Women’s Fashion During the Regency Era (1810s to 1830s)

Fashion Flashback: Given that fashion was instrumental in the creation of Canada, this blog series explores the development of what Canadians wore one era at a time.

Dress, Canadian (c. 1823-1825). A old rose silk taffeta and beige silk satin gown with a cotton lining. Sewn by hand. [Source: McCord Museum]

As men’s fashion moved to a more simple tailored style over the Regency era, losing the frills and certain colours along the way, women’s fashion did the opposite. It went from understated and sleek to poofy sleeves, bell-shaped skirts, elaborate hats, and ribbons galore. Corsets and multiple petticoats returned full-swing. It would take a little under a century before less constricting styles became popular again. Why the sudden change (or reversal, really) for women’s clothing?

Upper Class Women

1810s

Day Coat, cotton muslin (c. 1810-1820). Source: FIDM Museum

Evening dress, French (c. 1810). Made of cotton and metallic thread. [Source: Metropolitan Museum]

Look at that neckline! Look at how comfy it is! There is nothing I don’t love about this dress. This is a perfect example of the famous empire silhouette from the early Regency era. Empire dresses have a fitted bodice that ends just below women’s breasts, giving off a high-waisted appearance. From there, the dress flows out in a light, loose-fitting manner. (Click here for more examples of these kinds of dresses, including ones from Canada). Although it’s not shown in the photos, I would argue the owner of this dress wore a chemise or something similar underneath to avoid scandalizing those in the vicinity.

This dress is also a perfect example of why people later on in the Victorian era were scandalized at what their female predecessors wore.

No corset?

Bare arms?!

Outside one’s bedchamber?!?


Evening Dress, Canadian (c. 1815) [Source: McCord Museum]


Front side of the dress above [Source: McCord Museum]

1820s

This decade is really the bridge between the traditional Regency era and the start of the Victorian era both timeline-wise and fashion-wise. During this decade, old styles (i.e. empire waistlines) were blended with the new (i.e. fuller skirts). Gigantic gigot or leg o’mutton style sleeves staked their claim in the fashion world and stayed for a while until around the 1840s. They wouldn’t return to womens’ arms until the 1890s.


Evening Dress, England (c. 1820). Brown silk muslin with a small wheat/spring repeat design. Dress has shallow, round neckline and short puffed sleeves above high, empire-style waistline and long tubular skirt. Bodice has narrow cream lace trim throughout. [Source: Powerhouse Museum]

Dress (c. 1825-1830) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [Source]

According to the McCord Museum, “Waistlines inched steadily lower between 1820 and 1825 (this was often emphasized by a belt fixed at hip level) before returning to the natural position over the following three years. The relatively high waist of this gown would appear to be a stylistic throwback or nostalgic detail, rather than a modern style. Sleeves expanded slowly in the early 1820s and grew increasingly large as of 1825.”


Drawing of Walking and Carriage Dresses from La Belle Assemblée. (1828). [Source]

Look at those hats! The 1820s featured elaborate hats and bonnets that brought attention to one’s face. Women’s hats were often placed on the head at a jaunty side angle with curl of hairs peaking out. Hats were made of velvet, straw, or silk on a foundation of either cane or wire. They were decorated with large feathers, fake flowers, bows, and silk ribbons. These trimmings were sometimes removable and could be transferred and pinned to another hat or bonnet.

Cotton Day Gown (c. 1827-1829). [Source: FIDM Museum]

1830-1837

Sleeves expanded to their fullest during the early 1830s and lightly whaleboned corsets were popular again. Tiny waistlines, at a more natural position on the body, were prized and multiple petticoats were used to achieve the fuller skirt look. Patterns and roller-printed designs on various fabrics became fashionable too.


Woman’s Dress, England, (c. 1830). Silk plain weave (organza) and silk satin with imitation-pearl glass beads. [Source: LACMA]

The above is a description of women’s fashion in England and Philadelphia for January 1831 from Montreal Monthly Magazine, (Vol 1, No 1, March 1831). It is interesting how women from Lower Canada (Quebec) were looking to English and American rather than French influences at this time for fashion cues. Please click on the image for a larger (and more readable) resolution.

Dress, Canadian (c. 1830-1835). “This dress is of off-white muslin woodblock printed with alternating broad vertical stripes of decorative motifs in tan, and stripes of trailing poppies and wisteria branches in red and blue on a stippled ground.” [Source: McCord Museum]

“Sleeves kept increasing in size during the second half of the 1820s, reaching maximum volume in 1830. Between 1830 and 1835, the fullness began to slip away from the armhole: in this model, the effect is achieved under the pelerine (a woman’s cape of lace or silk with pointed ends at the center front) by flattening the puffing with gathers near the shoulder. In 1836, sleeves collapsed.” [*]


Dress, Canadian, (c. 1835). Roller-printed cotton. [Source: New Brunswick Museum]


Full outfit, Europe. To the right, a cotton plain weave (muslin) dress with cutwork and cotton embroidery. To the left, a cotton chemise, corset, sleeve plumpers, and a corded petticoat. [Source: LACMA]

So why did women’s clothing take a u-turn during the 1820s and move away from the simpler styles? Historian Alexandra Palmer contends that during this time women and children became men’s status symbols. Upper class Canadian (and other Western) men had a certain democratic image to uphold. Although perfectly tailored suits made of the finest materials would reveal that a man was rich, men weren’t supposed to overtly show their wealth through their clothes—but their wives could. Women were excluded from the political realm during this time. They didn’t need to worry about reflecting democratic ideals such as responsible government in their clothing. “As signs of wealth and ornamental objects, women replaced the lace and jewels banished from men’s clothing by the Revolution.” The example Palmer uses Louis Joseph Papineau and his wife, Julie.


Louis-Joseph Papineau by Antoine Plamondon (1836)


Julie Papineau (née Bruneau) and her Daughter Ezilda by Antoine Plamondon (1836)

Plamondon’s paintings of the Papineau demonstrate how “the aristocratic role was passing to women.” Whereas Louis wore the tailored, romantic masculine fashion like other Lower Canadian professionals of his day. Meanwhile Julie looks like royalty. She’s wearing a lavish golden gown, lace stole, and gold and ruby jewelry. “As Philippe Perrot observed, the [male] bourgeois amassed wealth but did not exhibit it.”

Lower Class Women

French Canadian Lady in her winter dress and a Roman Catholic Priest by John Lambert (1816)

Here is a great article on working French women’s wear from 1810-1820, which is wear the above collection of images comes  from. You can see how the empire waistline also existed in the wardrobes of lower class women. The biggest difference is the materials. Working women needed clothes that would last and would not own a dress for every single activity (i.e. different dresses for walking, carriage riding, horseback riding, daytime and evenings). However, they too were generally able to enjoy the fashions of the era especially those who worked in fashion. In Upper Canada (Ontario), since only the rich could afford to import dresses from abroad or go on trips to Montreal or New York to buy the latest fashions in person, the colonial clothing industry (run by women) became huge. Most women merchants during this time advertised themselves as milliners and dressmakers. Aside from making and selling women’s clothing, they also sold fabrics and materials so women could make clothes for themselves or their families at home.


Thanks for reading! What do you think about fashion from these decades? I personally prefer the earlier 1810s styles before the ridiculous looking gigot sleeves became popular. The fact that those massive sleeves return time and time again throughout history is baffling.


Sources

DK Smithsonian. Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style. New York: DK. (2012).

Errington, Elizabeth Jane. Wives and Mothers, School Mistresses and Scullery Maids: Working Women in Upper Canada, 1790-1840. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press. (1995).

Palmer, Alexandra. Fashion: A Canadian Perspective. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2004).

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