Myths of Regency Dress
Your Host: Hazel Baker
Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.
She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.
She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain
I am a dress historian, curator and archaeologist, who, amongst a range of specialisms, spent 6 years researching and writing Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion, published with Yale University Press in 2019. I have published, lectured and broadcast extensively on the history of clothing and what dress means to people and culture. I also run The Bill and Ted Test, a frivolous Twitter account dedicated to judging costuming in Regency screen dramas against the costume of extras in the 1989 comedy film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure!
Instagram | Twitter: fourredshoes & billandtedtest
Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.
Before we get going. I would like to point out that we are going to be talking about revealing clothing, bosoms, nipples, corsets and naked men. So if that does not fit in with your own sensibilities, then maybe this episode isn’t for you. And I will see you next week. For everybody else; get that cup of tea, put your feet up and enjoy.
Joining me in the studio today is the lovely Hilary Davidson. She’s a dress historian, a curator, and an archaeologist, and she’s lectured extensively on the history of clothing and what dress means to people and culture. I’m really excited for this one, Hilary.
Hilary Davidson: Thank you so much for inviting me, Hazel. It’s delightful to be here. I always enjoy the chance to talk about dress.
Hazel Baker: So we’re talking about Regency for those who don’t know. And the period is between 1811 and 1820. This is when George III was ill and incapable of ruling as king and so his son, the Prince became Prince Regent. So this is a small window in history that has had a really big impact on what people perceive; as English culture, and literature. We’re talking nine years. It’s not that much time. So that’s what we’re going to be talking about today.
And Hilary, I suppose the first question is;
What defines the Regency style dress for both men and women?
Hilary Davidson: For women it’s really easy, which is the high waistline. And this goes up from kind of where the natural waste sits really rapidly in the mid 1790s. So that by about 1797, the waistline was sitting directly underneath the bust. This is the line that we call now the empire line. Although that name wasn’t actually given to this style until about 1907 or 1908. And so for women, this high-waisted look and then the gowns became very straight and almost like columns rather than having this width and volume that the 18th century dresses had. And then they had long sleeves or short sleeves, but that key under the bust is what makes Regency dress for women.
For men, it’s not quite so defined, but certainly a lot of the styles of the 18th century became more close to the body. So men suddenly got an emphasis on the shoulders. They got neat wastes and definitely an emphasis on the hips and legs and well, the groin, it was visible for the first time in quite some time.
So there’s a new body consciousness. For both men and women.
Hazel Baker: And if I think of real life characters like Beau Brummel, you see that flash of colour of the waistcoat, don’t you? I mean, that’s not going to be flattering if you’re a little bit porky.
Hilary Davidson: For gentlemen, they also did have the option of using supportive undergarments to keep them trim. So there were corsets for men, corsets or stays as they were called. They were sometimes used for riding and sort of supportive in sport activities. A lot of men who paid attention to dress were called Dandies, they were often kind of characterized or satirized for having wasp waists and having these very narrow waists like women.
But yes, there was certainly a little bit of support and tightening. If you felt you had a little bit too much front and centre that you wanted to distract people from.
Hazel Baker: All the men in period dramas to be always wearing boots, knee high boots.
Hilary Davidson: Well, they didn’t wear them all the time, but it was definitely a new fashion.
It’s exactly the same as when trainers became popular trainers or sneakers. Boots were exercise footwear. They were functional. They were for horse riding and from the 1790s and onwards into the sort of the Regency period that loose early 19th century period the Napoleonic Wars, there’s a lot more men in uniform and also the popularity of the writing dress style, which was seen as particularly English, the look of the English Esquire made boots begin to be acceptable in fashionable dress and in the city in a way that they’d only been used in the country. So, men would still wear them riding, but you could also wear them as part of your normal clothing and where they once looked sort of super casual. They then became acceptable, there’s still times you wouldn’t wear them; you wouldn’t wear them dancing unless you were in full dress uniform, you would wear them to court or to get married, but they became a kind of acceptable, slightly more casual, but still very expensive footwear. So there’s still a class and status element to boots too. They cost twice, at least twice as much as not ordinary shoes.
Hazel Baker: Wow. I hadn’t thought of the cost issue. And how did this new fashion for knee-high boots fair when there was also the invention of the gentleman’s trouser?
Hilary Davidson: Well, they worked really well together because another thing that gets pulled in from military enabled dress is pantaloons and trousers. So before this, the normal say middle-class and upper-class men dress was breaches, knee britches that would stop just below the knee. And then you’d cover the rest of the leg with a stocking, but pantaloons were then ankle length, tight fitting trousers that slipped very neatly into boots, because if you’ve got tight fitting boots, you need tight fitting leggings.
And they were also used a lot in military contexts. So as boots became popular, pantaloons kind of come with them. And at the same time you have trousers which are loose ankle length garments becoming more popular. They’ve been worn for a long time by working men and especially sailors. And as the Navy grows in might during the Napoleonic Wars and starts to become a kind of Britain superpower and helps it to dominate the seas and be so effective in its military strategies of blockading. The sailors start to become more glamorous as well. And the trousers, which are also kind of a casual fashion that start to become more acceptable in menswear until about 1820, like boots they wear normal everyday men’s wear and britches are pretty much only for formal wear or if you’re old and unfashionable.
Hazel Baker: When in St James’s on one of my private tours, we go past the Beau Brummel statue. One of the things that people seem to think they know is that Beau Brummel invented trousers and that’s not quite true, is it?
Hilary Davidson: There’s no one person who’s responsible for bringing them into middle-class fashion, but there are people who popularized them. Beau Brummel with his incredible attention to dress certainly popularized, very well cut trousers and another person who adopted them was Lord Byron because he had a club foot, a deformed foot, and trousers hid this club foot slightly better than breeches and actually gave him a sort of a better line throughout.
And because Byron was terribly vain, you really liked the effect that trousers had on his little foot as he called it. So, when people like that popularizing it really, really helps. Except, as late as, I think, 1817, someone as significant as the Duke of Wellington. So the hero of Waterloo, he was turned away from the very exclusive club, Almaks, because he was wearing trousers and not breeches in the evening, which was incorrect where, and even the Duke of Wellington would not be admitted under those circles
Hazel Baker: Oh my goodness. Almack’s was an exclusive club in St. James’s and you needed to have a ticket to enter. Even though now there are only office blocks in the place, they are called Almack’s House and it was controlled by the ladies of society who had a list of those who were in and those who were out.
Hilary Davidson: It doesn’t matter if you won the war and liberated Britain, if you were wearing the wrong trousers, you’re not coming in.
Hazel Baker: So if we look at some of the myths of Regency dress, now, what about corsets? Cause that is a big one. If you YouTube corsets and, Oh my goodness! I was horrified that in Bridgerton on social media, some of the actresses were saying that they had been bleeding from their corsets. I mean, that, that surely shouldn’t have been happening there must have been wearing them wrong?
Hilary Davidson: They were wearing them wrong. That’s like saying I’m bleeding from my bra because it’s overall a, probably the greatest dress myth there is, that they were all torture devices that are instruments of patriarchal oppression that women were forced into. And you know, who forces women now into their bra every day? It’s because that’s what they are their bust support.
You know, if you’re not wearing a corset, what are you doing to support your breast? So, first of all, in Bridgerton, they didn’t wear a shift which is the linen garment that always goes on next to your skin. And it does this so that you can wash it and it protects you from the garments and the garments from you.
And they didn’t give them shifts in Bridgerton. So this is exactly like if you put on a pair of running shoes and go for a five kilometre or five mile run with no socks on. You’re going to get blistering and bleeding because there’s friction. And so that’s one thing. And the second is that in Bridgerton they started with a scene right in the first episode with tight lacing. And they’re always kind of emphasizing the tight lacing, but that’s a later 19th century phenomenon. If you make corsets that don’t fit properly and aren’t worn properly and laced too tight, of course they’re going to hurt because I think they kind of want them to, because this is an idea that corsets are bad.
So I feel like people now kind of make them look worse and then go look. Cause it’s obviously, but actually they’re really, it’s wearing them wrong in the same way that back to the trainers and no socks. So yeah, it’s unfortunate that those myths are being reinforced.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. I’ve got two corsets and they’re steel boned which obviously make my bosom look absolutely fantastic; like on a shelf, but it does create that horizontal line. Now, you were talking about how in the Regency period, you have two separate breasts and they are sort of edged out and you don’t see that in Bridgerton but they look like they’re sort of wearing the wrong size bra, you know, how the booby sort of spills over, it just doesn’t look right?
Hilary Davidson: No, I have spent some time analysing this and I’ve worked on what caused this, this effect in Bridgeton, because the thing is one of the most boobalicious, cleavage-tastic periods in history. So when I saw it, I’m like, but what’s happened to all the breasts? They’re all squashed and restrained!
And the thing is, in Regency corsets and stays, and I use both terms because they were kind of slightly different garments at the time; stays were the older word and they had more stiffening and support in them and were a lot tougher. And then corsets came in from the French core-say, and they were kind of lighter garments made of fabric and rather than kind of often sort of canvas or leather, and they had less boning in them.
The key point about Regency corsets is that the two separate gussets that held the bust; each breast were made out of fabric and they were soft and they didn’t have any boning in them. So you have like a bra cup today that actually has a soft line in it and sometimes they’d have a drawstring at the top of the edge, so you could pull it in and make it sit exactly on the line of the bust.
But what’s happened with the Bridgeton corsets is either the gussets don’t exist and they’ve gone for sort of a flat more 18th century, smooth front across the top. Or, and this is such a tiny detail, but it makes all the difference. There is boning in the breast gussets when they should be soft. So what’s happening is when you get the breast flesh in the, and corset, it’s straining against a hard line halfway across it.
And it’s kind of cutting it in half, almost like a hot cross bond, but instead it should be soft and that whole cup should be soft. And the only boning goes between the breasts and then around the rest of the body. So just by extending the boning into the. Bust cups. That’s why we get this odd and frankly, badly fitting look in Britain.
And I think they would have got a whole lot more cleavage. And I kind of, you know, a much sexier effect if they’d gone for the Regency way of cutting it because it’s, it’s far more flattering to the bosom.
Hazel Baker: Yeah, I get that. What seems strange is that they made all this effort at being scandalous with all these sex scenes, but actually, if they’d been more historically accurate with the clothing, they could have maybe achieved the same effect?
Hilary Davidson: Exactly. It’s often more salacious and more revealing than even in our modern, liberated 21st century we can really deal with.
Hazel Baker: So here’s another one for you Hilary, Pride and Prejudice, 1995-1996 production. You’ve got Colin Firth playing at Mr. Darcy and he takes off his boots and he plunges himself into a Lake by Pemberley and then he walks, all dripping wet, to the house where Elizabeth Darcy sees him. Was that appropriate attire for a gentleman of 10,000 pounds a year.
Hilary Davidson: But he should have been naked. None of this shirt and trousers nonsense. I mean, he might’ve kept some linen draws on, but he would definitely have taken his shirt off and the producers tried to get Colin Firth to do it naked. They said, this is historically accurate and Colin Firth was chicken and wouldn’t do it.
So it could have been a lot more period accurate. Shall we say revealing, all sorts of words we could use.
Hazel Baker: I’m all for period accuracy.
So all sentimentality is maybe now in the 20th and 21st century. Maybe we aren’t as bold as we think they are?
Hilary Davidson: I’m still waiting for somebody to costume Regency clothing with the visible nipples that you often see peeping through the fine diaphanous Muslim of elite women’s gowns. And also with men’s trousers that are properly tight, because if you have a look at Regency portraits of men whose growing null area is being revealed for the first time.
Yeah. Pantaloons are made out of elastic materials. So sort of Jersey has got a bit of stretch in them and they’re very tightly fitting or they’re made out of very fine kinds of leather that are very tightly fitting and not to put too fine. A point on it. Often you can see exactly what kind of assets the gentleman has and which way he dresses.
And we’ve still never seen that. To that degree on screen.
Hazel Baker: I think we need to start a petition.
Hilary Davidson: I’m still waiting for us to get that kind of body visibility that they had in the, in the Regency period.
Hazel Baker: So everybody that’s listening, you are more than welcome to have a look at Hilary’s book dress.
In the age of Jane Austen, I will put all the links to Hilary’s social media and book, and also this wonderful article that she has written called tight breaches and loose. Gowns going deep in the fashion of Jane Austen. So you can gorge yourself with Hilary and Regency fashion to your heart’s content because she is a true font of knowledge.
And I absolutely had a blast today, Hilary. Thank you so, so much.
Hilary Davidson: Thank you so much for having me. It has been a delight to talk to you and I’ve really enjoyed it.