The Historical Dress Fantasy

regencydress The other day, I was sitting in the car and I realized just how little clothing I had on. My outfit wasn’t strange or extraordinarily scandalous. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

But at the time, I was reading an historical romance novel. Those of us who enjoy Regency or Victorian era settings have read many times that even the sight of an ankle (the horror!) could be titillating or scandalous, and a man and a woman touching bare hands outside of marriage was just not done in polite society. And here I was, sitting cross-legged, my legs totally bare. I could practically hear all of my favorite dowagers and Society matriarchs calling for salts and fanning themselves.

Once I was discussing with some friends an assignment done in class. People were supposed to draw how they would live their lives if there were absolutely no societal restrictions. No judging, no repercussions. One of my friends said, “I’d live my life exactly the same. I’d just wear Jane Austen-style clothing.”

This is something I could get behind. There’s something romantic about those types of dresses, and something sexy about covering up and hinting at what’s underneath it all. We’ve all read those scenes where the hero has to catch his breath when he gets a glimpse of the outline of the heroine’s legs as the wind blows her skirt against her, or the racing pulse at his first skin-to-skin contact as he slowly strips off her glove. Let’s face it. It’s kind of hot.

Sometimes I think modern dress can give a bit too much away. I’m a big fan of subtlety and mystery. Sometimes the most intimate scenes are of a kiss on the hand, and the sexiest outfits aren’t the ones that show the most skin.

Unfortunately, I can’t go around dressing like my favorite historical romance heroines. I’m just not that much of a non-conformist. But, if like that hypothetical assignment proposed, if I could do whatever I wanted and not have to face societal judgments, I just might break out a Regency gown sometimes.

– Jane Granville

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16 Responses to The Historical Dress Fantasy

  1. msaggie says:

    I agree with Jane that I wouldn’t go round dressed in Regency or Victorian costume. We live in a very “free” society as regards to dress in the West – and most women dress for either comfort or conform to expectations in the job-market (e.g. power-dressing for the corporate woman) or society (one wouldn’t wear a bikini to a synagogue or church or mosque). And yes, too much skin exposure makes you jaded – I think of some of the tribal peoples (e.g. in the Amazon, New Guinea or Borneo) – where women traditionally are bare-breasted and wear a skirt only. This kind of traditional dress is only suitable in tropical countries where there is no need to cover up because it does not get that cold and there are no “seasons”. The problem with being bare-breasted all the time and never wearing a bra is that your breasts are sagging by the time you are 30. But these culturally these women don’t seem to care and their men wouldn’t find bare-breasted women particularly titillating I imagine, as everyone is bare-breasted.

    And of course, today we do have societies where women have restricted dress-codes – but I have discussed this with Arab colleagues, and these women are “happy” with covering up as that is their culture and reflects their modesty. And yet, we have recently just seen France pass a law that bans the veil – I think the key issues in our dress are culture and choice. And yes, we are wearing a lot less than people 200 years ago in western society, but we now have greater choice and can really show our ankles and cleavage off if we wanted to!

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  3. Ingrid says:

    Love the illustration! But it doesn’t really support your point. The early years of the 19th century were a time when women wore very little clothes, compared to the periods that went before and would follow. We have all seen pictures of the Merveilleuses in their revealing dresses (e.g. Mme Recamier, who could have given modern girls a run for their money. Their excesses of course dated from the late 18th century, and most women will have worn more underwear, including comfortable stays, but that is nothing compared to the things their mothers and daughters had to wear to achieve a fashionable silhouette. And those muslin dresses were really sheer, many of them low-cut and with tiny puff sleeves. Ball dresses would often skim the ankles for ease of movement, especially in the 1810′s when trains were out.

  4. Laura says:

    I am so very happy to wear few clothes.
    Never would I want to wear what passed for summer dresses in the 19th century.
    I was in Dubai for a short stay about 10 years ago. Women there go out in the heat (110 + degrees) wearing a black chador. How they manage I don’t know.
    While I was there, they gave us a tunic (made more or less like a chador, but without the veil) to wear to a sort of costume party.
    Let me tell you that navigating a moderm mall with that kind of dress in dangerous. If you’re not VERY careful, the hem gets into the escalator. I won’t even mention how clean (!!!) the hem was after a couple of hours of sweeping the floors.
    MHO: long dresses might look nice, but they are NOT made for easy living

  5. bungluna says:

    I’m in the nay camp. I wouldn’t want to go back to period where I have to wear long skits and tons of layers under my clothes. As for skin, every period manages to have some provocative styles slip through all the fabric.

  6. Kit says:

    I definitely would love to go back to the days of covering up, especially Regency period. Maybe not so much Victorian era with the high collars and long sleeves. But I for sure get tired of seeing girls walking around with their buttcheeks hanging out of their short-shorts and tank-tops and flip-flops being standard dress… Especially when a lot of these girls are a little young to be displaying so much skin. Eh, maybe I’m old fashioned, but hey.

  7. Virginia DeMarce says:

    In any time period, there’s a difference between fashion and everyday clothing. Genre paintings from the 16th through the 18th century indicate that women who worked, whether on farms or in the cities, wore their skirts at a mid-calf length. The 18th century illustrations of ordinary people indicate much narrower panniers than appear in the fashion illustrations.

    Travelers’ reports from the American frontier during what was the “Regency” era in England indicate that a woman could make a dress out of two yards of fabric — and that would be narrow weave, not the modern 60 inches wide.

    I wore short-shorts and bare-midriff halter tops in the 1950s, so I really think I’m in no position to complain when my granddaughters do the same.

  8. Julie says:

    I’ve always had a fantasy of being able to wear historical dresses, even if just for a day. But then again, that may just be me romanticizing the past- they were probably uncomfortable and hot!

  9. Virginia DeMarce says:

    Re-enactors do wear historical dresses. My first d-i-l and her mother are in DUV and wear Civil War costumes; a good friend has been doing a kitchen maid at Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria for over 30 years. Since all three of them are re-enacting ordinary people (two farm women; one urban servant), their clothing reflects the practical wear of the time.

    The Revolutionary clothing is really more practical — the skirts are above ankle length and the sleeves come to just below the elbow with a low-cut bodice for which the neckline could be filled in with a kerchief in cooler weather — since it’s pretty much made up of separates that the wearer can mix and match.

    By the Victorian era, even rural women were stuck with the excessively full skirts and high necklines. OTOH, by then comparatively inexpensive machine-woven cotton fabric was readily available, so the dresses themselves were cooler.

  10. Nana says:

    I hope that everybody who’s wishing for historical dress is also remembering to wish for the household of servants to clean, store, air, and iron the dress, and also to help you put the dress on in the morning. Especially if you want something Victorian, because rows of back buttons ain’t gonna hook themselves.

  11. When I was about five, obsessed with fairy tales and “the olden days” (aka history) I remember thinking how great it would be if I could wear long dresses every day. Nothing about societal roles or the like – I liked, and like, dresses. Now as an adult, I pretty much do. Not historical garb, though I do have some historical re-creation patterns that I do plan to incorporate into everyday wear (but then again, this comes from someone who once got a prize for wearing a creative Halloween costume when I wasn’t.) Broomstick skirts, maxidresses and the like suit me fine.

    I do have friends who have been or currently are reenactors or interpreters, and the key there is to think of the historical garb not as a costume, but as clothing.

  12. bavarian says:

    I just recalled reading a novel written about 1870. In this book was a character, a “lady”, who wanted to seem modest and simple in her clothing to ensnare the hero of the book. So she wore a “plain” cotton dress albeit with many ruffles at the seem and around the neckline. It was mentioned that her maid had to spend many hours ironing to achieve the fresh look of the garment.
    I think we can’t truly imagine how crumpled an full of wrinkels all the clothings have been. And how difficult the ironing at the time was! Today all the fabrics are chemically treated that they don’t get so easiliy crumpled. Think of the linen shirts or skirts which were so fashionable a few years ago!
    And no, I wouldn’t like to wear the clothes of a hundred and more years ago. The stays alone with all the whalebones give me a shudder. All of these clothes are very nice to look at but not to wear!

  13. Pat says:

    As a generously sized woman, I’d love to go back to the Empire style dresses that gathered under the breasts. I could provide enough decolletage for everyone in the room, and I’d happily share. I’m sure my skirts would be a lot fuller than others, and therefore airy in even the hottest days. Of course, if I lived in England, I’d only have to put up with an occasional warm day as opposed to here in Sacramento where upper 90s and low 100s aren’t uncommon during the summer.

  14. Laine says:

    I have learned to carry my skirt downstairs when I go out early. Navigating downstairs with a skirt that hangs berween knees and ankles is hard enough when you’re not fully alert. Just image trying it in a floor length skirt while carrying an armload. I’d have broken my neck long ago.

    I believe many Indian women still die each year from their dresses being set alight while they are cooking with an open flame.

    I hate my behind in jeans and there are a LOT of people I see on the streets who should think twice about tights, short skirts etc. But I think safety is the number one consideration for me.

  15. Melanie says:

    I actually know some women who dress in romantic, old-fashioned styles due to their religious beliefs. They always wear skirts or dresses below the knee or longer, sleeves no shorter than 3/4, necklines no lower than collarbone. They wear slips, camisoles, chemises with these clothing. A lot of their dresses are updated, wearable versions of vintage styles-lovely straight skirted styles from the 1900-teens, updated Regency and Edwardian styles, etc. They made me realise that it can beautifully done in a real life context, given enough motivation-theirs being a desire to abide by their religious principles while still appearing pleasing to the eye, feminine, and being able to function in the 21st century. They seem to have found the perfect

  16. Alex says:

    I like my current clothes, but I’m a jeans and t-shirt girl, so even in summer I rarely wear shorts unless it’s boiling hot.

    But sometimes when I watch those Regency or Victorian movies and mini-series I wish I would wear some of those dresses, there is something very romantic about them.

    Totally agree with you about how those first contacts were hot, I remember reading Jane Eyre for the first time, how my heart was pounding I was so excited when Edward and Jane first kiss.

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