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Celebrating Fashion in 1820

By Jayne Shrimpton

As we enter a new year and a new decade, our first history feature of 2020 looks back to the fashions of two centuries ago: 1820. A bicentenary article, then, this also marks the accession to the throne in January 1820 of Brighton’s most celebrated character, the Prince Regent, following the death of his father, King George III.

Court dress

Two hundred years ago George Augustus Frederick relinquished his role as Regent and became King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and King of Hanover, his official coronation occurring later, in July 1821. The new monarch’s first Drawing Room at which society ladies were formally presented was held in the summer of 1820. This glittering event prompted superior magazines of the time to vie with one another in displaying the finery required for appearances at court. Ackermann’s Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions, and politics illustrated an idealised Court Dress in July 1820 - a hand-coloured plate demonstrating the new silhouette, now with narrow skirts, minus wide side hoops. Traditionally hoops were compulsory for court dress, but appearing ridiculous with the high waistline fashionable in the early-1800s, were finally discontinued. Other strictly-governed court requisites were an ostrich-feather headdress with trailing lace ‘lappets’, long white gloves, a fan and trained gown. The following month, in August, Ackermann’s rival publication, La Belle Assemblée, showcased the picturesque costume and vast plumed headdress worn by Lady Worsley Holmes to the King’s first Drawing Room.

Female Fashion

As usual, in 1820 the social elite set the fashionable tone, the latest dress trends then filtering down, in modified form, throughout society. The pure neo-classical styles of the early-1800s had become increasingly diluted since the mid-1810s, with regard to both female and male dress. Women still wore a high waistline in 1820, but the waist was beginning to lower (up to two inches below the bust) and earlier trailing, classical-style drapery had given way to more decorative, structured garments. Low bodice necklines were modestly filled in for daywear with a chemisette (half-blouse) that often featured a frilled or layered ruff-like collar, reflecting a new interest in ‘historical’ costume. Dress sleeves were puffed, the shoulder area and sleeve head widening, an effect accentuated by decorative shoulder-pieces or epaulettes called ‘mancherons’. At the same time, the skirt of the gown developed an A-line shape, the fashionable hemline set at ankle or ground length, flounced in tiers, or enhanced with embroidery, lace, vandyked edgings and padded rouleau trimming. Garment fabrics grew more colourful and although fine silk, gauze, tulle and lace were still de rigeur for formal and evening dress, coloured ‘washing dresses’ of plain or printed cotton material were popular for mornings and ordinary day wear.

Outdoor garments included the short spencer jacket familiar to many of us through popular dramatizations of Jane Austen novels, fashioned from silk or more substantial woollen cloth. Alternatively, a longer pelisse dress/coat might be used for greater warmth, the front fastening sometimes given a military effect with prominent braid or ‘frogging’. Hooded cloaks were also favoured, especially in the countryside, where the bright red hooded cloak of Little Red Riding Hood fame was widely worn at this period. Shawls of light wool or silk were much admired in fashionable circles, loosely draped or carried as picturesque accessories: originally imported from Kashmir in northern India, fine shawls were subsequently copied and manufactured in British textile centres, notably Norwich, Paisley and Edinburgh. Respectable ladies wore gloves when out in public, a speciality of the period being dainty pale yellow Limerick or ‘chicken skin’ gloves. Strong, yet ultra-fine and tiny when folded, these were sometimes presented in a walnut shell, their delicate appearance belying the horrifying reality that they were made from the skin of unborn calves known as ‘slinks’ or ‘morts’.

Parasols and umbrellas were becoming widely used 200 years ago. Oilcloth umbrellas were recognised accoutrements in fashionable spa towns and seaside resorts like Brighton, where visitors promenaded around the town on foot and walking was considered beneficial to health, as well as being socially agreeable. Ladies who now spent more time outdoors also needed a shady parasol to preserve their delicate complexions. Circular or lozenge-shaped reticule bags suspended on a cord or chain contained personal items such as coins, pocket handkerchief, fan and scent bottle. Bags were often crocheted, netted, knitted, knotted or embroidered at home, sewing and ornamenting small items being a genteel pastime.

Dainty soft leather or fabric slipper-style shoes were customary indoor footwear in 1820, while pattens (overshoes) were sometimes used outdoors – or stouter leather ankle boots for walking in lanes and across fields. Women’s long hair was centrally-parted and set into high curls at the temples, the bun or knot worn high at the back of the head. Headwear was especially sensitive to fashion: hats, caps and bonnets took many forms and were made of diverse materials. Straw styles were popular in summer, including the ‘gypsy’ or ‘cottage’ hat with flat crown and brim, the silk ribbons left undone or loosely tied. Bonnets tall in shape or featuring wider lace-edged brims, were ornamented with delicate flowers and greenery.

Masculine Modes

Menswear in 1820 was still largely influenced by the styles promoted by the Prince Regent, his fashion advisor George ‘Beau’ Brummell and fashionable young gentlemen about town, who favoured an immaculate, understated mode of dress based on fine quality cloth and superior tailoring. Tail coats with cutaway fronts were in vogue, worn with traditional soft leather or cloth knee-breeches and tall leather boots for an elegant ‘sporting’ look, or with close-fitting pantaloons and pump-like shoes. However, a major shift in menswear was beginning to occur: long looser trousers – originally worn by sailors, then adopted for summer holidays during the early-1800s in locations like Brighton - were becoming established for fashionable daywear. Especially favoured in town, the new bifurcated garments varied in style in 1820, from narrow-moderate ankle-length trousers, to wide, gathered ‘cossacks’, creating some rather eclectic effects at this transitional stage. Trousers were, nonetheless, the modern style and worked well with the more functional straight-fronted, knee-length frock coat. A pristine white linen shirt and expertly-tied neck-cloth or cravat, pocket watch, gloves and a round hat with stiff crown – the prototype of the Victorian top hat - completed the stylish male outfit two centuries ago.

Posted in History on Jan 01, 2020