Research,  Writing

The Clothes Make the Heroine?

Recently, I played the character of Celia in a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Celia and her cousin Rosalind are both daughters of dukes who, at the beginning of the play, live in luxury in a palace….until Rosalind is banished. Then Celia and Rosalind run away to the Forest of Arden — Celia disguised as a shepherdess, and Rosalind disguised as Celia’s little brother. Due to Celia’s smart thinking, they’ve brought their “jewels and their wealth” along with them, so they take care of sheep the same way Marie Antoinette did, and have a lot of fun along the way.

So, you’re thinking, what does this have to do with writing Regency romances? I’ll get to that in a moment. 🙂

I wore two costumes in this play. In the first picture here (photo credit: Jesse Sheldon), you see me in a very tight, binding, ouch-my-back-and-shoulders-hurt pale blue gown with a train, a gauze overskirt, trailing sleeves that almost reach the ground, (fake) fur trim, and (fake) pearls sewn all over the gown. I also have a heavy necklace, and a headpiece with a back veil that’s so long it almost touches the floor.

In the second picture here (photo credit: Jesse Sheldon), I am royalty pretending to be common. My green dress still has some trim, but it’s much simpler, and much more comfortable. I skip, I run, I lie down under a tree at one point. I can do pretty much anything but bend forward too far (this dress has a pretty low neckline). 🙂

What I found right away was that the first dress very much changed the way I moved. It kept me upright. It kept me from walking backwards (unless I carefully handled my train while doing so.) It very much restricted how I could move my arms (which I could hardly raise). And sitting on anything was problematic — the “pearls” which adorned the dress are everywhere, so sitting involved sitting on a lot of large beads — rather uncomfortable!

Once I got used to the restricted movement of this gown, I learned its advantages. The long trailing sleeves made smooth, graceful arm movements very dramatic, and highlighted any hand gestures beautifully. The train, sleeves, and long veil clearly stated that this was an important person — and a wealthy one. It was true conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure in one costume.

This leads me to think about the aristocratic ladies of the Regency period. I think one’s first impulse is to assume that all of those empire gowns were just so comfortable. But if you think about it, some of them were fussy…some had trains….some had huge headpieces with feathers…some were probably quite tight…and the stays certainly would have kept things like bending at the waist, and certain sorts of twisting, to a minimum…

So our heroines, particularly when dressed up for balls and such, probably moved and stood in a very different way from women who were servants or shopkeepers. Our elegant heroines would know that a small hand gesture or a graceful inclination of the head would speak volumes. Our young, tomboyish heroines might chafe against such restrictive clothing, and keep trying to do things they really shouldn’t (and getting in trouble.)

I’m sure none of this is new to most of you — but it’s the sort of thing that wearing a costume can make one ponder yet again! So what do you think the advantages and disadvantages of Regency costume were? What character or plot elements might a heroine’s costume cause, or reveal? Can you think of any dress-related plot points in Regencies that you’ve read?

All comments welcome!

Cara King,

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16 years ago

Ah well, I guess I did figure that a Regency gown looked like the best type to wear. I mean, it does look rather comfortable, most especially in the waist area. But I never did think about the rest.

Books, well, I can’t give you any specifics, especially off hand, but yeah, there have been the ones with the Ladies or Lords dressing up like the butlers/maids or the like for various reasons, and something I remember went the other way around. But those are the only ones I can think of from my poor little tired mind. 🙂


Elena Greene
16 years ago

Great pics, Cara! Wish I could have seen the production.

Interesting points on the costume. In some stories heroines seem to move way too freely–one wonders how one could do some of these things in long skirts, for example. OTOH some books make too much of the discomforts of a Regency corset. The one I wear under my Regency gown, while not perfectly authentic, gives more or less the right effect and feels no more constricting than the back support I wear for horseback riding.

I think people confuse all corsets with the fashionably internal-organ-piercing tightness of Victorian times.


Elena Greene
16 years ago

Also remembering some of Julia Ross’s stories, that used costume in interesting ways. THE WICKED LOVER has the heroine in men’s clothing a lot of the time and it worked well in the context of the story. In that case the hero was smart enough to figure it out rather quickly. There’s a fine line walked with heroes who wonder about their sexual orientation when attracted to the heroine masquerading as a young lad. Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it doesn’t.


Cara King
16 years ago

I agree about the corsets, Elena — but I think even the relatively non-constricting Regency stays would have made bending at the waist difficult (with the longer-style stays, I mean — the shorter ones wouldn’t).

Actually, in a way, the Victorians (the ones who didn’t do the super tight lacing, anyway) might have had an easier time of it than the more fashionable Regency ladies… The Victorian women had tough corsets and tough dresses over them — but the Regency ladies in very thin cottons, with dresses fastened by ties and small buttons, would have had to be careful how they moved in such delicate garments.

Some of the wispier dresses must have been quite vulnerable to the tomboy who didn’t take into account that certain actions might untie her ties, or snap them, or rip the fabric, or something… 🙂

The pleasure of a good theatrical costume is that it’s tough, and a thick-headed modern actress can breathe wrong and try to bend wrong all she wants, and she doesn’t rip the seams. 🙂


Amanda McCabe
16 years ago

These costumes look terrific, Cara! I also wish I could have seen the production, As You Like It is one of my favorites.

I have a Regency gown that is very plain, off-white muslin, tied at the back with ribbons, scooped neck and short puffed sleeves. It looks like it should be as comfy as a night gown, but the sleeves make it so I can’t lift my arms very far, and I always feel like my shoulders are being pulled back by the small bodice. But I need all the help I can get with posture. 🙂 It IS better than a Tudor gown I have, with a very stiff, compressing corset, heavy hoop, and sleeves that are tight and constricting at the top and flowing and heavy on the bottom. Even that has advantages, though–there is lots of ventilation for a hot Ren. Fair day!!!

Cara King
16 years ago

You know, Amanda, I think constricting sleeves were probably a lot more common in historical gowns of many periods than a lot of people realize. Most modern clothes allow women to do pretty much anything with their arms — even lift them straight above their heads…so wearing a period costume and not being able to lift one’s elbows even as high as one’s shoulders — that is, stick one’s arms out to the side — and in some cases, hardly being able to move one’s arms at all, is a big change!

Though whether the clothes were supposed to force the woman to make ladylike gestures, or whether they were restrictive because these women never would have made the gestures anyway, I don’t know! 🙂


16 years ago

These pictures are great, Cara! I’ll bet you had so much fun on this production:)

One aspect of Regency dress that interests me is shoes. Those little slippers and even the half boots the regency ladies were supposed to wear look so devilishly uncomfortable for anything other than walking indoors. And this was in a time when there were no paved roads and trudging around outdoors was an everyday occurrance.

I can’t think of any books where shoes have driven plot off hand, but it seems to me that I’ve read a couple of books recently which featured the h/h being stuck on a journey or outdoors and the hero cutting off the tops of his boots to reinforce the bottoms of the lady’s shoes.

Bertram St James
16 years ago

Good heavens. You think women’s clothing during the Regency was restrictive? Do take a look at a fashionable man’s clothing. I cannot even turn my head to look left or right.

Not that I would want to, of course. That’s what servants are for.


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