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Whatever shall I wear?

The Jane Austen Festival in Bath has been taking place over the last two weeks. There are many events including a regency ball and dance lessons. However, since I haven’t the required dress, I decided that I would attend a talk called “Whatever shall I wear?” by Amy Nichole of the Period Costume shop. Amy Nichole is an expert in historic costume and period design. Her demonstration guided us through the process of researching historical designs, recreating the garment and finally how to wear the costume.

I apologise in advance for the quality of the photos. I took my old point-and-click camera as I didn’t feel like carrying the larger camera around Bath, but the theatre was rather dark and I wasn’t allowed to use flash. Not withstanding that, I also forgot to re-charge the camera and I didn’t get much chance to snap away before the batteries ran out. All in all it is a wonder that I got any photos at all!

Amy first appeared on stage in her underwear – well her regency underwear anyway! The underwear consisted a shift and stays. Stays are an 18th century corset. Amy actually wore “jumps”, which are a shorter, more relaxed version of stays and allow the body far more flexibility. This was an important part of the demonstration as without this shorter form of corsetry, Amy wouldn’t have been able to put on her own shoes! As well as stays or “jumps”, a shift (usually of cotton or linen) was also worn under a gown.


18th century stays

In the 18th century, pockets were worn under the gown and tied around the waist. A regency lady would be likely to carry gloves, a reticule (purse), a handkerchief, smelling salts and a fan in her pockets. Gloves could also be partially taken off since long gloves can be difficult to remove when it gets hot. There was a opening on the inside of the gloves at the wrist and the glove hands could be slipped off and tucked into the arms for when you wished to eat!


A “fichu” on the left and on the right, original 18th century gloves – you won’t believe how fine the stitching is on these.

Amy dressed, first of all, in day wear. This consisted of a “drop-front” gown. Her gown was based on a gown in the Bath Fashion Museum dated 1804. Any demonstrated how to dress in this type of gown. First, you have to be pinned into it at the front. Then, the drop-front is pulled up hiding the pinned section. A regency lady may also wear a “fichu” which is a large neckerchief or shawl, generally folded into a triangle and tucked into the neckline. This would help shade her from the sun.

Dresses may also be created with draw strings at the front (both at the waist, which would be Empire line and at the neckline).  Amy had created the most beautiful dress with this design from a white cotton-silk muslin.


Cotton-silk muslin dress

My favourite gown, though was the ball gown. This was made from a silk in pale green shot with blue. It fastened at the back with buttons and had short-sleeves and a train.


Getting dressed in a regency ball gown


Regency ball gown

Amy gets her fabric at Shepherds Bush market. Apparently, the market stocks a lot of designer, end-of-line fabrics and is relatively inexpensive. Just as well as Amy’s ball gown was made with 4 metres of silk taffeta!

For footwear, Amy recommended angle-length flat boots for during the day. These would be laced at the side in the 18th century, but that would be hard to find today. For evening wear, she suggested some ballet pumps. Ballet shoes have scarcely changed in design in two hundred years and make an easy-to-find addition to the costume.

For extra warmth the regency lady would have a shawl. Paisley was a popular design at this period and Amy had an example of an original Regency-period shawl. A spencer could also be worn. This was a short jacket.

We also looked at men’s fashion. Men’s  jackets were commonly made in cotton twill, which could be dyed with indigo or alternatively wool. The jackets had pockets in the tails. In the regency period, the collar generally sits away from the neck so that the silk waistcoat can be seen underneath. Men’s breeches had drop fronts and there were buttons for braces on inside. Amy showed us a beautiful pair of breeches made of Duchesse silk satin. Men’s fashion was far from dull in the 18th century.

Under the jacket linen shirts were worn. Think Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice! The fabric is incredibly fine and becomes softer with wear.  The arms have godets and they were designed so that men could have very free movement in the shirt.


Colin Firth as Mr Darcy

This was definitely a fun and interesting talk. Amy recommended visiting museums and getting inspiration for costume design from original period garments. I’ve since learned that the Bath Fashion Museum does allow visitors to examine items from its collection close-up. I think I’ll arrange a visit.