When it comes to Regency fashion it is difficult to know where to start. Arbitrarily starting on the outside, let’s talk about the garments worn by the ladies of the day for warmth.
With the fashion of the time favoring lightweight fabrics with almost no underclothing, women were literally freezing to death. 1803 was a devastating year for the fashionable lady; a goodly number of them perished from the “muslin disease,” the popular name given a French influenza epidemic credited with carrying off scores of scantily dressed ladies who’d braved the frigid weather in little more than wispy sheaths. To counteract death by fashion, the pelisse and spencer soon became standard wear among Regency belles……. Jane Austen Centre, Regency Outerwear by Kathy Hammel
Terms can be confusing. In general, a long coat for a lady in the early 19th century was called either a redingote or a pelisse, the two having few differences.
REDINGOTE – The name derived from a French alteration of the English “riding coat” for a bulky, thick, utilitarian, full-length overgarment worn specifically while riding a horse. It evolved into a fashionable accessory in the last two decades of the eighteenth century when women began wearing a perfectly tailored style of the redingote, which was inspired by men’s fashion of the time.
PELISSE – The late 18th and the early 19th century pelisse was a three-quarter length coat. More of an overdress or coat dress, the pelisse fit relatively close to the figure and was styled along the same high-waisted lines as the gowns of the day.
Redingotes tended to be thicker lined, with shoulder capes and secure fastenings, the purpose to protect in extreme cold or rainy weather. They were used alongside mantles and cloaks for everyday wear, and were typically practical, utilitarian, unfussy, and unnoticeable compared to more ostentatious lavishly trimmed clothes. Again, think of a riding coat.
The pelisse, on the other hand, was from the outset a fashionable accessory meant to coordinate with the lady’s dress, or serve as the dress itself. Yet, as time passed, the two garments blended into virtually the same thing, as seen in most fashion plates of the era where the terms are used interchangeably.
Choice of fabric was dictated largely by the season. In Spring, silk, satin or light velvets were chosen; in the Summer even lighter fabrics were used, such as sarsnet, light silks, or muslin/cotton; and in Winter the heavy fur-lined velvets and wools were necessary. Some sported hoods and high collars, and almost always were adorned with ornate trimmings, buttons, and so on.
SPENCER – The Spencer jacket was an item peculiar to the Regency period because it was specifically designed to coordinate with the empire waist gown. It was tightly fitted to the woman’s shapely torso, had either a standing or flat collar, and could have short or long sleeves. The bottom of the jacket conformed level with the high waist of the gown. Spencer jackets were often made of linen though wool or silk could be used.
“…said to be the invention of one Lord Spencer. It seems the gentleman in question either had the tails torn from his riding coat when he fell from his horse or had them singed off after he backed too close to the fire while warming himself. Either way, Lord Spencer apparently found the tail-less riding coat to his liking and instructed his tailor to make him several more in the same style. It wasn’t long before the fair sex took up the style.” Kathy Hammel, Jane Austen Centre
Fabric choices were similar to those for a pelisse, and a spencer was typically adorned with lacy or fur edgings, decorative buttons, fancy embroidery, and the like. As an originally male garment, the spencer jacket tended toward tailoring styles with a masculine flair. Military styling was very common, especially during the Napoleonic War years. Certainly, while often designed more with fashion in mind, the spencer jacket did provide warmth, protection from the elements, and modesty.
As popular as the spencer and pelisse for covering up, these jackets were far from the only garments commonly seen as outerwear. Naturally there was the SHAWL, that oh-so-vital accessory piece one never left home without. Indeed shawls were a fashion accoutrement, but their primary purpose was as an easy to carry barrier for warmth and/or protection. Personally, I suspect shawls and scarves were kept over the shoulders far more often than draped loosely and dangling from the arms, as is commonly seen in the movies. Paintings from the era depict shawls (and other covering garments) more often over the arms, shoulders, and even head. The same is true of period fashion plates, unless the shawl was artistically draped in a manner for display of the fabric itself.
In addition, ladies had a choice of dozens of other cover-up options. Again, terms were often interchangeable, altered over the years, varied from region to region, and overlapped. Frankly, quite a number were essentially the same exact garment!
The MANTLE was a loose sleeveless cloak or shawl, often with a hood. CLOAK and CAPE, are basically the same as a mantle. CAPELETS were merely cut to a shorter length than the average cape. A PELERINE was a woman’s narrow cape made of fabric or fur, usually with long and sometimes pointed ends hanging down in front. A FICHU was a light triangular scarf draped over the shoulders and fastened in front or tucked into the gown’s bodice to fill in a low neckline. However, in a few cases the fichu extended to greater lengths becoming a scarf, in essence, but with a tie or other front closure. A TIPPET was a scarf-like narrow strip of clothing worn over the shoulders and around the neck, most often of fur. Very often a tippet was paired with a muff of the same fur. A STOLE fell somewhere between a tippet and a shawl, size-wise, although most commonly sewn of fabric rather than fur. The longer, tailored JACKET with peplums/tails from the pre-Regency Georgian decades also remained in vogue, if not as popular as the spencer.
Many more examples of these garments can be seen on my Pinterest, specifically the boards for Regency Outerwear: Ladies, Regency Fashion Plates, and Paintings: Ladies. I hope this post was informative, and fun to look at!
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