Project Journal: 1815-1820 Regency Ensemble Part I: Corset Research and Patterning

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving!

I have a whole list of projects to work on during this Thanksgiving period: I need to reinforce some trim and closures on various gowns that will be worn during the next few months, I need to build a flowered hair accessory (I hesitate to say wreath) to match my blue 1860s ball gown, Belle, and I need to construct a Regency corset! I’ll pass over the stitching of the trim and closures (because, really, I don’t think that would be an exciting post) and save the hair ornamentation post for later. That leaves us with one more topic… The Regency corset.

I don't have very many good pictures of this gown (I'll have to get some!) but I'm on the far right. Click on the link to the left to read more about this ball!

Here’s the background on this plan: I have a Regency dress that I built last February. At the time, I could not build the undergarments that would accompany this gown at that time. (You can read the story of the dress here.) Now I have time and so I plan to backtrack to this project and make the right undergarments! I have a chemise which will work (you can see it under my 1780s corset in the photos in this post) because chemise styles were unvaried from the late 18th century through the first quarter of the 19th century; however, I do not currently own a Regency period corset!

First of all, what is the Regency period? The term brings to mind Jane Austen books and films and general ideas of the early 19th century, but upon closer inspection Regency is actually more specific than I was thinking. I’ve got two relevant definitions for you from the Oxford English Dictionary.

  1. Noun: Senses relating to government or rule by a regent. Usu. with capital initial. The period during which a regent governs; spec. the period in France from 1715 to 1723 when Philip, Duke of Orleans, was regent, or in Britain from 1811 to 1820 when George, Prince of Wales, was regent.
  2. Designating a style of architecture, clothing, furniture, etc., characteristic of the British Regency of 1811–20 or, more widely, of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, featuring neoclassical elements often with Greek and Egyptian motifs.

Regency is a more specific period of time than that of the overarching Georgian period, which includes the reins of George I, George II, George III, and George IV of Great Britain. The Georgian period is from 1714-1830 and sometimes includes the years 1830-1837 as well. 1837 marks the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, which is where the term Victorian comes from.

Upon reflection I realized that I had forgotten the year my dress is from! Certainly it is Georgian, but is it really Regency? I had made the gown in a rush and so I had to retrace my steps and really think about what specific span of years the gown fits into to answer that question. It turns out that the gown is, in fact, from the Regency period: it is from 1816-1819! Whew!

Once that information was determined, I could move forward and research the corset shapes and patterns of that specific period (that is, 1816-1819). It turns out that patterns in Norah Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines jump from the late 18th century to the 1820s; however, I did find images of extant corsets from the first part of the 19th century. “Oh well,” I thought, and used the images and the 1820s pattern in Corsets and Crinolines to drape a pattern.

Here are some of the research images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve included a wide span of years so you can see the development of the corset shape over time. Note the bust and hip darts as well as the beautiful quilting that begins to define the waist by the 1840s.

c. 1811 Cotton Corset
c. 1811 Cotton Corset Back
1815-1825 Corset (I really like the simple lines and straight forward color combination in this garment: this is my most inspiring image. It is interesting that the lines of this corset are so simple, relative to these other examples. This corset seems to be lacking hip darts or an inward angled front panel plus side panel.)
1820-1839 Cotton and SIlk Corset (the embroidery on this corset is great)
1820-1839 Cotton and Silk Corset Back (I especially like the back)
1830-1835 Cotton Corset
1830s-1840s Corset

I am including these last ones because I think they are lovely, even thought they are not from the period I need to build. I’ll have to keep them in mind for future!

1820 Corset (this is in the Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute)
1830-1839 Cotton Corset

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Project Journal: 1780s Ensemble Part III: Undergarments and Sources

I’ve decided to build a Robe a l’Anglaise, in addition to a chemise and pair of stays to wear under it. You can look at this post to see pictures of the Robe a l’Anglaise. The style of stays that I plan to use is the one below left: no straps allow ease of movement in the upper body, which is more suitable for dancing. The corset on the right is from the same period: I include it for informational and comparison purposes. Many stays at this time were either made of patterned or colored cloth, as these two are, and I enjoy the use of color on the undergarments.

c. 1780 Wool and Linen Corset and the Metropolitan Museum of Art
c. 1780 Silk Stays at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The chemises that were worn under these stays were fairly simple and almost always constructed of linen. Here are a few examples.

c. 1780 Linen and Cotton Chemise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1780-1800 Linen Chemise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1790-1810 Linen Chemise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I’ve collected some interesting (and sometimes conflicting) information regarding clothing from this period: these sources below were most helpful.

One of the best resources for this project is The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930 by Norah Waugh. This book has images, patterns, contemporary quotes and construction details. It’s a great reference book to have access to for historic projects. Another wonderful reference book is Patterns of Fashion 1: 1660-1860 by Janet Arnold. This book is great supplement to Norah Waugh because it has an abundance of great drawings to explain the construction of garments. Another book that I know would have been useful to have is Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail by Avril Hart and Susan North.

This website is also a great resource: La Couturiere Parisienne. It includes a fantastic collection of fashion plates, paintings, construction and pattern information, as well as fabric and color research for clothing from the 1400s through the 1900s. (Just a quick note that it can be viewed in English or German, and if you suddenly find yourself viewing it in German look to the top right for a little icon that you can click to switch it back to English.)

In terms of the materials needed for these items I found a great source for this project and future projects here: Wm. Booth, Draper. This website has all sorts of great things. For example, low prices on yardage of linen, cotton, and silk (in 18th century patterns and colors) and cane boning for corsets.

Project Journal: 1780s Ensemble Part II: More Research

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have decided to attend 2 events this month that will require clothing from the period 1775-1799 which I do not currently own and from a period I am not intimately familiar with. Thus I began this project in a flurry of research. After thinking of the popular styles, Robe a l’Francaise, Robe a l’Anglaise, Robe a la Polonaise, and Skirt and Jacket combination, I am left with one more possibility that was particularly popular in the late 1780s and 1790s: the Chemise Dress or Chemise de la Reine.

Les Lavoisiers by Jacques Louis David, 1788

The Chemise Dress is a descendant of the style of dress first worn by Marie Antoinette, called the Chemise de la Reine. This quote does a fantastic job of relating the social values surrounding this style in a quite amusing fashion! Aren’t you as amused as I am by this quote?

1784. When down dances my ribbon white, but so bepuckered and plaited, I could not tell what to make of her: so turning about, I cried, ‘Hey, Sally, my dear, what new frolic is this? It is like none of the gowns you used to wear.’ ‘No, my dear,’ crieth she, ‘it is no gown, it is the chemise de la rein’. ‘My dear,’ replied I, hurt at this gibberish, which I was half ashamed to own I did not understand; ‘What is it? You know I am not like you, master of French; let us have the name of your new dress in downright English.’  ‘Why then,’ said she, ‘if you must have it, it is the queen’ shift.’ Mercy on me, thought I, what will the world come to, when an oilman’s wife comes down to serve in the shop, not only in her own shift, but in that of a queen. (From Lady’s Magazine: Printed in The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930 by Norah Waugh)

Well, at first I was thinking “Ah! This is the dress for me! It is fairly simple (and therefore quick) and looks very elegant.” But then I thought about three big deterrents: 1-the similarity of a simple white gathered dress to the clothing from the turn of the 19th century, when afternoon dresses were white and somewhat similar in character and style, 2-the amount of extra fabric needed for petticoats to achieve the soft draping of the skirt and 3-the two events I plan to wear this to (#1: a vintage ball, for which an elegant train would be entirely impractical and #2: an American Revolution colonial fair, for which I would be cold, have a train that would just get dirty, and a style of dress that is about 15-20 years in the future). Those arguments eliminated this style as a possibility, but I wanted to share it with you anyway, because I think it is lovely.

Here are some more examples of Chemise Dresses in various other paintings. (Also, take a look at the hats, aren’t they fabulous? They remind me of the scale of hats in the early 20th century. Can you see the resemblance?)

Comtesse de La Chatre by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1789
Mme Seriziat by David, 1795