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.

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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.

Museum Exhibitions to Keep You Busy on a Cold Day

White leather boot c. 1845

When the cold weather hits, I’m always looking for interesting things to do indoors. Here are a few museum exhibitions that caught my eye. If only I had my own private plane, I would lace up my boots and visit each one.

IN GREAT BRITAIN:

Wedding Dresses, 1775-2014 at the V&A

Now through March 15, 2015, visit the V&A in London to see romantic and iconic wedding dresses.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/wedding-dress-1775-2014/

The Lost Art of Writing also at the V&A

For anyone who still enjoys putting pen to paper, this is for you. This small display explores some of the objects used in writing, from a medieval penner to an ingenious 18th century globe inkstand. This exhibition runs through April 19, 2015.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/whatson/event/2885/the-lost-art-of-writing-4256/

Bonaparte and the British at The British Museum

This exhibition at The British Museum in London, focuses on the printed propaganda that either reviled or glorified Napoleon Bonaparte, on both sides of the English Channel. It explores how his formidable career coincided with the peak of political satire as an art form.

http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/bonaparte_and_the_british.aspx

Georgians – Dress for Polite Society at The Fashion Museum

The Fashion Museum in Bath holds a world-class collection of contemporary and historic dresses. Now through January 1, 2016, you can see over 30 original 18th century outfits and ensembles drawn from the museum’s collection.

http://www.fashionmuseum.co.uk/events/georgians

Waterloo Life and Times at The Fan Museum

2015 marks the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo and The Fan Museum in Greenwich, London has an exhibition that includes fans printed with portraits of heroic figures like Nelson and Wellington. The exhibition runs through May 10, 2015.

http://www.thefanmuseum.org.uk/exhibitions/waterloo-life-and-times

IN THE UNITED STATES:

Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850 at the Portsmouth Athenaeum

This is a great exhibition for anyone with a fondness for footwear. The Portsmouth Athenaeum in Portsmouth, N.H. is presenting an exhibition on the process of how shoes were made, sold, and worn in New England. Some beautiful shoes are included in this exhibition. It runs through June 5, 2015.

http://portsmouthathenaeum.org/exhibits.html

Downton Abbey Comes to the Biltmore Estate

If you love Downton Abbey, you’ll love this exhibition. The curators at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. have installed 47 costumes from the television series throughout the rooms of the house. As you wander the halls, you will see both the upstairs and the downstairs portions of life from Downton Abbey. The exhibition runs through May 25, 2015.

http://www.biltmore.com/media/newsarticle/downton-abbey-costumes-at-biltmore

An Intimate History of the Silhouette at the Bard Graduate Center

This exhibition examines the extraordinary ways in which women and men have shaped their bodies into distinctive silhouettes in the name of Fashion. The Bard Graduate Center is located in New York City. This exhibition runs from April 3 through July 26, 2015.

http://www.bgc.bard.edu/gallery/gallery-at-bgc/fashioning-the-body.html

Masterpieces of American Furniture 1700-1830 at the National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. has one of the largest and most refined collections of early American furniture. This exhibition is now part of their permanent collection.

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/permanent/kaufman_furniture.html

UPCOMING:

Luminous Worlds: British Works on Paper, 1770-1870 at Legion of Honor

The Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco will present an exhibition that reflects the 18th century vogue of portraiture and caricature, and the rise of landscape painting. This exhibition will run from July 18, 2015 through November 22, 2015.

http://legionofhonor.famsf.org/exhibitions/luminous-worlds-british-works-paper-1770-1870

If there are other exhibitions you are excited about seeing, please let me know. And if you are lucky enough to catch any of these exhibitions, I’d love to hear about it.

Note: Thank you to Dr. Kimberly Alexander, who is co-curator of Portsmouth Athenaeum’s shoe exhibition, for providing me with the photograph of the white leather boot I used in this post. In case you’re wondering, it’s c.1845. Kimberly writes a wonderful blog entitled Silk Damask, where she discusses historical costumes. Here is the link to her blog: http://silkdamask.blogspot.com/