Sunday, 20 March 2011

The fashion for deshabille (undress)

When we think of Regency dress we often visualise a thin white dress, drawn in under the bust rather than the waist, resembling a Greek statue. Such dresses are often referred to as chemise dresses, or deshabille, as such thin items were used to being worn close to the skin underneath one's clothes, rather than one's outer garments (hence the use of the French word deshabille meaning to undress).

Chemise dress, 1799

Fashions for women during the eighteenth century had become increasingly ostentatious and grand, with hoops, panniers and trains, and with hairstyles to match, so enlarged that doorframes were often too low and it led to such ridicule that a contemporary said women aimed to have their mouth exactly equidistant between their feet and the tops of their hairstyles.

C18th court dress, a visible sign of wealth through sheer quantity of fabric

Then in the early 1780s the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, began to be seen in much more informal clothes and with unpowdered hair, sending shock waves through the fashionable elite. These included a chemise-like dress, like those worn by creole women in the French Caribbean colonies, and had no need for a bodice or hoops. Her fashion became known as chemise à la reine but was much critisized initially for being too informal for a Queen. It consisted of a white muslin dress, tied with a silk sash and often worn with a straw hat, bringing to mind a quaint pastoral shepherdess. When she was painted in this style of dress in 1783 it immediately became the rage to copy the style by the most fashion conscious and in 1784 she sent samples of her dress to supportive aristocratic ladies. Ironically the fashion became associated with liberation and freedom, following the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette, 1783

In England several famous and fashionable women took on this new trend, including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. However it has been argued by Paula Byrne in her excellent biography entitled Perdita that this style was first brought to England by the actress (and one time lover of the Prince Regent) Mary Robinson. A lovely quote from the Morning Herald in October 1782 states:

"The Perdita [Mary Robsinson's nickname after a character she played] has recieved a dress from Paris which was introduced this Autumn by the Queen of France, and has caused no small anxiety in the fashionable circles."
Then one month later the same paper printed that:

"Ladies of the first style adopt it, and gentlemen patronize it. The Chemise de la Reine, in which Mrs Robinson appeared at the Opera, is expected to become a favourite undress  among the fashionable women, who are either by necessity or inclination put to their shifts, the ensuing winter!"

Over the ensuing years the fashion held sway and the sash at the waist gradually moved higher to the bust line (Empire line) which we often think of when we think of Regency styles used in many Jane Austen television adaptations, and trains gradually disappeared.

Hairstyles now resembled those of ancient Greek and Roman women, with pearls or flowers worn in the hair for decoration and with bonnets enhanced with ribbons, ruches and artificial flowers.

Headwear, early C19th
I shall finish with some tongue-in-cheek quotations from Jane Austen in letters to her sister, as an example of how women adapted to new fashions by re-styling their own dresses and hats themselves and also how they felt about fashion in general:

"I bought some Japan [silk] likewise, and next week shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend." (1798)
"Elizabeth was really a pretty object with her nice clean cap put on so tidily and her dress so uniformly white and orderly." (1798)
"Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress, & exposed bosom." (1801)

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