Regency Fashion: The Gentleman’s Fancy Dress

“Not only was he wearing the frilled shirt, the longtailed coat, the knee-breeches, and the silk stockings which constituted the fashionable attire of a gentleman bound for Almack’s; he carried a chapeau-bras  under one arm, and one of his snuff boxes in his pocket.”

— False Colours by Georgette Heyer (1963)

Kit Fancot, the hero of False Colours, impersonates his older brother, Evelyn, Lord Denville, as a favor to his mama. He arrives at a fancy dress party held by the relatives of Denville’s betrothed. Unfortunately, he has no clear idea of what Miss Stavely looks like.

However, everyone at the party believes him to be Evelyn, particularly since he is dressed in his brother’s fashionable dress rig, starting with the frilled shirt. No, not the pirate shirt sported by a well-known comedian in the 1990s, but similar, I daresay:

From Le Beau Monde, 1807

From Le Beau Monde, 1807

The longtailed coat was designed to set a fine figure to advantage. The tails in the back were almost an afterthought, forgotten in the evolution of the formal coat from its original function–to separate when riding a horse . What was important was the fit over the shoulders, perhaps enhanced by padding discretely inserted in strategic areas. In the same way, the cutaway design revealed the upper thighs and slim (corseted, if necessary) waist of the gentleman.

Knee breeches were de rigueur if one expects to be admitted to Almack’s, and thus the standard for all fancy dress parties. They were critical for Kit to pass himself off as his brother, all while meeting the approval of the venerable Dowager Lady Stavely, (grandmama to Miss Stavely). Therefore, pantaloons worn on the street would be right out in such company.

Besides, the advantage of wearing knee breeches becomes immediately apparent when a well-formed man pairs them with white silk stockings. The little ties just below the knee, combined with the clinging material of the stockings, draw the eye to his shapely leg, the black slippers just the thing to command admiring attention when among one’s peers (and cross old ladies).

from the Claremont Colleges Digital collection, featuring selective plates of Regency dress

from the Claremont Colleges Digital collection, featuring selective plates of Regency dress

Kit carries a hat, a three-cornered affair called the chapeau-bras. The fellow pictured above has a two-cornered (bicorn) hat. Both collapse and can easily be kept in good order by the butler or other man-servant while the wearer enjoys the party.

Snuff-boxes are very personal items in the Regency. Snuff itself can come in a variety of flavors (I’m thinking of Miss Taverner’s Sort in Heyer’s Regency Buck). Heyer completes Kit’s disguise as his brother by having him take along, in his pocket, a recognized trinket of Lord Denville’s. Indeed, a snuff box conveys much about a man’s identity in the Regency–witness a Cyprian’s attempts to engage the affections of a dour, northern Scotsman through two years of ‘tedious’ courtship, her stamina continuously as she:

‘anticipated the grandeur of which his massy snuff-box and mode of living distinctly conveyed.’

— “Clarissa, A Tale,” The Ladies’ Monthly Museum, Vol. 16 (1822)



snuff box

This silver and mosaic snuff box sold for almost $3000 recently. It was made in London, 1815.



Regency Fashion: the Gentleman’s Town Dress

False Colours“His coat of dark blue superfine was the very latest made by Evelyn for Weston..his stockinette pantaloons were knitted in the newest and most delicate dove-colour: his cambric shirt was modestly austere, with no ruffle, but three plain buttons…his hat, set at an angle on his glowing locks, had a tall and tapering crown, smoothly brushed, and very different from the low, shaggy beaver to which Fimber had taken instant exception.”

This is the town dress of the Regency gentleman as described by author Georgette Heyer in  False Colours (1963).

The superfine fabric is exactly as it sounds–wool that is smooth, almost silky to the touch. The more narrow the fibers of the wool, the more “super” its grade. Today, superfine wool suits of the highest grade sell well into the thousands of dollars.

Tom Ford: James Bond collection, Fall 2015

From designer Tom Ford’s James   Bond collection, Fall 2015

Stockinette is “an elastic knitted fabric used especially in making undergarments, bandages, and babies’ clothes–a fine-knit, soft, elastic weave.” Heyer’s hero, the handsome, blond Kit Fancot, wore pantaloons made of this material as he strolled through London, impersonating his fashionable elder brother, Lord Denville, the stockinette fabric clinging to his shapely legs in ways that I shall leave to your imagination.

stockinette pantaloons

          skin-tight, “a la hussarde”

Cambric is also known as batiste, a soft, airy cotton that makes marvelous baby sheets and blankets. Whenever I hear cambric mentioned, I think of the Little House books. You knew Ma or the girls were sewing something very special if it was made of cambric:

“They made four new petticoats….around the bottom of the fine cambric one, Laura had sewed with careful, tiny stitches the six yards of knitted lace that she had given Mary for Christmas.”

Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1941)

If Fimber, or any other Regency-era valet, turns his nose up at an article of a gentleman’s dress, you can be sure it must be very unfashionable indeed. Kit’s hat was discarded for his brother’s not because it was made of beaver, but that was shaggy, with a low crown. Acceptable for a diplomat, which Kit was, but not at all the thing for his noble brother.

close-up of a beaver hat--the crown shaggy in texture

close-up of a beaver hat–the crown shaggy in texture

Next post: what Kit wore to a fancy evening party, when he:

“..realized that he had been imperfectly coached: he had no idea which of them was the lady to whom he was supposed to have offered his hand.”