Regency Reflections: Fashions of the Era

Fashions for females in the Georgian Era changed dramatically, from wide skirts and narrow waists, high-piled coiffures, and fussy decoration to simple, high waisted gowns -- and back again in the space of a few decades. Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), Queen of France, right, might have been the most extreme. She was painted in 1778 by Elisabeth Vigee le Brun (1755-1842) in a huge hooped skirt and hair powdered,  drawn high and topped off with a fountain of feathers.  In an upcoming post, we will look at some of the fashion plates from various lady's magazines of the Georgian era. In this post, however, we will indulge in the representations of fashion shown in portraits by celebrated artists.

Left is Grace Dalrymple Elliott, subject of Jo Manning's excellent biography.  My Lady Scandalous: The Amazing Life and Outrageous Times of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Royal Courtesan.  She was painted by Gainsborough in the late 1770's.   One of the outstanding features of Gainsborough's portraits is the depiction of the sumptuous silks and satins worn by his subjects. Again, the hair-do is exaggeratedly high and powdered to a pewter shade rather than the white powdering of a few years earlier.  Imagine how many hours had to be spent by these ladies while their minions teased each strand up and over whatever bird-cage-like platform was used.

In the 1780's and 1790's, the styles became simpler, perhaps bucolic. Even the French Queen favored a version of the  simple muslin chemise.  The mode, color and fabric were copied by aristocrats on both sides of the Channel.  Hair is more naturally arranged, though still powdered a little, and one could hardly say the hat would be worn by a peasant.  Again, the painter is Vigee le Brun.
The Frankland Sisters by John Hoppner, 1795
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Jane Elizabeth, Countess of Oxford, 1797 by John Hoppner
Tate Britain
Gradually the gowns evolved into looser skirts with high waists just below the bosom. The two portraits below by Sir Henry Raeburn(1756-1823) show the exact changes.

Mrs. Eleanor Urquhart, 1795
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Elizabeth Campbell  1812

During the nine years of the Regency, fashions became more elaborate with fancy work and embellishments for the sleeves and around the hems. After about 1800, the hair powder is gone for good and the styles are simpler. By the official end of the regency in 1820, waistlines had begun to sneak back to their natural spot. In the 1820's, the corseted waist and wide skirts returned, and in the 1830's, the hair rose again. Below are two portraits by Thomas Sully (1783-1872), born in England but who lived most of his life in the United States.

 Lady with a Harp, Eliza Ridgely, 1818,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Abby Ann King Turner Van Pelt, 1832

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) painted many portraits throughout the regency and afterwards.  Here are a few of his portraits, showing the change from the late 18th century to several decades into the 19th.

Queen Charlotte, 1789, National Gallery, London

Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales, 1798, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mrs. Jens Wolff, 1815
Chicago Art Institute

 Julia Hankey, later Lady Bathurst, c. 1825
Dallas Museum of Art

Hair has remained unpowdered throughout the late Georgian period, but by the 1830's, there were some fantastic top-knot arrangements, as seen below.  Not to mention the fantastic hats that came back into style.

To the left is a portrait of Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) with her aunt Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) painted by Henry Perronet Briggs (1791-1844) in 1831, shortly before Sarah went to her considerable reward.

The  print to the right is Princess Victoria, later Queen, based on an 1833 painting by Sir George Hayter (1792-1871).  Fanny and the princess share a top-knot hair style.

Below is a feathered hat even Marie Antoinette would have loved. The painting hangs in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg; Sir George Hayter portrays Countess Vorontsova in 1832.  Another hat the ill-fated queen might have enjoyed wearing is shown in a portrait of Julia, Lady Peel, nee Floyd (1795-1859) by Sir Thomas Lawrence; the real thing can be viewed at New York City's Frick Collection.

 So the fashion cycle comes full circle in about seventy years from the 1760's to the 1830's.

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