fabric, full, high-waisted skirt usually cut as one with the bodice,
elbow length sleeves (full length for day wear), rounded bosom filled
in with a large handkerchief.
||Diaphanous muslins, white on white embroidery.
Think Greek or Roman draperies. Gathered bodice, still cut as one with gown.
Moderately high bustline, gathered neckline, short or elbow length sleeves,
train. Some overtunics. Hair dressed "Greek fashion" towards the back of the
||Neckline broadens, often square, puff sleeves,
bodice sometimes gathered, sometimes trimmed, bustline even higher, strong
vertical embroidery on front center skirt. Silks and more color. Hair
dressed close to head but with curls and twists on top of head and to sides
of face. Turbans for evening wear.
||Late teens: bodice at it's smallest and
highest. Sleeves and bodice highly decorated. Skirt is cut wider and
stiffened and trimmed to make it stand out. By 1820 the waist will start to
drop as skirts widen. Hair continues to be dressed on top of head, turbans
||The layer closest to
the body for this entire period is a linen or cotton shift. It is
constructed of rectangles and triangles, with short sleeves and a drawstring
or gathered neckline being most common.
The stays or corset are worn over the shift. Unlike later corsets, late 18th-early 19th corsets were not designed to give one a small waist. The 18th century corset was heavily boned and designed to provide a smooth, barrel-shaped torso with rounded bosom. The transitional corset kept the rounded bosom, but was short-waisted. The early 19th century corset was softer, often stiffened only with cording and a center busk (a smooth thin strip of wood in a pocket running between the breasts down the center of the corset), and designed to provide a columnar shape. The diameter of the column was not as important as achieving a smooth, vertical look with a very high bustline. Variations on the corset emphasized a "lift and separate" look (affectionately called "the divorcer"). By the late teens, early 20s, the corset began to return to a more substantial garment, with attempts to rein in the waist.
The layer above the corset is a linen or cotton petticoat, usually with bodice. The cut of the neckline depends on the dress under which it will be worn. The shape of the petticoat's skirt, especially the location of gathers, should follow the style of the gown being worn over it.
The 1790s corset supports, but does not push up, the bustline. The neckline would be filled in with a large handkerchief, and the "tail," along with a bustle pad, helps hold out the skirt.
The 1810 corset creates a smooth columnar line and pulls the bustline up quite high. The straps are well out of the way to accommodate the broad neckline. There is a busk pocket on this corset, though the busk itself is missing.
|By looking at the corsets we can see how the
shape of the gown is achieved. Notice that even though a certain amount of
exposed bosom is fashionable, visible cleavage is NOT a desired beauty trait.
Corsets are made of sturdy cotton (coutil, twill, canvas) with cords and quilting for stiffening. The busk, a thin wooden strip about 1-2"” in width, is inserted in a vertical pocket between the breasts. The busk helps maintain an erect posture and a smooth line. Even corsets without any other form of stiffening usually have a busk.
Corsets of this era are laced in the back with a single spiral lace (i.e. not two laces criss-crossed).
The waistline of the 1819 corset begins to drop and be more defined, although the bustline is still quite high. Additional quilting across the front begins to suppress and add definition to the waist.
|This gown with a crossover neckline, as well as
other gowns of this period, feature a bodice that is low, round, and filled
in with a handkerchief. The bodice is not separate. It is cut as one piece
with the skirt and gathered.
||This formal silk gown features a broad neckline, gathered slightly at the neck. The waist is drawn in slightly by a drawstring but there are no gathers: again, the ideal is a smooth column. The waistline is only about a third of the way between the shoulder and elbow.||The bodice has a broad, rounded neckline,
gathered slightly by a drawstring (this actually improves the fit). There
are no gathers at the front of the skirt.
||The black bodice shows the wide but short style of the late teens. The waistline is quite high, and there is now trimming that adds volume to the shoulder, enhancing the horizontal effect.|
|This silk gown shows the longer, less full
sleeve. The bustline is high and the waistline is only very slightly lower
in the back. The skirt is very full, with the fullness being distributed
evenly around the waistline.
||Net gowns with chenille embroidery were popular in the 1806-1810 years. This gown has the narrower skirt than many gowns of the time. The fullness is all at the back, with a small bustle pad added to help the skirt stand out from the body. Waistlines were still even front-to-back, or dipped slightly, as seen here. The neckline is fairly high at the back.||This bodice shows the classic "diamond back"
cut for this period. Shoulder seams were set behind the modern shoulder line
and a diagonal back seam went from near the center back to the back of the
arm. Backs were narrow (posture: upright, shoulders back). Unlike modern
armholes that are cut almost vertically from the shoulder, armholes from
this period were cut deeply towards the center back. Note there is no
underarm seam (see sewing guide below).
||As the decade advances, fashion magazines
describe gowns as having a "broad back." The diamond shape remains standard,
but is cut wider. The waistline is cut higher in the back than in the front.
This half-mourning evening gown shows the characteristic back arch. Also
note that the lower seam is not cut with the deep curve of a princess seam,
but is either straight or only slightly curved.
|18th century sleeves
covered the elbow. With the transition to the new, lightweight gowns,
sleeves began to shorten. Long sleeves were still in use for daywear, but
sleeves for evening wear were generally shorter. During the early phase,
sleeves were straight, set into the armhole with little or no gathering. As
puff sleeves replaced straight sleeves, the gathering was still concentrated
at the back, particularly in English gowns. Also note that as the armhole is
cut much closer to the center back than a modern armhole the sleeves need to
Throughout this period the direction of the fullness of the sleeve is increasingly outward, not upward. Even the highly ornate sleeves of the late 18-teens follow this line. It will be taken to extremes in the wide-shouldered gowns of the late 1820s and 30s.
Note that after about 1805 the lower edge of the puff sleeves generally falls horizontally in line with the bodice. Many gowns of the 18-teens that have tiny bodices show equally tiny sleeves. Necklines also widen, though bare shoulders will not be seen until later in the century.
|Light cotton or silk undergown is gathered
around entire waist and has a slight train. Overgown has longer train.
||A similar gown, without the overdress, gathered
slightly in the front and extensively in the back. Round train. Trains are
found on day and evening dresses during the first few years of the century.
They disappear in daywear around 1806, although they do hang on for a bit in
evening or "opera" gowns (not ball gowns).
||A yellow line is drawn on this image to show
how the side seam falls. The front of skirt is now a single rectangular
panel set into the bodice with no gathers. The side seam is well to the
back, and, as the panel is a rectangle, falls slightly to the front (i.e. it
is a straight seam but due to the shape of the skirt it appears to curve.)
The side back panels are triangular to provide fullness and all the
gathering is in the back.
||Skirts continue to be cut with a front
rectangle, side gores, and gathered back. After about 1815 they begin to
widen at the hem. The front is still set smoothly into the bodice but the
panel is more traingular. The increasingly heavy decoration at the bodice is
balanced by decoration at the lower skirt.
The fashion plates show ball gowns with short hemlines, at or just above the ankles, beginning around 1810.
|Big hair: grey powdered curls, puffs, and rolls
with turbans and tall plumes.
||Hair is dressed in "classical" style, with
curls close to the head but with the mass of hair drawn back. Styles move
from 'Grecian' where the hair is at the back of the head, to 'Roman' where
the volume moves forward.
||As the decade
progresses, hair is dressed more elaborately, with the bulk moving to the
top of the head. Flowers and ribbons are popular. A variety of turbans are
worn, following the shape of the hairstyle. This means they are small and
closer to the head at the beginning of the decade, but become larger and
higher as the decade progresses. Plumes also make a comeback.
The cottons of the period are called muslin, but are actually lighter and more sheer than most modern cottons and quite different from the utility fabric we call muslin in the U.S. Smooth cotton gauze, cotton voile, light batiste or fine silk/cotton blends are reasonable substitutes. Modern silks tend to be soft and drapey. Period silks were light but stiffer. Good quality dupioni or shantung can be a reasonable substitute, though they are more "slubby" and stiffer than period silks. Silk taffeta provides a more authentic drape and feel. The difficulty is finding these at a reasonable price! A few online sources for fabrics are listed below. Polyesters and rayon/acetates come in a greater variety of colors and weights, but do not breath well which makes them hot for dancing in. (Note: Polyester can be washed; acetate generally cannot.)
A net or sheer silk or cotton overlay, was also popular. The net overlay embroidered with chenille was in vogue for the years just before 1810 (see red example above). The fashion plates from just before 1820 show many gowns made of silk satin (not as shiny as modern satin) with a sheer overdress. Again, the difficulty is finding a period-equivalent. Chiffon and georgette tend to be too fluid. Some lightweight silk organzas, though rather stiff, may work.
White, of course, and a variety of pastels, but stronger colors were also popular. For example, the Ladies Magazine of 1812 lists salmon, blue, pink, green, red-lilac or heliotrope, buff, grey, crimson, orange, lemon, jonquil and puce as fashionable colors. Patterned fabrics are trickier: the white-on-white embroidered muslins show a variety of trellised vines and flowers, but where a contrasting figure appears (an embroidered flower or woven in design) the pattern is usually a small figure made with few colors, regularly spaced.
1) Think about foundations!
With the possible exception of young women at the turn of the century, none of the gowns above are worn without some kind of foundation to provide the correct silhouette. Under all of these gowns women would have worn a shift, a corset (especially after the first few years of the century), and a petticoat. Wearing these layers seems to be the biggest difference between achieving a true Regency look and just looking like you are wearing a nice high-waisted dress.
While I would encourage everyone to make a corset there are some short cuts you can take. A bodiced petticoat with some boning, a non-period alternative to wearing a corset, is one option. Jean Hunnisett's invaluable book shows a bodiced petticoat which includes boning for support. Sense and Sensibility has a pattern. Properly constructed, this option can give you the "left and separate" look but will probably be uncomfortable as the bones tend to dig in to the waist. An underwire bra with the straps pulled short is another, though modern bras tend to emphasize "push up and in for maximum cleavage" rather than the more period look.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most comfortable foundation can be a corset. Properly fitted, the corset will evenly distribute support and provide plenty of flexibility for dancing. Jean Hunisett's book provides diagrams and instructions. Drea Leed's online corset pattern generator can also be used as a starting point. This site is designed to produce an Elizabethan corset which is the wrong shape for Regency wear: an Elizabthand corset is designed to flatten the breasts and create a wide cone silhouette whereas an early 19th century corset is designed to lift an separate the breasts and provide a columnar shape to the torso. To adapt the results of the corset generator you will want to lengthen the corset, provide gores for the hips, and add gores to support the bust. The placement of boning channels is also different. See the historical garments or the Hunnisett book for proper placement. (A note about bones: whale baleen, reeds, or cording were the period materials used. Modern women, especially those with fuller figures, may want to substitute spiral steel. It is readily available, flexible, and somewhat more 'effective.')
2) Make a muslin
Since the advent of off-the-rack clothing or graded patterns we have become used to accepting that not all clothes will be a tailored fit. Regency women, at least those who could afford the beautiful ball gowns in these images, would have made, or had those gowns made, personally and individually. The result would have been gowns that fit well and made the most of any given woman's figure. You can achieve this type of fitting by making a muslin, a personalized pattern fitted to your own body that you can then adapt for gown patterns.
To achieve the best fit, wear the undergarments you intend to wear with your finished
gown. Using a modern pattern with a fairly fitted bodice, cut out your bodice pattern,
placing the shoulder seams along the top of the shoulders, as in a modern gown. Baste it
together. Try it on and note where the fitting problems are. Does the fabric pull or gap
around the bust or neck? Try adjusting the shoulder angle. Is the waistline just under
the bust? Adjust up or down as needed. Is the bodice snug around the bottom? Add or
gather as needed.
Once the bodice fits well, draw new shoulder and back seams to create the diamond back.
Leave your shoulder seam sewn together and cut along your new "diamond back" lines.
Also, cut in the armholes towards the back.
You do not actually need to use a pattern at all. There are several online sites that
describe how to make your own muslin pattern. Search on 'make sloper', 'make toile', or
3) Adapting Modern Patterns
There are several pattern makers that offer Regency style patterns. Even the "Big 4" pattern companies’ patterns can be adapted. There are three major areas where changes need to be made:
Compare these two images. The first is an extant gown from between 1800-10, the second is a gown made from the Sense and Sensibility pattern company:
|Though not quite visible in this image, the
shoulder seam in this extant gown is actually well behind the shoulder. The
back seam goes straight from the waist to the armhole. The armhole is cut
deeply to the back and most of the gathering for the sleeve is at the back.
There is no side seam under the arm. The bodice side front and side back are
a single piece.
||On this modern pattern the shoulder seam is
directly on top of the shoulder. The modern princess back seam rises steeply
from the waist and then makes a sharp curve.
||The lines drawn on this image indicate how to
alter this pattern to make it more like the extant example. The shoulder
line is no longer on top of the shoulder but about an inch below it. The
back seam is straight and begins closer to the center back. The armhole is
cut deeper towards the center back.