The Wearing of Costume

A cross-post from The Regency Redingote:

Yet again, I have come across another unique and fascinating book while browsing at my local library. A book which I think many authors of Regency novels will find quite informative. This book is about exactly what the title says it is, how to wear the costumes of days gone by. The author’s stated purpose in writing the book was to provide information for actors in movies and plays, and for readers of historical novels, to help them imagine how the characters in the book they are reading would move, based on the constraints of the clothing of the time period in which the story is set. It would seem to me that this book would also be of use to writers of historical novels, as well as to those who enjoy re-enacting historical events.

Some of the more intriguing aspects of the wearing of clothing in England in times past …

The full title of this book is The Wearing of Costume:   The Changing Techniques of Wearing Clothes and How to Move in Them, from Roman Britain to the Second World War. The author, Ruth M. Green, was a well-known English fashion and costume historian. She notes that there were many books on costume, but no information on how to wear them. Actors need to know how to wear those costumes, to move in them, in order to convince an audience they are the character they are playing. Ms. Green remarked that even people with no training in costume or the manner in which historical garments should be worn, would instinctively be able to tell the difference between someone wearing what amounts to "fancy dress" and a serious actor intent on depicting an historical character with "near-documentary" accuracy. Therefore, Green wrote her book to provide actors with some guidance on how to convincingly wear the dress of various periods in English history. She chose to write the book as a long set of directions to the wearer of each garment, as it was her view that people best understood such information in terms of themselves.

Before beginning her discussion of the wearing of costume through the various periods of history, Green opens with a section on basic principles for the garments most commonly worn over the centuries. Here she includes chapters on the management of long skirts, the changing techniques of wearing a cloak, the history of how men wore their shirts, the wearing of shoes and pattens, and a chapter on children’s clothing. She opened her chapter on skirt management:   "The long skirt is a regular hazard for the modern woman. She doesn’t know how to walk in it and is forever lifting it (usually clumsily) so that her hands are never free." But women who were born to the wearing of long skirts did not have such problems. They learned from childhood how to move in long skirts, it was part of their training in deportment. The trick was to take fairly small steps, partly because a long stride could cause your feet to become entangled in your skirt hem, thereby causing you to loose your balance. But worse, a long stride was considered ugly and unladylike until the latter part of the twentieth century. And, when you took these small steps, you would use your foot to push your skirt forward, away from you, as you completed each step. In that way, you would appear to glide, and would never trip on your skirts. It was also very important to maintain good posture at all times, as this would keep the skirt hem even as you moved. During many periods, women had to walk from the knee, as the swaying of hips was considered indecent. Women also learned to move their whole body when they turned, which caused their garments to turn with them, neatly and elegantly. Those women who could master this technique always appeared to have a great sense of style. Green goes on to explain how women handled their skirts in different periods of history, including when they wore farthingales, panniers, crinolines and trains. One of the things which surprised me was to learn that it was acceptable, in fact, preferable, for women to sit with their knees spread wide under their skirts. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that it began to be considered acceptable for women to cross their legs.

In her chapter on men’s shirts, Green reiterated that a man’s shirt was little more than an undergarment until the early twentieth century. No man would ever have appeared in his shirt or even his shirtsleeves, particularly in front of a lady, before that time. The phrase, "in his shirt," meant a man who had not had time to dress, or a man so dead to propriety that he did not wear his coat and waistcoat. Yet, this basic tenet of masculine modesty and decorum is routinely violated in many films with an historical setting, even those based on the books of Jane Austen. In reality, only the collars and cuffs of a man’s shirt were seen when he was properly dressed, particularly during the Regency. The lace which men had worn at their wrists in the eighteenth century had caused them to make grand hand gestures to emphasize the expensive lace, and in some cases, to keep it clean, such as when taking snuff. Those broad gestures had disappeared by the Regency, when men no longer wore lace at their wrists, with the exception of some very old-fashioned, elderly men who would not relinquish the styles of their youth. However, the practice of shooting the cuff had come in by the beginning of the Regency, that is, men had their plain cuffs starched, and wore them so that perhaps an inch or so of the cuff was visible below the hem of their coat sleeve. Green notes that some men had a nervous habit of routinely tugging on their cuffs to ensure they extended beyond their coat sleeves.

This book, as the sub-title states, covers the wearing of clothing in England from Roman times. Green does not include a chapter specifically on the Regency, as changes in fashion were not that abrupt. Those seeking information on how men and women wore their clothes during that period will want to read both Chapter 10 — Late Eighteenth Century and Early Nineteenth Century, and Chapter 11 — The Nineteenth Century and Since. The information in these two chapters overlaps the period of the Regency. Those who want to understand the wearing of clothing in the broader Georgian era will also want to read Chapter 9 — The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, as well as Chapter 10, in order to comprehend how clothing was worn throughout the century. The information in all three chapters will enable an author to interpret the stance, mannerisms and movements of men or women on the cutting edge of fashion, as well as those who are more conservative or downright old-fashioned, and use those details to help them embellish the various characters in any of their stories set in the so-called "Long Regency."

Green points out that from at least the Middle Ages, women’s clothing was always much more complicated and restrictive than men’s clothing of the same period. Until the late eighteenth century, when the clothing styles were based on the garments of classical Greece. By the mid-eighteenth century, women were encumbered not only with panniers, but with corsets, sometimes made of steel, which essentially caged their upper body from their bodice to their waist. For that reason, most women held their arms out from their bodies, resting their hands on the tops of their pannier-supported skirts. This position eased the pressure of their corsets, but also had the effect of causing their arms to bend out at the elbow. This position of the arms then created an open space on either side of the waist, emphasizing its smallness in an age when a small waist was fashionable. By the end of the century, when women were wearing high-waisted gowns with loose flowing skirts, and much shorter and less rigidly restricting corsets, these movements had disappeared. By the Regency, women tended to allow their arms to hang down at their sides, emphasizing the long, willowy figure they made in their simple classically-inspired gowns. If they did cross their arms, they made a point to do it just beneath their bodice, at the line of the high waist so as not to spoil the line of their skirts. But despite their less restrictive gowns, the young ladies of the aristocracy and the gentry, from the late eighteenth century right through the Regency, were thoroughly schooled in deportment so that their posture was graceful and erect. Many were actually strapped to rigid backboards several hours a day to ensure perfect posture. As noted above, they also learned how to walk gracefully in long skirts, as well as when and how to take some part of their skirt into their hand to climb a flight of stairs or enter a carriage. This was also the first time women were not considered indecent displaying bare arms in public, if only in the evenings. Green notes that a number of women chose to learn to play the harp, rather than the piano, as it gave them greater opportunity to show off their charms.

Though aristocratic males of the Regency did not receive training in deportment, nearly all of them had fencing lessons in their youth. This training had the effect not only of inculcating good posture and balance, but in most men, it also instilled an elegant and graceful way of moving. In addition, fencing lessons gave the majority of men a well-shaped leg, which was considered an important male attribute. Men’s legs were constantly on display in the fashionable skin-tight pantaloons of the time, visible from nearly every angle due to the narrow swallow-tail coats of that same period. Erect posture was very important to men of the Regency, if they wished to wear their coats without the irritation or pain of chaffing. Coat collars were quite high in the back, coming up to their ears. The only way a man could wear one comfortably was to keep his spine straight so that the coat collar did not rub against the back of his neck. Regency men also had to expand their upper chests a bit, partly to draw attention to their intricately-tied cravats, but also to avoid crushing those same cravats by allowing their head to drop forward so that their chins would crumple their starched and tied creations. The younger men of the Regency did not wear ruffles or lace at their wrists so they did not make the grand hand movements their fathers and grandfathers had, to emphasize their lace and keep it clean. Regency men had plain white starched cuffs, which extended an inch or so beyond the sleeve of their coat. This more restrained fashion led to more restrained hand movements. But an older, conservative man might still make those broader hand movements in the Regency, just as he had as a young man.

Green addresses the accessories used by both men and women, including how and where they used them. This book was written in 1966, and the edition I read was published in 1995, with no apparent revisions. Perhaps this, from the final chapter, captures the spirit of the times in which the book was written:   "At this time [1875], and officially still today, the ‘marks of a lady’ are her gloves, handkerchief and shoes." That was indeed true of the mid-1960s, though few women today adhere to such notions of propriety in their dress. But certainly in the Regency, gloves were an important fashion accessory for both men and women. Gloves were worn at nearly all Regency social events by both men and women, particularly any which involved dancing. It was a serious violation of etiquette for a man and woman to dance together without both wearing gloves. Such a serious faux pas would have you expelled from Almack’s on the spot!

During the Regency, only young unmarried women did not wear caps. And women wore their bonnets over their caps, not in place of them. There were even strictures regarding the decoration of bonnets. Fashionable women of good social position could embellish their bonnets with ribbons, feathers, flowers or anything else they liked. But servants were expected to wear plain, undecorated bonnets and risked a reprimand, even termination, if they should have the temerity to embellish their own bonnets. I also learned that it was not until the very end of the nineteenth century that parasols and umbrellas were rolled and fastened by a band as they are today. In the Regency, as they were through most of the century, they were collapsed when not in use, but the fabric folds were left free, not furled and bound around the stick.

Fashionable Englishmen carried canes when they were out and about, right up to the Second World War, when the practice finally went out of fashion. Since the wearing of swords had gone out of fashion in the previous century, many Regency men carried canes which concealed a blade. Cane handles could conceal a snuff box, a small spyglass or a tiny viewer though which could be seen an interesting, sometimes pornographic, image, to be shared only with very close friends. When escorting a young lady down the street or through the park, thus having one hand occupied, with his cane in his other hand, a gentleman might use his cane to touch his hat brim in a salute to a passing friend or acquaintance. Men might carry their cane in their hand, or tucked under their arm, either was acceptable during the Regency. Men would typically not carry a cane when they were riding, they would then substitute a riding crop. Canes were not usually carried when attending evening social events, such as balls, musicales or the theatre.

No well-dressed Regency man would venture out of doors without his hat. For daytime wear, most men wore a tall, curly beaver hat with a slightly rolled brim, usually at a jaunty angle. When holding his hat, a man held it by the brim, usually in the same hand in which he held his gloves and cane. For evening wear, men usually wore a bicorne hat, also known as a chapeau-bras. These hats were typically made of silk and could be folded flat when not being worn. There would, of course, have been a number of old-fashioned gentlemen who continued to wear the tricorne hat of the previous century. Men of the lower orders wore whatever type of hat they possessed.

In her preface, Green makes clear that she will primarily focus on the upper classes as she explains the wearing of costume. She does so because the majority of those in the middle and lower classes would be attempting to ape their betters, so they will be aiming for the same style in the wearing of their own clothes. The difference is that they will not achieve the same refined style as those of the highest classes. Green has included numerous line drawings by a talented young lady of her acquaintance in order to illustrate the wearing of costume over the centuries. For the most part, these have been drawn using contemporary paintings and other period sources, but the artist has simplified each drawing in order to focus on the stance and movement of the body, not on the fine details of the clothing. There is no bibliography, but that may be due to the fact that Green has culled all these bits of information from many sources over the course of her career. There is an index, but it is rather cursory. Despite these minor deficits, The Wearing of Costume, at under 200 pages, is a brief and most informative read for those interested not just in the clothing of the Regency, but how men and women wore those garments. Though this book is currently out of print, there are many copies available from numerous online and bricks-and-mortar used bookshops. If you are a Regency author seeking to add authenticity to the way your characters move and wear their clothes, you will be very glad to have a copy of this book in your research library. So, too, will those who enjoy re-enacting Regency events.

The full bibliographic citation for this book is:

Green, Ruth M., The Wearing of Costume:   The Changing Techniques of Wearing Clothes and How to Move in Them, from Roman Britain to the Second World War. New York:   Drama Publishers, 1995.

© 2011 – 2013 Kathryn Kane, Kalligraph
Originally posted at The Regency Redingote
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.

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  1. Hey Kathryn,
    What a lovely, informative article. I adore the idea of the young ladies gliding across the floor and turning their entire bodies to acknowledge someone. Marvelous details.

    Elf Ahearn
    “Regency romance with a Gothic twist.”
    Lord Monroe’s Dark Tower
    A Rogue in Sheep’s Clothing

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the article. I like the idea of young ladies gliding along myself, though I suspect I could not do so, at least not without a lot of practice. 😉

      The book was fascinating, and really made me think about how people moved in their clothes in times past. It also occurred to me that some of those details might be useful in scenes at finishing schools, or when a governess is giving instruction to her young charge while preparing for her debut.


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