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Last updated:17 mar 2014/csb
 

 

In Memoriam

Patri J. Pugliese
1950-2007

Please visit the
Patri Memorial
Page.

dancers

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)
 
Other related pages:
For gentlemen’s dress visit our Gentlemen’s Regency Dress page.
For some more detailed descriptions please visit Katy Bishop’s Regency Costume Basics page.
For lots more hints and inspiring images check out Antonia’s blog “Experiments in Elegance” her posts include:
guides to Hairstyles, Surface Features, and How to Fake it: A Guide to the Silhouette.

dancers

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.
 

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HOW TO REPRODUCE A PERIOD OUTFIT

1801 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.
 

 

Costume Parisien, 1812 (plate number 1205)

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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.

1820 dancing dress

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.

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Accessories

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.

1810, cloak

fashion plate
1801

1813

Jewelry: Simple pearl or bead necklaces, cameos and classical style earrings finish the ensemble. Jewels with neo-classical motifs and designs were very fashionable.

1801

1801

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Hairstyles, Head-dresses & Jewelry

fashion plate

1813

fashion plate

1812

Hairstyles: 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.

fashion plate

1812

fashion plate

An 9 (1801)

fashion plate

1812

fashion plate

1812

fashion plate

1812

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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!
 

fashion plate

1801 back view
notice the shoulder and back seams creating the distinctive diamond shaped back panel.

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Highly Recommended Patterns
 
1801 Past Patterns: 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 recreation.
 
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.

Costume Patterns
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.

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Listing of some Regency Patterns

1820 dancing dress
1820 dancing dress
Past Patterns (http://www.pastpatterns.com)
Undergarment, corset, dress and military jackets patterns from the Regency or Federal Era.
  • #002: Two Early Nineteenth Century Chemises.
  • #001: 1820s-1840s Corded Stay.
  • #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.

Arnold, Janet. 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.

  • 1795-1810: Half Robe
  • 1795-1803: Robe
  • 1795-1810: Riding Habit
  • 1798-1805: Morning Dress
  • 1806-09: White Embroidered Muslin Frock
  • 1800-25: Chemisettes
  • 1818-23: Pelisse
Sense and Sensibility Patterns (http://www.sensibility.com)
Dress, Spencer & undergarment patterns. La Mode Bagatelle (http://www.ravenrook.com)
Folkwear Patterns (http://www.folkwear.com)
  • #215 Empire Dress (simple basic style, a little low cut in the bust)
Simplicity Patterns (http://www.simplicity.com)
  • #4055 Regency Dresses (not completely accurate, skirt is not full enough, shoulder seams are too far forward)
  • #4052 undergarments (out of Print, used copies might be available)
Butterick Patterns (http://www.butterick.com)
  • #6630 not recommended. (skirt is not cut on period lines and does not fit the hips, do not do the back eyelette lacing!)

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Books with Patterns

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.
 
Doyle, Robert. Waisted Efforts.
Sartorial Press Publications (1997); ISBN: 0968303900
Corset patterns, history, and fitting.
 
Hunnisett, Jean. Period Costume for Stage and Screen, Patterns for Women’s Dress 1800-1909.
Players Press, Inc. (1991), ISBN: 088734609X
Theater related patterns, tips and hints.
 
Waugh, Nora. Corsets & Crinolines.
Routledge (1990); ISBN: 0878305262
Undergarments with reduced scale patterns and historical notes.
 
Waugh, Nora. The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600-1930.
Theater Arts Books (1987); ISBN: 0-87830-026-0
Reduced scale patterns and costume history by era.
 

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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
Exhibition catalogue. Napoleon & the Empire of Fashion Website
 
Bradfield, Nancy. 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 Period reprint.
 
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.

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Links
Suppliers, Pattern Companies, Blogs, On-line Guides

  • Burnley and Trowbridge (http://www.burnleyandtrowbridge.com)
    Buckles, books, clothing accessories, fabric, patterns, notions &tools, shoes, tapes & trims.
     
  • G. Gedney Godwin (http://www.gggodwin.com/)
    Military equipment, men’s & women’s clothing, shoes & buckles, books
     
  • Kanniks Korner (http://www.kannikskorner.com)
    Patterns for clothing and accessories for men & women 1730-1830, books
     
  • Past Patterns (http://www.pastpatterns.com)
    Patterns for men, women & children from the late 18th century to WWII
     
  • Reconstructing History (http://store.reconstructinghistory.com)
    Patterns, clothing, notions
     
  • Wm Booth Draper (http://www.wmboothdraper.com)
    Patterns, notions, fabrics, accessories
     
  • Regency Costume Basics (http://www.vintagevictorian.com/costume_1810.html)
    By Katy Bishop, Vintage Victorian. More details on the cut and construction of Regency fashions.
     
  • “Experiments in Elegance” (http://experimentsinelegance.blogspot.com)
    For lots more hints and inspiring images check out Antonia’s blog. Her posts include:
    a guide to Hairstyles (with lots of portraits), an outline of Surface Features (colors, embroidery, trims, influences), How to Fake it: A Guide to the Silhouette (lots of gorgeous period gowns), and When One Tiara is not Enough for over the top jewels.
     
  • It's All in the Details: Making a Regency Ball Gown. (http://www.uvm.edu/~hag/regency/tips/)
    By Hope Greenberg Excellent resource. Lots of good tips, garment types, style evolution and sewing hints.
     
  • Tasha Tudor Historic Costume Collection, Auction. (http://www.augusta-auction.com)
    Augusta Auction. Auction catalogue and on-line gallery. November 2007.
     
  • 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:
    • 1. Click on this link to the database.
    • 2. Click the “Recherche Simple” link.
    • 3. In the "Termes de Recherche" box, enter the word Mode.
    • 4. In the "Documents numerises" section, select "Album Maciet".
    • 5. Click "Rechercher" at the bottom of the page.
    • 6. Select a collection to view by ticking the box,
      then click on "Voir les Notices" at the bottom of the page.
      The collections are organized chronologically.
    • 7. This will pull up the information for the book you selected in a box to the right.
      In that box, click on “Voir les vignettes Maciet”.
    • 8. Click on any thumbnail image to view the larger image.
    • 9. Click on "Impressions" to save or print the image.

Boston Area Stores for Fabric & Trims

  • Zimmans (Lynn, MA) luxurious home decorating silks to-die-for, great trims.
  • Fabric Corner (Arlington, MA) fabriccornerinc.com/ Kathe Fasset prints
  • Play Time (Arlington, MA) ribbons, trim
  • Things We Love (Arlington, MA) high quality beads
  • Sewfisticate (Somerville, Framingham Dorchester, MA)

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CVD
P.O. Box 9, Nahant, Massachusetts 01908
e-mail: 
phone: (617)  819-4283