Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 2)

Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 2)

When I left off last month we were just getting to the really good stuff for Regency fans, the 1810s. You might term the decade of the 1800s that of muslin, but as we move into the 1810s, new developments make for new fabrics. Most notably, in 1809 John Heathcote developed a bobbinet machine for making net fabric, which meant a different form of transparent fabric could be mass produced, and that meant more dresses like this stunning piece from the Victoria and Albert Museum:

1809 machine net dress, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Another view of the machine net dress
Detail view of machine net, from the Willis Museum, Basingstoke

That didn’t mean muslin wasn’t worn, though, as this exquisite example from the Bath fashion museum shows. I can absolutely see Elizabeth Darcy wearing this gown!

1815 yellow spotted muslin dress, Fashion Museum Bath

As for undergarments, they remained much the same coming into the decade. Either short stays or long stays could be worn, and as you can see below, the bust continued to be separated. The lady in the caricature is wearing pantalettes, which provided an additional layer below these quite transparent dresses.

James Gillray caricature, 1810

Printed cotton was still worn, particularly for daytime use, and in the example below you can see some of the trends that began to change dresses coming into the middle of the decade: a bit of a puff in the sleeve, ruching in the bodice which would have enhanced the bosom, and additional trim (in this case ruffles). It also fastens in the back, allowing for that more intricate ruched front.

1816 cotton dress, Fashion Museum Bath

The DAR Museum’s “An Agreeable Tyrant” exhibit had a dress that really showed how the transition happened to the dress above. The fabrics are similar, although the American dress is a simpler print of cotton, and it shows evidence of having been lengthened in the bodice, for we are coming down now from maximum empire waist. It has a simple (but popular for its time) wrap front and tied with a drawstring, rather than the complicated ruching and back closure, simpler sleeves, and not quite so many ruffles.

Left, printed cotton dress, 1810-1815; the dress on the right is an 1806-1815 muslin dress, DAR Museum, Washington DC

The tale of the second half of the decade is that of sleeves puffing up, waists coming down, skirts flaring out, and the addition of more trim. The craftsmanship of these gowns is absolutely exquisite, and were it not for what they signal a transition to, I think I would love them even more.

1817 Madras lace gown, Fashion Museum Bath
Madras lace gown sleeve detail

Silk as a material was also making a comeback during this decade, as the gown below shows a solid dress lacking the transparency of the outer layer that we’ve seen from so many dresses so far.

Walking dress, 1817-20, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Gold figured silk sarcenet dress, 1818-22, DAR Museum, Washington DC
These silk dresses from earlier in the 1810s show the fabric was making a comeback even earlier in the decade, DAR Museum, Washington DC

It is tempting to forge on ahead into the 1820s, but I think I would like to take a little pause here, for this decade is that of most of our Austenesque works, my own included. I think that yellow muslin dress is particularly suited to Elizabeth Darcy, since Jane Austen herself saw Elizabeth wearing yellow, but in truth any of these dress styles might have been found on our Austen heroines.

For Elizabeth in particular, though, I thought I would leave you all with an excerpt. I had a thought that it would be fun to make Elizabeth extremely fashionable in my Constant Love series, mostly because it comes about through the efforts of her maid rather than any particular ambition of Elizabeth’s, and yet she reaps the benefit of it. It’s also where the idea for this blog series came from, as I’ve had to trace the changing fashions just as Elizabeth would be experiencing them (the excerpt takes place in 1817). For those who don’t read the series, I should note before I start that for various reasons Elizabeth calls her lady’s maid (Sarah Kelly) by her first rather than last name when it is just the two of them. And now without further ado, here’s a non-spoilery excerpt from A Season Lost:

Despite her new jewels, Elizabeth could not feel particularly enthusiastic about the ball that evening. Sarah, however, not privy to what troubled her employer, had enthusiasm to spare, and she had readied what seemed her favourite of the new ball gowns, as well as jewellery, slippers, and hair ornaments. The dress was yellow silk, heavily trimmed about the bosom and cut in tight just below it, flaring out to a much wider skirt than Elizabeth was used to, also heavily trimmed. Sarah gasped when Elizabeth opened the box from Hadley’s, and immediately agreed the new diamonds should be used in place of the set that had formed her plans. She suggested keeping things simple for Elizabeth’s hair, with such a dress and jewellery, and Elizabeth agreed readily; she could hardly be brought to care about such a thing on such a night, but moreover she realised Sarah was now plying her trade to the extent that it was art, and an artist ought to be allowed her vision.

Sarah’s vision, when finally it descended the stairs to the entrance-hall, was an intricate but non-voluminous coiffure, accented with a pearl hair comb and three little feathers, an acknowledgement of the larger ones many ladies would no doubt be wearing, but of a delicate refinement Elizabeth liked so well she did not care if it was not found to be fashionable, for it had become her own preference as soon as she had seen it.

It had an effect on her husband, at least, for his visage upon seeing her seemed to indicate that she had – at least temporarily – put his worries out of his mind in favour of admiration for his wife, and he said, “You, my love, look positively stunning.”

“It is all your jewellery and Kelly’s handiwork. I am fortunate her family are our tenants, now, so she has very strong ties to our family, otherwise I fear someone will try to steal her from me.”

He smiled. “They may try, but let us hope they do not succeed. I suppose you are going to ask me to increase her wages again, and I would believe them well-earned at five guineas a year more. The hair is particularly inspired. It shows off your eyes remarkably, particularly with the diamonds – I am pleased to see I was right about them, although neither the diamonds nor your maid could achieve this effect without such a foundation to build upon.”

Elizabeth smiled, blushing a little under the heat of such an admiring gaze. “You are looking very handsome as well, although rather old-fashioned. I cannot recall the last time I have seen you in knee breeches in the evening.”

“I feel rather old-fashioned, but rules are rules.”

“Trousers are against the rules?”

“They are, as is arriving after eleven, so we had best be going.”

19 Responses to Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 2)

  1. The first dress is one of my all time favourites! I also agree that Elizabeth would look stunning in the yellow and can picture her perfectly wearing it. Then the Madras dresses…the ivory with the detail is gorgeous! I remember that excerpt so well! Now to catch up with your other posts!

  2. I love period fashion! One of my favourite memories of Bath was a long visit to the fashion museum, gorgeous!
    Thank you for sharing these – some lovely dresses. Particularly the yellow one, the Madras lace and the walking dress.

    • There are quite a few suited to a light and pleasing figure, aren’t there? Thank you for your comment!

  3. Thanks for all of the photos and the lessons in fashion history, Sophie; I find it fascinating!!

    I am such a fan of your Constant Love series, too!! You are a brilliant writer!! 😀

    Susanne 🙂

    • Aww, thank you so much, Susanne! So glad to hear you’ve enjoyed both the post and my series. 🙂

  4. I love looking at these photos. Amazing the clothing has lasted this long. Thanks for sharing the excerpt with us.

    • Glad to hear you enjoyed it! Yes it is amazing how many dresses have survived from this era, particularly ones of such delicate fabric.

  5. Those are just beautiful! Is the bow on the gold dress a dragonfly? Thank you for the wonderful pictures and equally wonderful excerpt 🙂

    • Thank you, Summer! I’m not sure if it was intended to be a dragonfly…I hadn’t noticed it until you pointed it out but it sure looks like one!

  6. Love the pics and the exverpt! I am going to order this book as I just finished A Constant Love!

    • Thank you so much, cindie! Glad to hear you’re reading the series! Although I should note there’s a second book between them, A Change of Legacies.

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