Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Evening Dress

~ Evening Gowns ~

In which we look at evening dress of the years 1797-1810,
then 1810-1818 and 1818-1825, as well as examining open robes.

Circa-1810 ball gown from the Hermitage.
1797 to 1810.

This is the prototypical Empire style. Although this Russian gown dates from 1810, Russia was several years behind the fashion, and this represents the turn-of-the-century aesthetic of a simple, white "Grecian" gown. Typical details include the moderate gathers, quite high waist, white cotton batiste fabric, spare neoclassical embroidery, and moderate train.

The only thing unusual about this gown is that it's sleeveless (I know it's hard to tell from the photo). The straps, which taper down to about an inch wide, are made in one piece with the bodice, so it's just as if the gown were constructed normally but the sleeves left off. Sleeveless gowns were rare but not freakishly so at the turn of the century, when the empire style was still being defined.

Elinor and Marianne in the Sony film of Sense & Sensibility.
These gowns show how the early empire gowns married a purer "Classical" form with rich 18th-century details. The gowns' narrow shape, very high waists, and slim sleeves reflect the Classical vogue, but the rich, muted silks and metallic trims are very much of the Regency. Marianne's necklace of large, round stones is very typical, and note the long gloves: truly chic ones were often even longer, over the elbow. I've even seen extra-long gloves with garters to keep them up.

Evening dress, c. 1800, courtesy the Regency Fashion Page.

One almost never sees patterned evening gowns like this. They are, I think, busier to the eye and therefore less elegant. This c. 1800 fashion plate is interesting, though, for its back view: although the bodice back is probably constructed in the usual way, the neckline trim plunges straight to the waist. Also note the lady's extremely Classical hairstyle and diadem. The diadem would be very easy to create with silk-covered buckram or other stiffener; hold it on with bobby pins. Don't forget your drop earrings and your fan to complete the look.

Full evening dress of 1803, courtesy of the Regency Fashion Page.

Evening gowns of this period almost invariably had trains--although not necessarily as long as this one! They had to be pinned up to dance. Note the very high waist at the back of this gown, emphasizing the length of the train. It's also interesting that her sleeves are in a contrasting fabric.

The lady is also sporting a fad of the first decade: bracelets for the upper arm. I don't know whether they were just bangles shoved up over the elbow, or if they hinged on, but they tended to be worn symetrically, on both arms at once.

Other details to notice are the turban topped by a feather, the incredibly long, skinny feather boa (move over, Mae West!), and her bag, called a reticule. Reticules came in with empire gowns because one no longer had a voluminous skirt with capacious pockets to conceal things. Thought to look silly, they were sometimes called "ridicules."

Early 19th-century gown from the Hermitage, shown in In the Russian Style.

This lovely, simple gown shows that you don't need a lot of fancy, expensive details to make a beautiful evening gown. Using a very simple pattern that produces a gathered bodice and straight, elbow-length sleeves, this gown was made once in a lovely white lace and then again in a silk satin. This was a very popular technique for evening gowns. You could even make a second underdress in a different color, for a different effect. This is blue, but primrose-yellow and pink were also popular.

Make sure you choose a soft lace that drapes well and that doesn't have big Victorian roses on it--another good choice is soft netting with a small spot or floral design (which is usually cheaper than solid lace, anyway). Most laces of this type are polyester now, so try to choose one that's not too blindingly white--it rather gives away the polyesterness!

Braun & Schneider 1808 evening gown

Although this is an illustration from the end of the 19th century, it's quite accurate in its 1808 details.

The very pretty gown is made specifically for dancing--hence the lack of train. The rosettes and swags on the skirt were popular details for dancing gowns. The lady is also sporting a typical "Classical" hairstyle, with bands of fabric wrapped around a braided hairstyle. These were in direct imitation of classical statuary.

Fetching details to note include the two-part oversleeves, looking like flower petals; the V-shaped back; and the blue dancing slippers, which don't match the gown at all but do match the hair bands.

It's interesting that even the Victorian artist recognizes that over-the-elbow gloves tend to bag and fall down a bit.

1808 Braun & Schneider.

As the decade faded, this overtunic style faded too--this is about as late as you'd see it (among the fashionable, anyway). Much heavier details mark this gown than have been seen previously. You can see the Romantic influence beginning to take hold in the "Medieval" sleeves, and a hairstyle that seems to be a cross between the Greek banding and a Renaissance pearl headdress.

The fashionable neckline during this time was very low and square, as seen also in the picture below. Although the busom was covered for day wear, it remained exposed with most evening dress. (During this decade Jane Austen wrote, "Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress, & exposed busom.") The straps of stays (corsets) were worn practically off the shoulder so they wouldn't show, which wasn't particularly comfortable. (Something to think about before you make a gown with such a neckline!)

The strips of gold trim make the gown seem much richer, and the vertical bands serve to draw the eye up and down--a slimming effect to take note of.

Gilbert Stuart's Hepzibah Clark Swan, Museum of Fine Art.
Not a great deal of detail is discernible in this painting, but the beautiful lace trim is what really makes this dress. Very easy to tack on to a finished garment to dress it up, such lace would be extremely beautiful against velvet.

There are three kinds of lace available at most fabric stores: the lightweight polyester kind, which looks very machine-made; the coarser, more handmade-looking (often available in ecru or beige); and the thick, smooth rayon type. I recommend this last type as being most similar to period laces. It's a bit more expensive, but the biggest problem is it always says Dry Clean Only. I don't know what happens if you wash it (anyone?) but I strongly suspect it shrinks. So you might not want to tack it down too firmly--remove before washing.

1809 gown from Ackerman's Repository

I just love this image. That's my alter ego, dancing away.

The gown is a fairly simple one. It features the broad, square neckline popular at the end of the decade--bodices were no longer gathered into the waist, but were smoothly fitted with darts--and short, fitted sleeves, which were shortly to be replaced entirely by puffed ones. The gold rope trim is what really makes it special. It rims the neckline, the ends of the sleeves, and the scooped edges of the overskirt, as well as forming a belt decorated with those wonderful tassels. I believe she's wearing a bracelet on each upper arm, but a similar effect could be achieved by making the sleeve a bit longer and having a double row of trim.

The diadem, hoop earrings, and simple chain necklace complement the classical simplicity of the dress.

Jessamyn Reeves-Brown.

Well, here's the real me. I made this gown of fairly lightweight white cotton eyelet, for its low price, washability, and so I could wear it to both day and evening occasions. This simple style would suit for the years 1805-1812 or so. It's a bit hard to see in this photo, but notice how I took advantage of the eyelet border to have a ready-made "embroidered" border at the bottom of the overskirt. The back fastens with hooks and eyes.

Lizzie in A&E's P&P.

The lack of adornment on this gown, while elegant, is probably not really period. Still, the construction is beautiful. The little fan of pleats under the busom is tres chic, and the smooth, straight lines of the skirt are very graceful.

It helps to use a really good fabric, like this silk jacquard. She must have had a time wedging into those tight kid gloves! And a good corset is the foundation of this smooth, unbroken line.

Note the cross on a chain. These were very popular throughout the entire Regency.

Comtesse Walther by Robert Lefevre, c. 1811, from the Museum of Versailles.
1810 to 1818.

This beautiful, elegant, simple gown is made from a cashmere scarf, which creates the border. The split oversleeve is very effective and wouldn't be particularly hard to recreate; use a pattern for a fitted sleeve, slit along the top, and apply over a puff sleeve of white lawn.

This deep V-necked bodice is particularly French in its plunge, but a similar effect, with less danger, is achieved by La Mode Bagatelle's crossover bodice pattern (see my Tips & Tricks page for more information).

1810 fashion plate.

Here is the fashion-plate version of a similarly styled dress. Although decorated with more obvious trimmings, it still maintains an elegant simplicity.

This bodice is more similar to La Mode Bagatelle's. To create the scallops at the bottom, you could just pinch up the fabric at regular intervals. The silk roses both emphasize the scallops and hide the stiching!

Illustration of an 1810ish gown.

Personally, I think the lumpy turban looks ridiculous, particularly with that stringy feather that looks like it was left out in the rain, but the gown is very regal. Again, velvet with gold banding has been used to good effect. The underskirt peeping out from knees down helps keep the whole thing from being too heavy.

Colored gloves like these were very common. Other typical elements are the narrow lace around the neckline and the chunky necklace. (The other typical necklace was almost diametrically opposite: a simple chain with a cross, often set with a stone.)

As sleeves started to get bigger, tucks began to be taken in them. Big sleeves will make you look wider, so it's a good idea to keep them reigned in. (Empire-line gowns at their best look very long and slim and elegant, but it's very easy to look like a feather bolster rather than a Greek statue!)

1810 gown, Metropolitan Museum.

This beautiful gown is made from white mull (a gauze-like material) with silver tinsel embroidery all over it--intensively at the hem. Although I doubt you're going to tackle this type of embroidery, there are a lot of things to be picked up from this dress.

The sleeves seem to be pinched and gathered, modifying the puff. They're set quite low in the armseye, which sets off the slope of the shoulder. (Don't try this if you have linebacker shoulders.) The waist is very high and goes even higher right under the busom, and is set off with a very easily imitated cord, sewn to the waist, knotted, and left to hang, accented by tassels. The V of the neckline is only for the brave and busomy, but would be pretty easily achieved; and could be modified for those of us who are less fearless.

From A&E's Emma.

Talk about beautiful fabric! These lovely silks and laces are all that's needed to make a simple gown pattern turn into a wonderful evening gown.

These very high waists were about to start dropping, at least in England, although they came back up in the late teens before dropping again and finally. And I honestly don't know if anyone was still wearing these elbow-length sleeves after about 1806--I haven't seen any evidence of it--but at any rate it was unusual, more a turn-of-the-century thing.

Another gown from A&E's Emma.

Again, I think this outfit is rather unrealistically unadorned--no lace, no ribbons, no earrings, no necklace, nothing in her hair--but the crossover front is noteworthy. Very flattering on the right build, and certainly graceful-looking. Rather complicated to achieve the draping shown here, but the La Mode Bagatelle pattern offers a slightly simpler version.

1805 portrait of Mlle. Rivière by J.A.D. Ingres. Musée du Louvre at Paris.

Ah, the French, so chic! A beautiful woman in a beautiful, simple dress. The gauze gathered just inside the neckline adds a great deal, and would be quite easy to add: Take a long strip of gauze, sew it into the neckline, and either gather and sew it to fit, or just sew a casing and add a drawstring to tie in the back. Voila!

The puff sleeves are actually cut quite long, and then have been gathered up a center line and I think affixed with self-piping. Again, not too hard to duplicate.

It's interesting that she's not wearing gloves, but rather mitts. I don't know where one would ever find such things nowadays, but it would certainly make finger foods a simpler proposition!

Anne in Sony Classics' Persuasion.

Anne's c. 1816 gown is very similar to the one above, particularly the gathered gauze trim. The skirt and bodice are slightly more gathered, and the sleeves are simpler, but the feeling is the same.

I also like the candlelight. It's good to be reminded of the dim light in which these evening dresses were seen. No wonder they went in for light colors and metallic trim; if you wore black, you'd be practically invisible.

Ingres's 1815 work Mlle. de Senonnes.
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes.

The Romantic influence is coming on strong in this outfit. Sleeves rather suddenly became long, even for evening wear, in about 1814-15; Austen writes, "Long sleeves appear universal, even as Dress, the Waists short, and as far as I have been able to judge, the Bosom covered." The busom wasn't necessarily covered in the evening, though, and this particular example is a pretty token gesture! The sitter's fine gauze filler-cum-ruff reflects the (more solidly realized) trend in day wear.

Once sleeves became long, they were puffed and gathered in a variety of ways. One very popular method was to take a fairly full, straight sleeve and gather it into bands at intervals all the way down the arm, rather like a string of sausages. There's a picture of this sort of thing on the Day Dress page.

From Reflections of the Past.
1818 to 1825.

The waist took a drop in about 1818 from which it never recovered. It hovered at a sort of mid-torso height for a few years, and then gradually slid down to the natural waist by about 1825 or a little later, depending on how closely one kept to fashion.

The outstanding feature of this interim period was a greater emphasis on the horizontal. That emphasis is reflected in this gown, with its nearly horizontal pleats on the bodice. Corsets started getting a bit more serious, because they had to enforce a waist again, not just keep one's posture in line and one's flesh from wobbling. I don't know the exact date on this particular dress, but you can see that the waistline is hovering just above the natural waist. It is, however, rather Regency in spirit: very soon, with the rising number of petticoats and increasing Victorian morality, dress fabrics became fussier, brighter, and most of all heavier, and these gauzy confections became a thing of the past.

In fact, a number of Regency dresses were remade into slips in the 1830s!

The court gown of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, 1820, from In the Russian Style.

Here again you can see the waist nearly at its true position, and also the strong horizontal influence emphasized by the gold bands across the busom. However, the embroidery elements are still very classical in influence--such as the Greek key design on the waist band--and the shoulder line does not yet show the slope of the later twenties.

The lace tucked into the neckline and sleeve bands softens an otherwise somewhat severe garment and would be easy to add to any gown.

Marianne Dashwood from Sony's Sense & Sensibility.

This style of overgarment, called a robe or an open robe, only existed for a few years at the very turn of the century, whereupon it became totally extinct. Although it's used in this movie as an outdoor garment, it was actually an indoor one, usually for formal wear--something used to dress up the ubiquitous white gown. (this type of robe was the descendant of an earlier version that closed more tightly at the bodice and was worn over a fancy underskirt.)

While it wouldn't be too hard to make a simple version, this one is obviously copied directly from one in the Victoria and Albert Museum. A graphed pattern for this garment is provided in the book Patterns of Fashion: Englishwomen's dresses and their construction c. 1660-1860 (see my Bookstore). The original is made of cream-colored silk with a woven-in diamond pattern, and all the edges are trimmed with looped tan cord.

Late 18th-century court robe from the Museum of Art in Barcelona.

Here is an example of a genuine robe, this one dating from the end of the eighteenth century and constructed of olive-colored silk. Looking at this version, its intended use as a formal, indoor garment is obvious; equally obvious is how useful this garment is for dressing up a simple gown. If your time and money are limited and you want both day and evening wear, consider making a simple white dress for day (fill in the neckline with a chemisette) and for evening, throw a robe over it.

This one would actually be even easier to construct (except for the embroidery!) since rather than a curved fabric piece, a wide brocade ribbon is used to join the two sides of the robe. A thick, short fringe has been sewn all the way around the edge.

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Copyright 1997 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.
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