A Fashionable Way to Deal With the Heat in the Regency Era: Sleeveless Gowns

There are times you go to research one bit of information and then you get sidetracked by something else. This blog post is a snapshot of an afternoon when I should have been researching the location of my next book but instead, became obsessed with early 19th century dresses.

While browsing Pinterest, I came across this beautiful summer weight gown that’s part of the historical clothing collection at the Museo del Traje in Madrid. I was struck by the very modern look to it and realized that it had to do with the sleeves…or the absence of them. I couldn’t recall ever seeing a woman with bare arms in any of the portraits or fashion plates I’ve looked at over the years. Was this dress worn with something over or under it in order to cover a woman’s arms? Was it proper to bare your entire arm? Down the research rabbit hole I went, abandoning my original research question, to pursue a new one. I decided to dig a bit deeper and search for more examples of these dresses. I came up with a few interesting conclusions.

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Even though I would wear this gown today without anything under it, all the gowns I could recall that were sleeveless had been shown to be worn with a long or short sleeved chemise under it. The gown in the portrait below is a perfect example. It was painted in 1813 of The Hon. Mrs. Thomas Hope by renowned English portrait artist, Henry Bone (1755-1834) who is known for his work on enamel. Notice how the small sleeves peek out from the dress. I had also seen this look on numerous fashion plates of the day.

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As I continued to search for examples of sleeveless gowns, I found this gorgeous black number. The embroidery is exquisite and I love the detail of the cut on the back! Obviously from the sheerness of the bust and the practice of the day, a chemise and stays underneath would have been essential. But did the chemise have sleeves? I think it would have looked far better if it didn’t. But I still had yet to find evidence that it was acceptable to wear a gown like that.

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When I searched the Museo del Traje, I found another option a woman had while wearing a sleeveless gown. They show a sleeveless dress paired with a matching spencer.

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I also found this sheer cotton embroidered white empire bodice from 1805 that was part of the Tasha Tudor Historic Costume Collection. It would be perfect to pair it with a sleeveless gown in hot weather.

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My search for sleeveless gowns also uncovered this fashion plate of a blue dress from 1798 that appeared in the Costume Parisian. This sleeveless gown was worn with a sheer shawl. Another way to combat the heat while possibly remaining fashionably proper.

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And, then there was this pink shawl-like Spencer from 1797.

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I was beginning to believe it was not proper for early 19th century ladies to bare their arms, until I saw this portrait from The Princely Collection in Vaduz-Vienna and knew I had my answer. This portrait of two young women said to be of the Baroness Picnon and Mme. de Fourcroy by Riesener Henri-Francois (1734-1806) depicts a seated woman in a white sleeveless gown, holding a green shawl while exposing her bare arm.

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And, then I discovered this adorable fashion print that shows a sleeveless chemise under a sleeveless dress that was printed in the Costume Parisian!

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So I would say in very warm weather, it would have been acceptable for women to wear sleeveless dresses. And, at a time when there was no air conditioning, I’m sure it gave a bit of relief.

*******

One Week to Wed - Laurie BensonMy book ONE WEEK TO WED, takes place over the course of the summer of 1819 and I could very easily see my heroine wearing gowns like these. And to be honest, I would love to wear them, as well.

ONE WEEK TO WED is the story of widowed Lady Charlotte Gregory who believes you can’t fall in love twice in a lifetime. But that belief is tested when she meets the dangerous Lord Andrew Pearce and he brings her respectable, quiet world back to life. One night, they find themselves alone and give in to their desires only to find their secret passion leads to shock, scandal…and a sudden marriage of convenience.

It is the first book in The Sommersby Brides trilogy and you can pick it up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, iBooks, and kobo.

The Secret Behind the 18th Century Hot Chocolate Pot

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“The Early Breakfast” by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1753. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve read my books, you know that most of my heroines prefer to drink chocolate the first thing in the morning instead of tea. Drinking chocolate was introduced to Europe by the Spanish and by the late seventeenth century it was a popular morning beverage. It was served warm, like it is today, however it was not as sweet as the hot chocolate we’re accustomed to. The painting above shows a servant girl presenting a cup of chocolate and a glass of water to a young French noblewoman as part of her breakfast.

One of my favorite parts of writing historical fiction is picturing how things looked two hundred years ago. Going antique hunting and visiting museums plays a big part in helping me step back in time. Since there were special pots designed for fixing hot chocolate, I thought I’d give you a glimpse at what they looked like.

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Chocolate pot made by Joseph-Theodore Van Cauwenbergh. 1774. Photo courtesy of Walters Art Museum and Wikimedia Commons.

A chocolate pot is taller than a tea pot and looks similar to a coffee pot. You can tell the difference between a coffee pot and a chocolate pot by the finial. A chocolate pot’s finial is either removable or it slides to the side. Chocolate needed to be stirred often in order to prevent it from settling to the bottom of the pot. This removable finial would allow you to stir the chocolate with a long swizzle stick without having to open the lid which would cause the heat to escape.

Some chocolate pots had straight handles, like the one in the photo above. Chocolate was an expensive commodity in the 17th and 18th centuries and associated with expensive things, so the pots were either made of silver or porcelain. You can usually tell something about the location of where the pot was made by what it was made out of. In Austria and Germany, the courts favored porcelain pots. In France the pots were either made of porcelain or silver. The American colonists began their love affair with drinking chocolate in the mid 17th century when England acquired Jamaica in 1655, an area where chocolate was grown. Chocolate pots weren’t produced in the colonies though, and pots made overseas were sold in the colonies at a very high price.

The chocolate pot above was made out of silver and amaranth wood by Joseph-Theodore Van Cauwenbergh in 1774 in Paris, France. The records at the Walters Art Museum show that this pot was owned by John Alfonse Walter who lived in Haiti. John and his wife Susan brought this pot with them when they moved from Haiti to Baltimore, Maryland sometime after 1793.

In 1828, Coenraad Johannes Van Houton invented the cocoa press, which removed the fat from cacao beans and turned the beans into cocoa powder, the basis for most hot chocolate produced today. Chocolate prices fell, and soon chocolate became a luxury most people could afford. With the development of cocoa powder the design of the chocolate pot changed. Chocolate powder eliminated the need for constant stirring of the pot, therefore pots made after 1828 have their finials permanently affixed to the lid of the pot.

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This mid-18th century enamel and glazed porcelain chocolate pot was made by the Meissen Porcelain Factory in Germany. Photo courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Drinking chocolate was so popular that not only was it depicted in paintings, but also in decorative items like this lovely Meissen porcelain couple created by Johann Joachim Kandler in 1775 that are sharing a cup of chocolate.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

In An Unexpected Countess my heroine, Sarah, enjoys a cup of chocolate with her breakfast.

Nominated for Harlequin's 2017 Hero of the Year!-3

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

Available in print and ebook. Click on the links below to pick up a copy of this Regency romance today.

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iBooks
Kobo

 

A Regency Era Christmas Parlor Game You Might NOT Want to Try at Home

Discovering the Christmas traditions of the early 19th century is one of the fun things about writing a Regency Christmas story. While I was looking into ways families would entertain themselves on Christmas Eve, I discovered one game that took me by surprise. It’s called Snapdragon and was a winter parlor game played around Christmas.

Snapdragon was played between the 16th and 19th centuries, first in England and eventually in the United States, as well. In Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755, Snapdragon is described as “a play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. This was not a game for the faint of heart and it took a brave person to participate.

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Christmas celebration with people playing Snapdragon in the lower right corner. Engraving by T. Hollis after R.W. Buss, curtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

To play Snapdragon, you fill a large shallow bowl with brandy and place it in the middle of a table. Then you toss in raisins and light the brandy on fire. The effect is similar to burning brandy over a Christmas pudding. The brandy does not burn at a high enough temperature to turn the raisins to ash, and they almost appear as small wicks. The raisins were called snapdragons, giving the game its name.

The object of Snapdragon is to snatch a raisin out of the flaming bowl and pop it into your mouth. Back then, all the candles in the room would be snuffed out, so you could easily see the blue flame burning in the bowl. If raisins weren’t available, you could use almonds, currants, figs, grapes, or plums. It was believed that the brave soul who took the most snapdragons out of the burning brandy would meet their true love within a year. What really surprised me was that in almost all of the illustrations I found of the game, small children were taking part. Just looking at the illustration below, with the little boy reaching into the bowl, makes me nervous that his sleeve is going to catch on fire.

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Snapdragon by Charles Keene, 1858. This illustration appeared in the Illustrated London News.

The game of Snapdragon is mentioned in Old Christmas by Washington Irving, and Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. In my book An Unexpected Countess, both my hero and heroine are very daring people and have a highly competitive relationship. I could just picture Hart and Sarah challenging each other to a game of Snapdragon.

Nominated for Harlequin's 2017 Hero of the Year!-3

 

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

Available in print and ebook. Click on the links below to pick up a copy of this Regency romance today.

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iBooks
Kobo

 

 

The Evolution of Men’s Fashion in the 18th Century

When I was writing An Uncommon Duke, I had fun playing with a character quirk of my hero, Gabriel Pearce the Duke of Winterbourne. Gabriel heads up an undercover group of operatives that protect King George and the Prince Regent. His work is dangerous and much of what occurs protecting the crown is out of his control. One of the things he can control is his wardrobe and because of that, Gabriel is a bit obsessed with his clothes. Someone referred to him as the Regency version of a sharp dressed man. Researching men’s fashion in the Regency era was fun and I spent many hours on Pinterest and museum sites looking for inspiration for Gabriel’s wardrobe.

Recently I had the opportunity to see the fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled Masterwork: Unpacking Fashion. I knew I’d enjoy taking a look back at 300 years of fashion history and I’d learn some new things. I was disappointed to find it did not include men’s fashion from the Regency era, however it did include 18th century men’s fashion and some of those styles did carry over into the Regency era. The collection highlighted garments from France and Great Britian reflecting the roles these nations played as centers of textile production and as styles leaders in Europe and America. Fashions from the 18th century are from an era shaped by political and industrial revolutions as well as expanding global trade. The examples given in this exhibition reflected that.

So sit back and enjoy this peek at what fashionable men wore in the 18th century.

Banyan

Beginning in the 18th century, British gentlemen wore loose, informal gowns in the privacy of their homes as a comfortable alternative to the stiff and physically restrictive suits they wore in public. These gowns were made of imported materials from the European East India companies and went by various names such nightgowns, morning gowns, India gowns, and banyans. This banyan is made of Chinese silk that was quilted for warmth and has a fitted cut which became popular in the mid-18th century. The fitted banyan combined Persian, Turkish, and Indian influences but followed the silhouette of contemporary European coats, making them well suited to wear informally when receiving guests at home. The banyan was an essential garment for fashionable men and suggested sophisticated, worldly masculinity. This banyan was made in England in 1760-1770, and is made of blue diamond-quilted silk satin.

A Gentleman’s Suit

The suit above was made of red wool-silk poplin in England between 1770 and 1780. It is an example of the relative simplicity in appearance of 18th century English menswear, which influenced fashionable men’s style throughout Europe in the latter half of the century. The plain style was an alternative to the elaborately embroidered and ornately patterned men’s wear in France. This reserved style of dress became linked with broader political values and greater personal liberty that French philosophers, such as Voltaire, associated with England. Just like the banyan above, this garment has a slim silhouette which was fashionable in the 1770s. English tailors were expert in making these tailcoats appear simple, while actually doing an excellent job emphasizing a man’s physique. The fine details of this coat include a gracefully curved front, narrow sleeves, and side seams that arch toward the center of the back, creating the impression of a tapered waistline. While the suit appears simple, the color shows a lingering taste for bold color.

The tailcoat above is French and was made in the 1790s from dark brown, gray, and blue warp-printed plain weave silk with green ombré silk satin stripes. With its high turned down collar, narrow back and wide lapels, it’s typical of the exaggerated silhouette that was fashionable in post-revolutionary France. The museum curators placed it alongside the redingote (the dress) to show the harmony between men’s and women’s fashions during this period that extended to fabric as well as cut. For men, stripes were a decorative substitute for the ornate embroidery of earlier suits. It was interesting to find out that in centuries previous to the 18th, stripes had been associated with the clothing of socially marginalized groups. I think it’s worth noting that even though embroidered suits went out of fashion, embroidery on waistcoats was still popular.

 

The exhibition also included a suit of a French Incroyable (Incredible) that made me smile. The Incroyables were rakish men who lived in France following the French Revolution. They stood out among fashionable men of the time due to their tightly fitted clothing which took on extreme proportions. This coat was made in France of red wool broadcloth between 1787 and 1792, and predates the most exaggerated styles embraced by the Incryoyables in the late 1790s. As the decade progressed, the cut of their clothing became even tighter than this. The high, turned-down collar, narrow sleeves, and sharply curved coat front of this coat still manages to create the impression of an elongated figure. I think the high cut of the top of the waistcoat also helps.

The banyan featured in this exhibition is close to the one I put Gabriel in in An Uncommon Duke. It seems to be the perfect thing for a sharp dressed man to wear while lounging in the doorway of his wife’s bedchamber.

 

The Connection Between a Favorite Drink of Regency Era Gentlemen and the Great Comet of 1811.

I’m writing the third book in my Secrets of the Ton trilogy and my hero, the Earl of Hartwick, is a man who appreciates fine brandy. I love creating personal details about my characters and wanted to include the name of Hart’s favorite brandy in my story. When I started my research, I thought I’d simply get the name of a notable brandy from 1819. What I discovered, gave me insight into the cognac I drink today and I thought you might find it interesting as well.

First let me explain the difference between the terms brandy and cognac. Brandy is made by distilling wine and aging it in barrels. Cognac is brandy which comes from the Cognac region in France.

During the Regency era, the finest brandy was produced during 1811 in France. The interesting thing is, still to this day, that vintage is considered to be one of the greatest in history. And the reason behind it is tied to a comet.

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The Great Comet of 1811, as drawn by William Henry Smith. Curtesy of Wikimedia.

In March of 1811, the Flaugergues comet began its trek across the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. Although the comet was visible to astronomers for 17 months, during September and October of  that year, it was visible to the naked eye. Accounts of the time describe the comet as illuminating the night sky and at one point it exceeded the diameter of the sun.

It’s believed the presence of the comet contributed to optimal growing conditions, particularly in France. The long hot summer and warm dry autumn of that year led to an abundant harvest of perfectly ripe grapes. People soon realized that the cognac, wine, and champagne of this vintage were exceptional. Even today, you can find bottles of cognac in your local liquor store that have stars on the labels. This isn’t a ranking. The stars are there as a tribute to the 1811 vintage, known as “The Comet Vintage”.

If you’re familiar with Courvoisier cognac, you’re probably aware it’s known as “Le Cognac de Napoleon”. According to the company’s website, not long after they were founded in 1809, the reputation of their cognac grew quickly among brandy connoisseurs and Napoleon visited their warehouse in Bercy to try it. He started giving a ration of cognac to his artillery companies to lift their morale during the Napoleonic Wars. When he was exiled to St. Helena, legend has it that he chose several casks of Courvoisier cognac to take with him as one of the luxury items he was granted by the British. The British officers on board the HMS Northumberland, who were tasked with transporting Napoleon, appreciated the cognac their prisoner shared with them and referred to it as “the brandy of Napoleon”.

And in case you’re curious which brandy the Earl of Hartwick favors in my upcoming book An Unexpected Countess, it’s an 1811 Croizet B. Léon cognac, which currently is selling for €25,000 for one bottle.

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References:

http://courvoisier.com/us/history

http://www.forbes.com/sites/sethporges/2013/10/10/6-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-cognac/#3b2df53b7bf5

http://www.oldliquors.com/cognac-1811-croizet-b-léon-4837

The Daily Cognac: 1811 The Comet Vintage

 

London’s Albany: An Exclusive Address for the Regency Era Bachelor

One of my favorite parts in developing a character is trying to determine where they live. I’m currently writing An Unexpected Countess and my hero, the Earl of Hartwick, would rather chew glass than live under the same roof as his father. After looking at a number of options, I decided Hart would live in one of London’s most exclusive addresses during the Regency era for a fashionable bachelor, an apartment-type building known as Albany. One of the best things about this building is that it has survived and continues to be one of London’s most exclusive residences. It’s located on Piccadilly next to the Burlington Arcade and is set back from the street by a private courtyard. For over two hundred years a sense of privacy has been valued here. Today, I’d like to tell you a little bit about it.

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Greenwood’s Map of London, 1827

Albany was originally designed by Sir William Chambers in 1774 as a residence for the first Lord Melbourne and his wife. In 1791 the Duke of York and Albany proposed a house swap to Lord Melbourne and an agreement was reached. The Duke, who was the second son of George III, and his wife lived there until 1803, when compounding debt forced him to sell the house to a young developer named Alexander Copland for £37,000.

Copland recognized the need for small London residences for fashionable gentlemen who didn’t wish to live alone in large townhouses and wanted to be close to the clubs and shops of St. James, as well as the Houses of Parliament. He worked with the architect Henry Holland to convert the mansion into a subscription house with a small garden behind it. Holland added two parallel buildings to the mansion and divided the entire structure into 69 apartments (or sets as Albany residents refer to them). The sets in the attached buildings are accessed from a 100ft. passageway known as the Rope Walk.

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Drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd, c. 1830, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The sets were marketed exclusively to wealthy, well-connected gentlemen who were either bachelors or men who did not live with their wives. Some of the notable residents in the early nineteenth century include Matthew “Monk” Lewis, Lord Byron, and George Canning. Residents had an option to lease or buy a set. In 1814 Lord Byron took a seven-year lease at £110 per annum, with the option of purchasing the set for £1900 within one year.

Occupants were, and still are, subject to certain rules and regulations established by a group of Trustees who are elected from among the residents. Some of the original rules stipulated that residents could not alter any part of the building structure and owners could not rent or sell chambers without the consent of the Trustees. And it was understood that no women or children were permitted on the premises, although there is a rumor that Byron’s lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, managed to enter this forbidden land dressed as a page-boy. It wasn’t until the 1880s that the ban on women was finally lifted and beginning in the twentieth century women were permitted to reside there.

In the early nineteenth century a standard set contained an entrance hall, two main rooms in the front of the unit, and two or three smaller rooms in the back. Each set came with a wine and coal cellar in the basement and accommodations for a servant on the upper floor. In 1818 gaslights were installed in the building, and in June of 1820 the Trustees agreed that the parish should light the entrance from Piccadilly, the courtyard and the portico of the mansion.

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London’s Albany. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Regency history buffs might find it interesting to discover that in 1804 Henry Angelo’s fencing school was located in Albany’s courtyard, and in 1807 the pugilist John Jackson might have used the same apartment. For a short time Jane Austen’s brother Henry, of the banking firm Austen and Maunde, also had his office in the courtyard.

I love that this building has retained its sense of the past and hasn’t changed much in over two hundred years. According to one of its current residents, there is such a sense of decorum that uttering a friendly hello to a neighbor as you pass on the stone stairs or the Rope Walk is frowned upon. For the residents of Albany, a nod or a hat tip to a lady is the appropriate greeting.

References:

British History Online: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols31-2/pt2/pp367-389

Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, Jennifer Kloester. 2010. Print.

New York Times Magazine, London’s Best and Most Secretive Address. November 11, 2013. Print.

Five Links I Love About the Regency Era

Links I Love

This past month, I’ve been consumed with editing one of my books. For a historical romance writer, edits do not just include changes to sentences and the altering/addition of scenes. Frequently, they also include historical research to flush out a scene or ensure what you’re writing is accurate to the time period. With that in mind, I thought I’d share five links that I found helpful in my research this past month. I hope you find them as interesting as I do.

  1. Have you every wondered what the inside of a Georgian era townhouse looked like? Jane Austen’s World explains the layout of a typical London townhouse that can be found in Mayfair. https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2009/06/03/characteristics-of-the-georgian-town-house/
  2. If you were staying in London during the Season and did not own a townhouse, you could lease one. Susanna Ives explains how one leased a house in London during the 18th century. http://susannaives.com/wordpress/2012/02/how-to-lease-a-home-in-18th-century-london/
  3. For those sunny days walking around Hyde Park or attending a garden party, a lady might choose to take her parasol along. But what color would it be? What would it look like? Geri Walton, who writes the fabulous History of the 18th & 19th Centuries blog, has all the info. http://18thcand19thc.blogspot.com/2014/11/parasol-fashions.html
  4. When I needed information about Parliament during the Regency era, I turned to Cheryl Bolen’s always helpful Regency Ramblings blog. https://cherylsregencyramblings.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/parliament-in-regency-england/
  5. And finally, there are times when I’m writing that I’ll use a common expression. I always try my best to search them out and check to see if they were used when my stories take place. This week, I was so happy to find out that you could indeed call someone a dog during the Regency era! http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/Why-being-called-a-dog-is-a-royal-insult/articleshow/4026729.cms
Portrait of the 3rd Earl of Grantham by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1816 from the Getty Museum

Portrait of the 3rdBaron Grantham by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1816 from the Getty Museum

I know I said I would share five links with you, but writers need inspiration, and this was one of mine this month. Consider him a bonus.