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.
Dover Books (1990); ISBN: 0486263231
Year by year breakdown of each era, very thorough.
Downing, Sarah-Jane. Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen.
Shire Library (2010), ISBN: 0747807671
Over view of the period covering fashion and society in England.
Le Bourhis, Katell.
The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire, 1789-1815.
Harry N Abrams (1990); ISBN-10: 0810919001
Exhibition catalogue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail.
V & A Publishing (2009), ISBN-10: 1851775722
Detailed photographs of period garments.
A Lady. The lady’s economical assistant, or, The art of cutting out, and making, the most useful
articles of wearing apparel, without waste.... (1808).
Kannik's Korner (1998), ISBN: 0964016133
Sadako Takeda, Sharon; Durland Spilker, Kaye; Galliano, John. Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 - 1915. Museum exhibition catalogue 2010.
Prestel USA (2010), ISBN-10: 3791350625
Exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Exhibition Website.
OMG that dress (http://omgthatdress.tumblr.com/)
A blog that posts photos of dresses from on-line collections.
A good resource for visual images of extant garments. In early January 2012 many Regency dress pictures were posted.
The site can be searched by date and theme.
Online Fashion Engravings Database
at the Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs (http://www.bibliothequedesartsdecoratifs.com/consultation2/consultation.html)
The massive online fashion engravings database at Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris is a wealth of inspiration for
men’s and women’s fashions spanning the 18th, 19th and
20th centuries. The sheer volume of information,
and the fact that it is all free, makes this one of our favorite online resources. Be prepared to spend hours!
It is only in French, so if you are not a French speaker, here is a simple set of navigation instructions: