During the Regency period 1800-20, we could say a woman’s dress resembled an Ionic column. This Classical column had grooves up its length and double circular volutes on the top. Dresses were pale, high-waisted muslins, falling in vertical folds to the feet, giving a slim, column-like silhouette. Breasts were pushed high and rounded at the top of the feminine ‘column’. As pretend Greek nymphs, women’s legs were visible through the thin cottons, or because skirts were looped up on one side and carried. (Fortunately, flesh-coloured ‘leggings’ were commonly worn). During the next 120 years, women’s legs would be mainly hidden, briefly appearing again to below the knee during the crinoline age in the late 1850s.
6a Evening dress, muslin, ‘classical style’, 1800-6
The young wearer would be made to appear tall, elegant and playfully seductive in an ‘ancient Greek’ costume. This delicate, almost transparent, white muslin is embroidered with floral sprigs in thick white cotton. It fastens in front with a wrap over bodice and a pinned ‘bib’ front, and is fitted with a drawstring to adjust the low neckline over the bust. The tailoring is complex around the back, with shaped pieces carefully butted together. The back fullness would probably have been gathered over a small ‘bustle’; and the skirt is cut generously, but hangs straight, with a spreading train. Dresses in cotton were commonly worn over silk underdresses, to allow a certain amount of ‘slip’, so that the cotton would hang well. Young women might wear this dress over just a chemise (considered rather daring), but more mature or larger women would wear a corset as well. Breasts were worn high up in either case. The silk under dress is a modern reproduction.
Given by Mrs Faith Day of West Malling, in 1971
6b Chemise, cream linen, c.1800
A chemise was a basic piece of underwear, virtually T-shaped and worn next to the skin under the corset, by all women throughout the 19th Century. It might be plain, or trimmed with lace or openwork around the neck and sleeves, and of linen or cotton of varying quality. This example is very simply cut from a width of linen, with triangular gussets under the arms to allow free movement. Laundering underwear in the 19th Century was hard, laborious hand work done infrequently, with households saving up clothes. This explains why women owned many garments of the same type. It is a fact that the average early 19th Century woman would have spent much more of her time buying, making, washing and mending her linen than a modern woman would have done.
6c Doll’s corset, corded cotton, early 1800s
During the 18th Century, fashion changes were passed around on dolls dressed precisely in imitation of women. Many Victorian dolls were not babies or children, but ‘grown ups’, and had similar, extensive wardrobes. This corset is made of a scrap of corded cotton, lined with linen and is hand stitched, (maybe by a child), to imitate the sections of a woman-sized one. The double busk boning at the front is marked by two lines of stitching, and it has minute, over-sewn eyelet holes and a woven tape lace. The shoulder straps date it to the late 1830s, and it has tiny ‘bust improvers’ attached to the bust gussets.
6d Doll’s open-leg pantalettes, lawn, early 1800s
A miniature version of ‘pantalettes’ worn by young women until the 1830s, and after this date by small girls only. Pantalettes (called pantaloons at first) were really just long drawers (drawers usually ended just below the knee and were not usually seen) with decorative tucks and lace trimming the hem. These were definitely meant to be on view, and are marked ‘J. Clackings’, presumably the name of the doll wearer.
Given by Miss A.C. Mayo Thomas of Hunton, in 1958
6e Bonnet, apricot silk, ‘jockey’ style, early 1800s
A great variety of caps and bonnets were worn for both day and evening wear, in materials such as lace, silk, satin and velvet. These would have been trimmed with ribbon, flowers, feathers and jewels (for evening). Hair was often cropped, with ends left loose and dishevelled (ˆ la Titus), or in tight curls. Women with longer hair combed it back and had a bunch of curls on top, or combed it forwards into ringlets. Wigs dyed to match the dress were also popular. Soft, light bonnets would not have ruined a carefully-curled or deliberately disarranged hairstyle, and would naturally have matched the dress, in this case apricot and cream satin.
Given by Commander A.A. Mackinnon of Hollingbourne, in 1963
6f Stole, muslin, ‘Indian’ embroidery, early 1800s
Indian-inspired designs were popular as a reaction to the European florals and brocades that had gone out after the upheaval of 1789. Cottons of any sort were cheap and fashionable as gauzes, muslins or lawns, and floral embroidered motifs were especially liked. This stole (nearly 3 metres long and 65cms wide), was said to have been made in Northern India, and is embroidered in vibrant silks depicting double cornucopias, derived from the Indian ‘Tree of Life’. It is made of transparent gauze, stiffened with gum, and the embroidery is done in floss silks dyed dark green, bright blue, cream, black, aubergine, bright pink, orange red, orange and maroon.
Given by Mrs A. Upton, Bearsted, Maidstone, in 1959
6g Shoes, black leather, c.1800-06
The toes of these black leather shoes are shaped like 1950s winklepickers (technically known as needlepoints). A good example of the way fashion goes in cycles, reviving much earlier styles – in this case over 155 years! Possibly outdoor walking shoes (they have a fairly substantial leather sole) as distinct from indoor slippers, and are tied over the instep with a black silk ribbon. They appear to have a hessian lining. A similar pair can be seen on the sleeping woman in our painting ‘Surprised’, by Opie, on the stairs leading up to the Bentlif Art Galleries.
1800s to 1810s – What’s New?
Bathing Costume, early 19th Century
In ancient times, people bathed naked. In the early 19th Century women were able to wear a flannel cloak. In the 1870s a contemporary knee-length gown was worn over a short sleeved tunic, trousers and corset. In 1930 came the first backless bathing dress, which soon became the costume and bikini that we know today.
Herringbone, 19th Century
Popular for outer garments, suits, coats and skirts, the pattern resembles the skeletal structure of a herring, its zigzag effect produced by a broken twill weave.
Tape measures, 1800s
Tape measures were unknown until about 1800, when several tailors claimed to be the inventors.
‘The Lady’s Economical Assistant’, 1808
Manuals for making dresses and undergarments started to appear in this period. There was greater access to women’s magazines, which gave advice, but mainly described the latest Paris and London fashions, using fashion plates.