Whilst period costumes are never required, they add to the ambiance and enhance the experience of a Regency Ball. You do not need to be a seamstress, nor do you need to invest a lot of money. A little creativity, and help from 'those who know' will put you into the best spirit of the season.
This page is designed to give you ideas and inspiration as you plan, design, and execute your Regency-era costume. The slide show just below can be halted by rolling your cursor over an image. A caption will be displayed at the bottom, giving a brief description of the image. Reproductions of drawings and paintings were all gleaned from Wikimedia Commons, and as such are in the public domain; the photographs translate these concepts to the present day, showing dancers from San Diego English Country Dancers participating in several ball events.
Throughout the ages, the change of fashion is most often politically motivated. Who can forget the direct proportion of mini-skirts to high inflation? Before the French Revolution, the human body was merely a frame to support and display the opulent fashions of the day. Consider the elaborate, panniered gowns of Marie Antoinette and the courtly attire worn by the lace-draped men posing through the halls of Versailles. However, with the revolution came a drastic change of fashion. The human body became the focus, to be displayed and framed by the clothing; the idea was to highlight the human form in all of its natural beauty and glory. The fluid line of Greek statues was the ultimate in style and grace.
The flowing drapery of neo-classical dress quickly became de rigueur in women's fashion, as the natural look emerged from the upheaval and violence of the French Revolution. Many women wore red ribbons tied around their throats, in sympathy for the guillotined victims!
Ladies, yes ladies, wore thin muslin frocks with only light stays and a chemise underneath. Buttoned down the back, and cinched just under the breast, the gown defined a high waist, with heaving bosom. The look was innocent and girlish, as most frocks were white. So thin were these garments, so vain were the women, that during the cold winter and freezing rain, the muslins were worn without protection from the elements. Many women died during a flu epidemic of the early 1800s, it being called 'muslin fever'. Thus, a sleeveless pelisse or short spencer jacket was ultimately added.
Caps were worn indoors, bonnets outside; feathers, ribbons and jewels bedecked the ringlets and chignons for balls and formal occasions. Older women wore turbans, à la Turk, reflecting the mood of exploration, discovery and conquest.
The daring young ladies in white frequently dampened their chemises underneath their frocks for a more revealing effect, evocative of marble Greek goddesses. Truly, there were attendant 'sprayers' in the ladies' retiring rooms, ready to assist with the dampening of the alluring chemise. Fortunately, today we have breathable fabrics, air-conditioned rooms, and laws addressing public decency.
Please note: We strongly encourage dancers to avoid trains as they can be dangerous on the dance floor. In the Regency era, trains were used for formal court events, not for dancing. For the same reason, we encourage dancers to wear their dresses at ankle rather than floor length.
Thrift stores are gold mines for costume creation. Find an old prom or bridesmaid's dress, preferably with high waist or no-waist A-line. Attach a ribbon under the bust, and tie a bow in the back with long streamers. Try to keep all gathers to the back of the dress, which creates a more fluid and flattering line. Scoop out a high neckline, and bind with silk ribbon or lace. Sleeves can be slim and straight to the elbow, or fuller with shoulder gathers, and puffed by an elastic band mid-bicep area. Your own body sense should dictate the height of your waist, the cut of your neckline and your sleeve style.
A pelisse is easily made from a large A-line dress: first remove the sleeves, dramatically lower the neckline, or simply cut away a good portion of the front to create a straight line from the side of the neck down to the bottom of the garment. The pelisse need not close in the front; it merely flows as an open tunic, and pairs well with a turban. Long gloves, a necklace, dangling earrings and fan complete the look, and anything can be trimmed with ribbons or lace.
The Regency Beau, Buck, or Dandy was elegant, urbane and a vision of pure masculinity. In fact, he was the perfect Romantic Hero. The 'Beaux' set the style and tone of society—they comprised 'the fashion police', as it were. Beau Brummell, a Regency icon, was the grandson of a valet. As he was the ultimate dandy, his influence on masculine fashion is still apparent today.
"Surely, the English Nation ought in justice to do something for the man who invented cravats," Prince Puckler-Markam once remarked in 1820.
The artificial, courtly, and mannered clothing of the recent bygone era was rejected and replaced with a natural style, fashioned after the riding costume: linen shirt, stock neckband, and cravat; tall boots, worn over tight pants; waistcoat and high cut, double-breasted riding coat, sporting large lapels and long tails.
Hat and gloves completed the ensemble, which, as in the ladies' garments, accentuated the beauty and form of the figure. Men's hairstyles were modeled after Greco-Roman sculpture: the wind-blown Brutus look. Neo-classicism strongly influenced all aspects of art, culture and fashion. Though it seems that 'real' Englishmen did not wear togas!
To create male Regency attire easily and inexpensively, slim trousers in beige or black can be tucked into tall boots, or cut and banded at the knee and worn with long white athletic socks and black dress shoes. A full-sleeved peasant-style shirt, worn with a silk vest and a white tie cravat, could be topped with a long-tailed coat. If the jacket front is short, be sure to trim the vest to the waist and bind the edge with matching silk or satin ribbon.
Check your local tuxedo rental shop for old garments they may sell for a few dollars. Thrift stores do have tux and tails, though timing is everything.