Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fashion, circa 1819

It’s 1819 and in my newest Regency, The Bricklayer’s Helper, Sarah must give up her masquerade as a man after thirteen years. Which leaves her in the unenviable position of trying to become a lady. What would she wear? How would she adapt to her role as a woman facing the cream of nineteenth century society?


It wouldn’t be easy, that’s for sure.

When you’re writing a historical novel, the question of clothing is a complex one. You want to be as accurate as possible, and yet not confuse readers. Heck, I’ve been confused, myself, at terms like “girdle” which didn’t always mean that tight, elastic thing you wear under your dresses to try to look a little thinner. It used to be an article of clothing worn around the waist, over your dress. Sort of like a belt. And pockets were little bags of fabric hanging from a ribbon you tied around your waist, under your dress. There were slits in the skirts that allowed ladies to slip their hands through so they could extract something from their pocket or put something inside. Some pockets were elaborately embroidered and quite lovely.

And linens weren’t sheets, they were those items of clothing like a man’s shirt that were made out of linen. So it can be quite confusing when using words that over time have changed meaning. Most authors, however, resolve this simply by describing the item of clothing as a character puts it on.

So what would my heroine, Sarah, wear?
First, she'd probably browse through an issue of La Belle Assemblée which was the Vogue of the day.

In the 1819 edition, Sarah would come across the illustration and description for a carriage dress, lusciously described as follows:

Round dress of fine cambric, with six flounces of India muslin: spencer of cherry-coloured or Tyrian purple velvet; with bonnet to correspond; the spencer elegantly finished on the bust with rich silk Brandenburgs; the bonnet lined with white, and surmounted by a plume of white ostrich feathers. Black satin slippers, and Florence gloves.

Then, for evening, when Sarah prepares for her first ball and perhaps a confrontation with the person responsible for the deaths in her family, she might wear modish dress like the lovely one shown here, also from an 1819 edition of La Belle Assemblée...

A frock of scarlet gauze, brocaded with white silken flowers, worn over a white satin slip; the dress richly ornamented with fine lace. The head-dress consisting of either a beautiful tiara of pearls, or a fancy ornament of downy plumage, or of frosted Italian frivolité; this ornament is, however, almost concealed by a bonnet de Ture, composed entirely of white ostrich feathers, playing in different directions. The stamina of the Turk’s cap, with the pistil, are represented by a small plume of short white heron’s feathers.

And since Sarah might wish for additional guidance, she might also take heed of the magazine's advice listed below, to ensure she truly has the latest and most fashionable clothing.

The crowds of beauty, rank, and fashion which daily resort to the elegant repository of taste and fancy under the guidance of Mrs. Bell in St. James’ street, prove sufficiently her indubitable superiority in the fabrication of the different articles belonging to the modish toilet, and the versatility of her taste in the classical arrangement of every different part of a lady’s costume.

As a writer, I’m always fascinated to find how little we have really changed over the last few hundred years. We are still fascinated by fashion and follow our favorite designers. Fashion magazines are best sellers, and like La Belle Assemblée they contain illustrations of the latest fashion, gossip, poetry, and fiction. There are even ads...just as you would find in an issue of Vogue or Glamour, today. And many of those ads are for products to improve the condition of the skin and hair.

And while many women, including Sarah, may deny any interest in the current styles, we can’t help but be seduced by the desire to appear beautiful. Sarah may be the first to deny any interest in what William thinks, but she prefers to be pretty while he's thinking...whatever it is.

So what do you think? Do you follow fashion or are you a rebel who prefers to follow her own tastes, regardless of the current trends?

The Briclayer's Helper
from The Wild Rose Press, Aug 6, 2010

2 comments:

Paty Jager said...

It's always fun to learn about fashion.

I'm a rebel. If it's comfortable and I look relatively good in it, I'm happy. It doesn't have to be a fashion trend.

Fun post.

Amy said...

Paty, I'm totally with you. In fact, in recent years, I've started sewing my own clothes again so that I can get the looser, more comfortable styles I prefer.
We may be rebels, but at least we're happy rebels!