One of the advantages–I guess it’s an advantage–of having a twenty-something move back into the house (upon graduating from college, hooray! This is not a picture of her–the cakes wouldn’t last a minute in our house) is that you get to see a lot of tv you wouldn’t generally. And, yes, I’m talking about the American Idol auditions, which we have been following with horrified fascination. What makes those people think they can sing? What makes them so eager to expose themselves to humiliation and ridicule?

And what on earth does this have to do with the Regency? (And, incidentally, why is Marie Antoinette’s maid wearing a late Victorian uniform?)

Well, I started to think about the Regency period as one of ostentatious display and a certain lack of shyness in self-revelation–Harriet Smith’s Memoirs, for instance; Lady Caroline Lamb–yes, I could see her auditioning and berating Simon Cowell for being sarcastic, and leaving in floods of tears. What, he didn’t like me? Me?

It was a period represented both by the vulgar exuberance of Prinny (seen at right being laced in for the day) and the uh, jewel in his crown, the Brighton Pavilion, as well as all that elegance and self-restraint and gorgeous classical design.

Beneath his severe, beautifully tailored coat, your hero might well be sporting a lavishly embroidered waistcoat–and he’d make sure everyone would catch a tantalizing glimpse.

That’s what I love about the period, the contradictions and the sense of change–it might all be about the tailoring and the classical line, but it was equally about decoration for decoration’s sake. My theory is that this all ties into the developing sense of domestic privacy that began in the eighteenth century.

Houses were now designed so that family members could sequester themselves into private rooms–no longer was the typical house plan one where you had to go through everyone else’s room to get to the lord’s chamber, the seat of power in the house, where his bed was displayed as the best piece of furniture. Bedcurtains had always been to provide warmth and now they also provided that new luxury, privacy; chances are your servant would have his own sleeping quarters, and not a trundle bed in your bedchamber (a fairly new word in the English language).

I’d be interested to hear your take on the growth of privacy and ostentation vs. restraint, and also how you think your favorite Regency character, fictional or real, would do in his or her American Idol audition!