Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Day Gowns

~ Day Gowns ~

In which we see day dress from the years 1797-1805,
then 1805-1815 and 1815-1825.

Elinor in Sony's Sense & Sensibility.
1797 to 1805.

Following are three basic styles of day dress for the early Regency.

This first style is the most basic and classic--what one first thinks of as a Regency gown. The sleeves are rather long, typical of very early Regency gowns, but otherwise the outline of this dress remained almost unchanged for twenty years. This is more or less what most of the patterns you can buy will produce.

I am unconvinced by all the floaty little fichus (neck scarves, also called handkerchiefs) that the costumer for this movie tucked into everyone's bodices. Although women did indeed wear fichus, scarves, or chemisettes (little false blouses with no sleeves) to fill in their bare necklines for day wear, it's unnatural that every woman in the movie has exactly the same ones! It would make more sense if they were made of different weights of fabric, some trimmed with lace, others embroidered.

Elinor again.
This broad wrap-front style was only worn for the first few years of the Regency. It was soon to look very old-fashioned. But it looks very comfortable and simple to make; the top is almost bathrobe-like, and attached to a sleeves.

The only trim seems to be the wide lace around the neckline, but it adds a lot; in fact, I think it really would look like a bathrobe without it!

Circa-1800 gown from the
Musee de la Mode et du Textile.

This narrower-bodied style of gown took hold and replaced the version above; variants were worn throughout the first decade of the 19th century and into the 1810s. Check out the extraordinary length of the sleeves and the bell shape they end in (necessary to accommodate the hand), both very typical of the period. Sleeves tended to get looser and develop puffs at the top as the Regency progressed.

Marianne from Sony's S&S.
This is another short-lived style that consisted of a tunic worn over a dress styled like the one at the top of the page.

It would be extremely simple to make--essentially from four rectangles, or perhaps trapezoids widening toward the bottom. Sew together up the back, at the sides (leaving room for the armholes), across the shoulders, and up the front (leaving the top several inches unattached and giving it a wide facing, or better yet lining the whole thing.) It would be important to use a beautiful, simple fabric, and that little belt adds a lot, too.

Then you'd have something that would completely change the look of an ordinary day dress.

From Reflections of the Past.
Here is an original fashion plate of the same type of garment. This version was to be worn for riding (hence the crop); women's riding clothes always pick up elements of men's. To this end it looks rather jacket-like, with long, straight sleeves and a small stand-up collar, and is worn over a man's style of cravat.

A circa-1800 gown from Heritage Studio.
This is the real thing: a simple, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century muslin gown. This is the basic, classic, Grecian-imitation style, essentially the same as the first picture on this page.

These early gowns were notable for their trains--everyone wore at least slightly trained gowns, even for day wear. The trains were gone from day wear, however, and no longer required for evening, by about 1805 if not sooner. The straight, elbow-length sleeves are also typical of an early date, as is the construction of the skirt, which masses all the gathers at the center back.

It's interesting that this gown fastens and ties in the front, rather than the back. The gown is also made of an interestingly patterned woven muslin, probably whiter originally.

A late-1790s gown from the
Musee de la Mode et du Textile.

Here is another early gown, this one French. This gown's early date is exemplified by its long, fitted sleeves and tiny back sections. The odd, pulled-back look of the sleeves, which extend back over the shoulder blades, is also typical. Generally these long, fitted sleeves were either made in two pieces, with a seam all the way down the front of the arm and another all the way down the back, or nearly so, where the seam would extend from the cuff to the middle of the upper arm--almost like an enormous dart.

The fabric is a brown printed muslin with white crescents and black shadings.

1806 cotton dress from the Gallery of
English Costume, Manchester.

1805 to 1815.

This dress was made in 1806, and two things mark its era. One is the straight elbow-length sleeve, which was gradually replaced by more and more puffiness. The other is the dark print, created by woodblock printing. Although fashion plates almost always show solids, in fact women wore a great deal of cotton prints for every day, evidenced in existing garments and contemporary letters. After all, a dark, busy print like this would wear well.

Amy Reeves and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown.
Unfotunately this isn't the best of pictures, but it shows two slightly different versions of Past Impressions's 1809 Day Dresses pattern. (There's a better shot of me in Evening Dresses, and there's a different shot of Amy in Hats.) Amy's is made from plain, inexpensive, medium-weight white cotton muslin, which in restrospect I don't recommend because ironing it is terrible. I trimmed it with light green satin ribbon around the hem, pinched up the upper sleeves and tacked them with matching green satin bows, and ran a thin green braid around the neckline.

My dress is of thin white cotton eyelet with an embroidered border used on the overskirt. My only other trimming is the pink gauze ribbon around the waist.

Amy is carrying a white Indian (?) sash with silver threads woven into it, very stylish. See the Hats section for a discussion of the bonnets.

Mlles. Mollien, 1811, by Rouget,
from the Louvre.

Another example that the French have always been more daring and stylish than the rest of us...the young woman on the right's bodice is barely containing her. And yet, by maintaining an elegant simplicity in her gown, she avoids looking sleazy. The innocent straw hat helps, too.

Already long and slim, her figure is further attenuated by the long-tailed self-fabric sash around her "waist." But take a lesson from her sister: a white sash on a dark gown tends to cut the body horizontally, instead of slimming it. Note her sister's sleeve garter, also--just a ribbon tied above the elbow to keep the long glove from falling down.

It was around 1808 that these smooth-fitting bodices began to appear. Unlike previous styles, they are not gathered into the bodice--darts do the fitting instead.

From the Miramax version of Emma.
Obviously you can't see much about the shape of this dress--it's just that basic style again, anyway--but this shot does give one a chance to examine the details of the sleeve gathers and the back buttons. Taking a few gathers in a simple puff sleeve and tacking on a bow adds a lot of style with very little effort. I also think it's more flattering to have a more tailored, under-control sleeve shape.

1810 gown from Carl Kohler's History of Costume.
This photo was taken for a 1928 edition of a book on costume. The 1810 dress is referred to as a "house gown," which I'm guessing means morning gown, a garment worn around the house only. From the front it's a very simple white dress. It's the back of the dress that's interesting.

The strangely shaped, very narrow bodice back is quite unusual. Below is a diagram of the pattern pieces of the sleeve, back, and front, which shows how very tiny that back piece is, and how the front has long straps which reach all the way over the shoulder to meet the top of the back.

Jane Bennett from P&P.
This picture is unfortunately very small and the details are hard to make out, but I believe this is some sort of lightweight, pelisse-like overgarment buttoned over a plain white gown. The costumes in this production of P&P were beautifully made and pretty accurate, except that for day wear all the young ladies wear low-cut bodices for day wear. By the end of the first decade, especially in England, day gowns either were high-cut, with a white frill at the neckline, or were low like this but filled in with a chemisette. Just like today, evening wear is barer than everyday clothes. The production of Persuasion got this detail right.

This and other images identified as being from P&P are from the BBC/A&E production of Pride and Prejudice.

Lizzie Bennett fromP&P.
A nice example of a Regency print. This shade of red is similar to a common one of the time called "Turkey red" (after the country, not the fowl). The narrow lace is a sweet touch. Note the cross necklace, very typical of the period. Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra were given cross necklaces by their seafaring brother.

P&P's Lizzie Bennett.
I believe that this bodice has smooth side-front pieces and a gathered portion in the middle. I highly recommend this approach if you're less than full-busted--it helps give the right shape.

Long sleeves got very long, often coming all the way over the knuckles. These sleeves show a hint of that (you can see how they're creasing up, and still plenty long) and I believe they're lightly gathered at the wrist.

Lydia Bennett Wickham, P&P.
This is another typical Regency print. Stripes were easy to produce with the newly developed roller printing, and the medallions in between are an example of the "classical" aesthetic which permeated everything.

These stripes run on the diagonal of the fabric, which was a really new innovation at the time.

1810-15 dress from the Gallery of English
Costume, Manchester.

Here is an example of genuine Regency roller-printing. The crossover pieces of the bodice have been cleverly cut along the lines of the print to accentuate the style.

Although dated to 1810-15, the crossover bodice rimmed with narrow lace is an older style: compare with Eleanor's crossover-bodice dress at the top of the page.

Jane Fairfax of A&E's Emma.
This is a good example of how Regency garments started getting fussier and less classical in the second decade of the nineteenth century. The knotted tabs attached to the puff sleeve are an example of the Romantic look that was starting to take hold. The gauze long sleeves would probably have been "false"--that is, detachable.

The pleated bodice with its decorative (i.e. useless) buttons is also typical of the later Regency.

1815 gown from Kohler's
History of Costume.

This gown is made from another novelty fabric of the Regency: a print with a built-in border. This fabric was white with a green and pink print, and would have been made with the border running along one side of the bolt of fabric, and the dots progressing upward. This type of fabric only became available in the later part of the Regency. To make a dress from it, one lays the pieces out sideways on the fabric, called "railroading." I had to do the same thing when I used bordered eyelet for a dress.

Note the reticule (handbag), which seems to have been worked to coordinate with the dress.

Harriet and Emma from

A&E's costume designer got the necklines absolutely right. Harriet (on the left) really looks perfect, just like a plate of the period.

1815 plate from the private collection
of Jessamyn Reeves-Brown.

1815 to 1825.

There was an interesting split that occurred in English and French fashion during this period. The hostilities between the two countries prevented the exchange of fashion information.

As a result, English fashion went its own way for several years. Styles became more and more romantic, with "Renaissance" lace collars and slashed puffed sleeves, richer colors, and so on. Waists also started dropping noticeably.

La Famille de Guillon-Lethier
by J.A.D. Ingres, 1815 (detail).
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Meanwhile, in France, dresses retained the very high waists and light colors, but started developing frills of fabric and a more cone-like shape. Hairdressing and hats started an upward climb, probably in an effort to combat the widening effect of the broadened skirt-hems.

1817 fashion plate courtesy the Regency Fashion Page.
When Englishwomen finally made it into France, they were aghast at how different they looked and quickly replaced their wardrobes in the French style. Here you can see the quintessential look--cone-shaped skirt, long sleeves, high necks, ruffles everywhere, with very high waists and very high hats.

The Nathanson Family, 1818, by C.
Weckersberg, from the State Museum
of Copenhagen.

These repeatedly puffed long sleeves are another typical feature of late-teens French-influenced style. The rest of the outfit, however, is quite simple.

The sleeves would not be particularly difficult to make, just a bit time-consuming. Cut them full and extra-long, and then run a gathering stitch at regular intervals. To combat the tendency of the whole thing to pile up around your wrists, you would need to have a slim lining to the sleeve to which you could sew the gathered points. Then top each line of gathers with a band. Note that it would be much easier to do all this before sewing the sleeve into a tube.

Braun & Schneider 1818 plate.
An alternative to all those ruffles was pleats. Either method helped stiffen the skirt into a cone shape.

As was inevitable, waists finally started falling as the decade came to a close. You can see them beginning to slip here. For the more fashion-conscious, the "waist" had almost reached the natural waist by 1825, while in the backwaters it was nearly 1830 before the "waist" slid down that far.

Pink silk gown from the V&A Museum.
This gown is very typical of late-Regency style. The very structured look of it, with its huge, almost stage-costume-like decorations, foreshadows the very upholstered look of a decade later.

The wave edging at the hem is all appliqued smack on to the surface of the skirt, as is the bodice decoration. Bands of fabric hold down the sleeve volume at intervals along the outside of the arm. The shawl collar is actually composed of separate strips of fabric that are attached to a strip of thick piping. A fairly wide waistband encircles the waist. The bodice is darted, the skirt is gored, and a padded band around the bottom of the hem holds the shape of the skirt.

Unfortunately, this image is black and white--the gown is actually pink.

1825 dress from the Gallery of
English Costume, Manchester.

Although this waist a little low for true Regency and the sleeves are foreshadowing the leg-o-muttons of a later era, this dress has several details worth noting. For one thing, here is a genuine example of the "Turkey red" I mentioned earlier. Interestingly, the edges of the skirt ruffles, sleeves, and collar are trimmed with little triangles of self-fabric, and the buttons are self-covered also.

The white muslin frill would have been completely detachable and worn with different dresses--not to mention laundered much more frequently.

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