The Regency Silhouette
One significant appeal of the endless film and TV adaptations of Jane Austen’s work is, let’s face it, the costume. For many of us, the sight of the pastel-coloured Empire-line dresses is synonymous with the gallantry and elegance of the Regency era, and the romance and etiquette of the Jane Austen novel – to slip into them, like Amanda Price in Lost in Austen, holds out the promise of slipping into that world.
In terms of fashion history, the Regency silhouette sits as an anomaly between the court dresses of the eighteenth century and the corsets and crinolines of the Victorian period. It came and went without reverberating much in the styles of earlier or later generations, linking it so noticeably and inextricably with the Regency period. The elegance and simplicity of its high waist and small puff sleeves remained unique.
One explanation for its prevalence was the Regency fashion for classical antiquity. The eighteenth century saw a revival of interest in the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome: the Roman city of Pompeii had been rediscovered in 1738, and its excavation carried on throughout the century; young aristocrats brought home classical statues from their Grand Tours of the Continent – the Elgin Marbles, brought to London by the British ambassador to Greece during the Regency, were one controversial import.
Classicism also suited the new Romantic movement in the arts: reacting against the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment emphasis on reason as opposed to feeling, Romantic artists found the great ancient civilisations inspiring, and poets such as Keats, Shelley and Byron visited Italy and Greece. Back in Britain many grand Georgian architectural designs, both of stately private homes and of public façades in Bath and London, embraced a neo-Classical style.
The Empire-line dress, with its slim silhouette and decoration concentrated in narrow borders at the top and bottom, resembled a classical column in itself, and beautiful young ladies dressed in it resembled caryatids, the carved female figures used as columns in classical Greek architecture. The soft, thin white muslins imported from India allowed for drapery resembling the togas of mythological women.
This, in any case, was the idea. But there were some important practical objections. For one thing, Regency Britain did not have the climate of ancient Greece, and the pressure on young women to wear flimsy, clinging muslins must have caused several cases of pneumonia. And however much their design seemed based on lightness and simplicity, Venetia Murray, in High Society in the Regency Period, quotes a Lady Morgan who calls them ‘the most uncomfortable style of dress […] so scanty that it was difficult to walk in them, and to make them tighter still, invisible petticoats were worn’.
Furthermore, Murray cites a comic verse that points out one notable disadvantage of losing the waist of a dress: Regency women ‘all look as if they were got with child’!
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