Skimpy dresses for Regency belles

The dress Regency Solitaire heroine Bella acquires en route to her dream ball would have been the height of fashion in 1812. Even if it was a little impractical for hanging around draughty stately homes or braving the British weather, this floaty, transparent garment, usually in a pale colour, was standard attire for any well-bred young woman attending an important society function.

The trend for thin dresses inspired by classical Greek and Roman goddesses was already in full swing. Georgian caricature artists were already poking fun at the kind of wardrobe malfunctions that happen when a girl in a skimpy dress goes out in all weathers:

damp ladies

Joking aside, the style was actually pretty, simple and wearable – and a breath of fresh air if you consider the various extreme corsets, bustles, panniers, wigs and all the rest that came both before and after this era in ladies’ fashion in Europe.

Because Bella’s outfit is transparent, she has to have a nice petticoat underneath:

Machine-made net fabric was a novelty in the early nineteenth century. Whereas previously all lace had been hand-made and was a costly luxury, John Heathcoat’s bobbin-net machine, patented in 1808, paved the way for gauzy, lace-effect trimmings or entire coverings for dresses. His invention was so successful that even high-ranking society ladies (who could afford hand-made lace if they wanted it) wore machine-net dresses once the craze took off. The machine nets were plain, and had to be hand-embroidered.

Above is an example of a mesh dress, dated 1807-11. It was worn with a silk under-dress.

This type of elaborate dress was saved for balls and other special occasions. In her book Nineteenth-century fashion in detail, fashion historian Lucy Johnstone says that: “the thin, gauzy materials created a dreamy look, and gold thread or sparkling beads and spangles glittered in the artificial light of the dancing room. These light materials also prevented the wearer from getting too hot in stuffy, overcrowded places.”

Let’s hope that Bella can play it cool in the ballroom, and that her prized ball gown makes the right impression!

I hope you find these details interesting. I’ll be adding more Regency background in future posts…


Regency Solitaire is a product of the GamesLab South West programme, funded by the European Regional Development Fund, supported by the Government’s Regional Growth Fund and led by Creative England.

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