Thursday, 29 March 2012

Regency spring fashion - walking dress

This series of fashion blogs continues with a look at walking dress in the Regency period, using the fashion pages from La Belle Assemblée in 1811, 1812 and 1816.

Spring 1811
Regency walking dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Jan 1811)
Regency walking dress
 from La Belle Assemblée (Jan 1811)
“A pelisse of scarlet Merino cloth, buttoned down the front and up the arm with small gold buttons; the collar and cuffs of purple velvet; but during the mourning, of black, striped with scarlet; an ermine tippet pointed in the back, and muffs of the same. A bonnet of scarlet cloth, turned up with velvet, and formed to come over the face; the veil passed through the front and brought round the neck. Boots of scarlet cloth trimmed with velvet.”

Walking dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1811)
Walking dress
 from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1811)

“Round dress of cambric muslin, with a ruff collar, trimmed round the bottom with narrow purple ribband; cassimere crimson mantle, confined close to the back, lined with purple silk, embroidered round the neck, cape, and sides with purple fancy border; a deep cape falling from the shoulders, sloping to a narrow point, with tassels. A crimson velvet bonnet, turban front and trimmed with purple to correspond. York tan gloves. Yellow kid boots.”

Spring 1812
Walking dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Jan 1812)
Walking dress 
from La Belle Assemblée (Jan 1812)
“A scarlet Merino cloth pelisse, lined with straw coloured sarsnet, trimmed with light coloured spotted fur, and attached with loops of black silk cordon and rich frog tassels; the broad fur in front, forming a tippet, pointed at the back. A narrow fur passes from the top of the sleeve, is brought down the side seams, and relieved by fastenings of black silk cordon; four loops with frogs ornament the shoulders and cuffs; plain standing up collar tied with cordon: a fine cashmere shawl, with brown ground, and richly variegated border, is generally thrown over the dress, in which is united both comfort and elegance. A Swedish hat of the same materials as the pelisse, lined with straw colour, and fastened up one side; the crown trimmed with two rows of narrow spotted fur, and one still narrower at the edge of the hat; a bunch of the Christmas holly in front, and tow tassels falling from the summit of the crown, of black, to answer the pelisse, which is worn over a white round dress, either of plain or corded cambric. Beaver gloves, and demi-broquins of scarlet Morocco, laced with black, and lined with fur, complete the dress.”

A "demi-broquin" was a half-boot.

Dress for the fashionable promenades   from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1812)
Dress for the fashionable promenades
 from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1812)
“A purple velvet pelisse, with a full standing-up collar, worn carelessly open over a round white dress of fine French cambric; the pelisse trimmed with a broad bordering of braided ribbon, the same colour as the velvet. A Minerva bonnet of amber coloured sarsnet, with a long white ostrich feather across the front; the feather made round, and very full; long black lace veil, à la religieuse; a chain necklace, composed of pearls with a gold ornament depending in front, representing the Apollo Lyre, set round with a circle of pearls; a gold Lisbon chain with an eye glass hanging below the waist. Plain gold oval-ring pendants. Purple half boots and York tan gloves.”

Morning walking dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1812)
Morning walking dress 
from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1812)
“A three quarters pelisse, of dark willow-green sarsnet, or fine Merino cloth, worn over a round dress of fine India muslin, richly embroidered, and trimmed round the bottom with lace, put on rather full. The pelisse made round in the skirt, like the short Indian coat; and trimmed round the throat and wrists with swansdown; faced in front and trimmed round the bottom with broad stripes of black velvet; military front, with two rows of mother-of-pearl buttons, fastened down the front of the skirt with one row of the same and alternate tassels, the colour of the pelisse, which is confined at the waist by a gold belt. Yeoman’s hat of the same colour, materials and ornaments as the pelisse, and finished in front with a flat ostrich feather. Half boots of light fawn coloured kid, laced with dark willow green in front. Limerick gloves of pale straw colour.”

Spring 1816

La Belle Assemblée does not include any fashion plates for walking dresses in the first three months of 1816, but the following excerpts from the fashion narrative give an indication of the outdoor wear that the haut ton were wearing:

La Belle Assemblée - January 1816:
“When Fashion, deprived of the treasures of Flora, binds the wintry wreath round the brow of Beauty, she then may be said to display the most magnificent splendours of her versatile empire. The ostrich lends her stately plumes, the finest wool of the Merino flocks are woven in beautiful texture, stained with colours of the richest dye, and diversified with patterns of the most elegant kind; while velvet, gold, and costly furs are brought forward to deck the fair forms of Britains’s unrivalled daughters. Merino cloth pelisses with pelerine capes, bound with a broad satin ribbon, are the most prevalent out-door costume for the fair pedestrians.”

La Belle Assemblée - February 1816: 
“The extreme rigidity of the season has made but little difference in the out-door costume of our fair countrywomen. Fashion, has been, like every other mundane power, in a manner chain-bound by the frost, and the most warm and comfortable dress for the female pedestrian has, consequently, been that which is most in favour.”

“For walking costume, a plainer dress presents itself, generally of a dark bottle-green, with a sable or seal-skin hat, or Regency cap, adorned with band and tassels of gold, or of the same colour as the pelisse; others prefer the modest slate colour, with a large bunch of Dunstable chip or moss silk, the colour of the pelisse, and which latter is most prevalent; with this retired dress is worn a muff of swansdown or moss silk.”
Sources used include:
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée, various (1811-1816)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Pre-Regency spring fashion – walking dress

My series of fashion blogs continues with a look at the walking dress. La Belle Assemblée presents us with a picture of what the ton might have worn for those all-important promenades, where the object was to be seen wearing the latest mode of coat or walking dress. This post looks at the pre-Regency period using plates from La Belle Assemblée from 1806, 1807 and 1810.

Spring 1806
Cloth great coat in the Hussar style   from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1806)
Cloth great coat in the Hussar style
 from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1806)

In March 1806, those aspiring to the heights of fashion might have been seen wearing a Hussar-style coat, a Bedford pelisse or a York mantle, whilst the black velvet pelisse was very popular. It seems likely, however, that no aspirant to fashion would have worn such a pelisse again after the following blighting comment appeared in the February issue of La Belle Assemblée

“The most prevalent pelisses are made of black velvet, with a flounce of deep rich black lace; this last walking dress is worn by all kinds of fashionables, which renders it common, and is abandoned by those who pretend to real taste and novelty.”

Bedford pelisse and hat    from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1806)
Bedford pelisse and hat
  from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1806)
Bedford pelisse and hat, colour, La Bou de Paris, trimmed with fir to match.

York mantle and hat
from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1806)
York mantle and hat
   from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1806)
York mantle and hat, seal-skin or Gregorian cloth, edging orange and scarlet, India-pattern. Walking dress, cambric muslin, with work.

Spring 1807

Polish walking dress    from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1807)
Polish walking dress
  from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1807)
"A Polish Robe of purple velvet, flowing open in front, rounded gradually from the bottom towards the lapels, which are continued across the shoulder, and finished in regular points on the back. A chemisette of the same, with high full collar; the whole trimmed entirely round with the red fox, mole, leopard spot or grey squirrel. A rich cord and tassel fastened in the centre of the back, which occasionally confines the robe. The back and skirt cut in one; and the sleeve neatly to fit the arm. Polish cap of the same material, trimmed round the edge, and across the crown, with correspondent skin; a cord and tassels suspended in irregular lengths from the right side of the crown. York tan gloves; and primrose or purple shoes.”

Spring 1810
Hyde-Park walking dress    from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1810)
Hyde-Park walking dress
  from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1810)
“A pelisse of black Merino cloth or velvet, buttoned from the throat to the feet, made to fit tight to the shape with a band and crape, ornamented with a double row of gold braiding, or an oriental embossed silk trimming, worn over a chemisette of French lawn. A Spanish hat and flat drooping ostrich feather tipped with orange. Half boots of black or orange coloured Morocco, Angola muff lined with yellow; the hair lightly curled on the left side with a thick braid crossing the face. Earrings of gold, or amber. Gloves of York tan.”

Sources used include:
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée, various (1806-1810)

Monday, 19 March 2012

Queens in Waiting – an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London – a review

National Portrait Gallery, London
Having been gifted with a few hours in central London, I decided to visit the National Portrait Gallery to see the “Queens in Waiting” exhibition. I knew that it was not a large display, so I was not unduly surprised to find that it comprised of just a single room on the 2nd floor, next to the galleries displaying Regency portraits.

Princess Charlotte and Princess Victoria

The exhibition reflects on the lives of two young women born to be queen: Princess Charlotte of Wales and her cousin, Princess Victoria. Rather more of the display is given over to the little known Princess Charlotte than to her famous cousin. They both led a restricted life, each found happiness in marriage with a German prince, but whereas Princess Victoria became one of England’s greatest monarchs, Princess Charlotte never became queen. As the only legitimate child of George IV, Charlotte was heir to the throne from her birth. Tragically, she died in childbirth in 1817 and the public grief at her death has been likened to that evoked by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.

The young Princesses

As well as engravings of both her parents, George IV and Princess Caroline of Brunswick, there is a charming portrait of Princess Charlotte, aged about three, with her mother. The stipple engraving is dated 1799 and is by Francesco Bartolozzi after Richard Cosway.

This is balanced by engravings of Princess Victoria’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and a portrait from 1823 of the young Victoria, aged about four, with her mother, a line engraving by William Skelton after Sir William Beechey.In this picture, the young Princess is seen clutching a miniature portrait of her deceased father, thus asserting her claim to the throne in what appears to be a harmless family portrait.

Unfinished watercolours

I particularly liked the unfinished watercolours of Prince Leopold (1816) and Princess Charlotte (1815) by Thomas Heaphy. These watercolours were only partly completed and the contrast between the painted and unpainted sections made the finished sections seem particularly vivid.

Happily married

The marriage of Princess Charlotte
 to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg
From La Belle Assemblée 1816
Several pictures in the exhibition celebrate the love that both Princesses found in their marriages to their German husbands. Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold are shown at Drury Lane Theatre in a coloured engraving of 1818 made by William Thomas Fry after George Dawe; this is the picture used to advertise the exhibition.

There is also an engraving of their wedding: “The Prince and Princess Coburg retiring from the Altar after the Marriage Ceremony”. This was published in 1818 by J Booth and is very similar to an earlier engraving published in La Belle Assemblée in 1816 which is shown here.

Princess Victoria and Prince Albert are shown in a mezzotint of their wedding day, “The Bridal Morn” by Samuel William Reynolds I after Frederick William Lock published in 1844.

The English rose

Princess Charlotte was seen as a symbol of hope for a nation whose monarchy had been overshadowed by madness and profligacy in the hands of a succession of sickly old men. This hope was often depicted by white roses that appear in several of the portraits, including an 1816 watercolour by Richard Woodman, a stipple engraving by Robert Cooper after John Masey Wright published posthumously and the picture of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold at the theatre mentioned above.

Death of the Princess

The funeral procession of the Princess Charlotte
From Huish's Memoirs of her late
royal highness Charlotte Augusta (1818)
I found the most moving picture in the exhibition was that of the funeral procession of “the much beloved and regretted Princess Charlotte of Wales and Saxe-Coburg” by Thomas Sutherland after Richard Barrett Davis, published in 1818. The picture shows the torchlight funeral procession to St George’s Chapel on the evening of 19 November 1817, an event which was attended by massive crowds. An alternative representation of the funeral procession is shown here.

With the birth of Queen Victoria, the hope for the nation that had died with Princess Charlotte was reborn. It is significant that the rose was once again incorporated into the portrait of the young Princess Victoria by James Bromley after Sir George Hayter, in 1833, symbolising this hope.

Princess Charlotte in wax

The final exhibit, that I almost missed, is just outside the room. This is a coloured wax relief of Princess Charlotte at the theatre by Samuel Percy in 1814. The Princess is shown wearing a crimson robe around half her shoulders and the detail is exquisite.

Jane Austen portrait

I enjoyed the exhibition though I was disappointed it was not bigger. However, its position next to the Regency galleries meant there was plenty more for a Regency historian to see. There are lots of Regency portraits – George IV, William IV, Mrs Fitzherbert, Charles Fox, Walter Scott, Percy Shelley and Sarah Siddons to name but a few.

I was delighted to be able to view the original portrait of Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra; it is much smaller than I imagined, being about the size of a paperback book.

“The Three Witches from Macbeth”

One other picture is worth a particular mention: “The Three Witches from Macbeth” by Daniel Gardner, 1775. This gouache and chalk painting depicts Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Anne Seymour Damer as the three witches. Underneath the picture is the following wording: “Accepted in lieu of tax by HM Government and allocated to the Gallery in 2011”!

Some of the portraits on display can be seen on the National Portrait Gallery website.
The exhibition is open until 14 October 2012.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

George IV - The Grand Entertainment by Steven Parissien – a review

Front cover of George IV - The Grand Entertainment by Steven Parissien

George IV, The Grand Entertainment, is a very readable biography which presents the events of George IV’s life in a thematic way. The emphasis of the book is a re-evaluation of George’s traditional image as “a knowledgeable and discriminating patron of the arts”. Parissien is able to draw on his own experience as an expert in the field of Georgian architecture and style, as well as recent research by specialists in the history of architecture, art, fashion and politics, to build on Hibbert’s exemplary biography by presenting new insights into George’s life.

The book takes its title from the name of an engraving by Cruikshank published in August 1814. The engraving was one of many that ridiculed George. In The Grand Entertainment, he was portrayed as the chief performer in the “Royal Raree-Show”, dancing with his mistress, Lady Hertford, and her husband, in front of Carlton House.

Rather than following a strictly chronological style, Parissien’s book starts with the scene of George IV’s death and then examines the major themes of George’s life under four sections: governing passions, family affairs, the image of royalty and the image askew.

Under governing passions, Parissien looks at the loves of George’s life –women, clothes, building projects, art collecting, food, play soldiering and old French style. The book claims to offer no new information about George’s mistresses, but nevertheless gives a comprehensive chapter on the succession of women in his life. The following chapters are filled with details about George’s other obsessions - from his love of clothes and posturing in military uniforms to his somewhat unfortunate predilection for all things French, even at a time when England was at war with France!

The section on family affairs examines George’s disastrous marriage and his relationship with his daughter. In particular, it highlights the stark contrast between George’s unpopularity and the public grief shown at the premature death of Princess Charlotte, which is likened to the posthumous adulation accorded to Princess Diana after her death in 1997.

The last two sections examine George’s views on royalty and how these were worked out in practice. A new aspect, of which I was previously unaware, was the influence of the Freemasons on George and how this served to increase his natural fondness for ceremony and fuelled his lavish architectural projects to build royal palaces fit for a king. The account of George’s extortionately expensive coronation includes details which show that this state occasion was far from perfect and indicate how George was beginning to withdraw from the public he had alienated by his behaviour.

Parissien concludes that:
What is most remarkable about George’s Regency and reign is not … his role in preserving the status and respect accorded the monarchy, but that it survived his appalling neglect of his office and its responsibilities.
This book review is of:
Parissien, Steven, George IV, The Grand Entertainment (2001, John Murray)

Friday, 16 March 2012

Post-Regency spring fashion - evening wear

This is the third article in my series of fashion blogs looking at the way spring fashions changed from 1806 to 1827. This final post on evening wear looks at the post-Regency period, from 1820 to 1827, during the reign of George IV, using fashion plates from La Belle Assemblée from 1823 and 1827.

Spring 1823
Ball dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1823)
Ball dress
 from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1823)

“This attractive and elegant dress is of tulle over white satin; the tulle ornamented with broad stripes, laid on of amber coloured satin, till they reach a double festoon ornament, in two rows of puckered tulle en rouleaux, the points of which are headed by large rosettes of pearls; under these festoons, terminating at the hem, is a flounce of broad blond, of a rich and striking pattern. The corsage is made plain, but is trimmed round the bosom with a broad falling tucker of blond, which, from each shoulder, falls as a mancheron ornament over the sleeve, and has a very beautiful effect...The dress is confined round the waist by a white satin ribbon sash, richly striped.”

“En rouleaux” means in rolls.
I have had some trouble deciphering “mancheron”. The first translation I found was handlebars and this did not seem very appropriate! However, “manche” means sleeve and I found a reference to “mancheron” meaning a small, short sleeve or an ornamental trimming on the upper part of a sleeve.

Ball dress  from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1823)
Ball dress
from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1823)
“Round dress of amber coloured crape, a puckering of gauze of the same colour at the border, finished by rouleaux, wadded very full of white satin, with full blown white roses, and a few leaves of green foliage: under each rose is an antique ornament of the rosace kind, composed of white satin, with a tuft of amber in the interior. The body of this beautiful dress is of satin, and is elegantly diversified by white silk cordon and fine blond: the front of the bust is finished by a marrow falling tucker of blond, and the shoulders ornamented by bows of white satin ribbon. The sleeves are white, and are trimmed to correspond with the skirt, except that the flowers are left out, as an inappropriate and troublesome trimming to that part of the dress; they are, therefore, finished by the rouleaux in points, with the rosaces in the centre of the sleeve, encircling the arm…Shoes of white satin, and white kid gloves.”

"Rosace" means rosette.

Spring 1827
Ball dress  from La Belle Assemblée (Jan 1827)
Ball dress
from La Belle Assemblée (Jan 1827)
“Over a slip of amber-coloured satin, a dress of tulle, the border, with two rows of amber gauze, bouillonnés; the bouillon placed on the border, in close fers de cheval, and forming a rich and striking sort of trimming. The body is à la Circassienne, with a broad sash of amber-coloured satin; a small rosette on the left side, in the centre of which is a pearl ornament: long ends, edged round with narrow blond of a Vankdyke pattern, descend somewhat lower than the knee. The sleeves are short and full, of amber satin, trimmed with blond, and finished sown the outside of the arm with silk buttons.”

“Bouillonnés” means ruffled or puffed.
“Fers de cheval” means horseshoes.

My observations

These dresses show a distinct move away from the flowing designs of the Regency, with close-fitting bodices above narrow waistlines, which have dropped to a more natural position by 1827. The sleeves are short and puffy and the skirts are fuller and show a lot more ornamentation than those of the previous decade. It is interesting to note that all three of these dresses are yellow, or amber per the description. Clearly opinions had changed since 1806 when, in the very first issue of La Belle Assemblée, the following was written:
“The pale yellow colour, which is extremely elegant in the day for beautiful women, appears soiled in the evening, and tends very much to diminish the glow, and impair the brilliancy of the complexion.” 
Sources used include:
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée, various (1806 -1827)

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Regency spring fashion – evening wear

This is the second in my series of fashion blogs looking at the way spring fashions changed from 1806 to 1827. Continuing the theme of evening wear, today’s blog looks at the Regency period, from 1811 to 1820, using fashion plates from La Belle Assemblée from 1811, 1812 and 1816.

Spring 1811
Evening full dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1811)
Evening full dress
 from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1811)
 “A gown of plain white India muslin, made loose in the neck, with long sleeves, and short train trimmed with a fancy border of stamped leaves in satin. A white satin cap, ornamented with crimson or maroon-coloured flossed silk trimming. A short Persian scarf of maroon-coloured silk, with rich border and tassels, is fancifully worn over the shoulders.”

Spring 1812
Evening dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1812)
Evening dress
 from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1812)
“A velvet or gossamer satin gown of bright amaranth, ruby or cinnabar brown, with a demi-train, trimmed round the bottom, bosom and sleeves with a light tassel fringe, of the frivolité kind, of the same colour; apron of white crape, sarsnet or lace, ornamented with the same; sleeves of white satin, or of materials correspondent with the apron; these short sleeves made rather nearer to the elbow than formerly, and formed after the chemisette style. The body of the gown richly ornamented with beads or pearl, crossed like the ribband braciers, and confined at the bosom by a bright ruby broach, set round with pearl. The waist confined by two rows of beads or pearl, and fastened in front with a broach, the same as that on the bust. A lace half handkerchief, with a border richly embroidered in coloured silks, tied carelessly round the neck. Moorish turban of white satin and coloured crape twisted in the front, the same colour as the gown, and fastened on the crown with a ruby ornament to correspond with the broaches.”

Amaranth is a reddish-rose colour; cinnabar is a bright red colour tinted with orange.

Spring 1816
Parisian evening dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1816)
Parisian evening dress
 from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1816)

“Round dress of soft white satin, made short enough to discover the muslin petticoat underneath, which is ornamented with two full quillings of fine lace; the satin dress finished at the border by four rows of scarlet velvet; the body made plain and crossed over the bust, which is very decorously covered, and ornamented by a plaited tucker of lace; the sleeves very short, and finished by a quilling to correspond with the tucker. Small Minerva bonnet of white satin and scarlet, with a superb plume of the same colours intermingled. Necklace of pearl, of the most elegant fabrication, consisting of the smaller pearls in clusters, with the large Oriental pear pearls depending. Hair is curls a-la-Ninon. White satin slippers confined round the ankle by ribbands; and white kid gloves.”

A quilling is a piece of quilled lace or other fabric used as a trim.

My observations

As expected, in common with the pre-Regency period, the dresses remain predominantly white. Many varieties of the colour red are popular throughout these designs: crimson, maroon, amaranth, cinnabar brown, ruby and scarlet are all mentioned in the details above. At the beginning of the Regency period, the sleeves are long; by 1816, they are “very short”. The last dress is much more detailed than the previous two and seems to herald the advent of the move away from Regency simplicity to the more elaborate designs and fuller skirts of the late Georgian period.

Sources used include:
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée, various (1811-1816)

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Pre-Regency spring fashion - evening wear

The fashion plates in La Belle Assemblée are widely admired for the insights that they can give us into the world of Regency fashion and beyond. Individually, they are both attractive and informative; collectively, they illustrate the way that fashion has changed over the years.

This series of blogs follows the way spring fashions changed from 1806 to 1827, by looking at particular elements of fashion in three time periods: pre-Regency, Regency and the reign of George IV. My first blog is dedicated to evening wear in the pre-Regency period.

Spring 1806
Parisian complete full dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1806)
Parisian complete full dress
 from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1806)
“The more elegant the taste, the more superior the beauty of a lady, the less she has occasion for ornaments; her dress, therefore, should be simple and unaffected. This incontestable truth should convince our London Fashionables, that the only improvement in dress consists in a superadded simplicity and gracefulness, and not in a singularity of costume of any kind whatever.” La Belle Assemblée (1806)

Spring 1807
Ball dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1807)
Ball dress
 from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1807)
A ball dress “of plain crape, over a white satin slip, made a dancing length; plain back and sleeves, with quartered front, trimmed round the bottom, on the waist and sleeves, with a white velvet ribband thickly spangled with gold. A white satin sash, tied in long bows and ends on the right side, terminated with splendid gold tassels. High gathered tucker of Brussels lace.”

“India shawl, a deep amber colour, with a rich and variegated fringe and border, negligently drawn through each arm, so as to form a flowing drapery on the right side of the figure.”

A tucker was a ruffle attached to the neck of a gown to infill the neckline for a more modest look.

Spring 1810
Evening dress   from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1810)
Evening dress
 from La Belle Assemblée (Feb 1810)
“A white satin round dress, with half yard train, laced up the back and seams with gold twist, ornamented round the neck with a full twill of frosted satin or white crape, and down the front and at the wrist with gold braiding, and small drop buttons. It is made to sit high on the neck; cut to a point in the centre of the bosom and back: a gold band encircles the waist.”

The second figure wears an “India muslin train over a white satin petticoat. A bodice of green velvet, ornamented at the seams with gold braiding, and trimmed round the neck with a twill of green crape or velvet.”

Twill is a fabric known for its diagonal weave.

My observations 

The predominant colour of all these dresses is white. The gowns relied upon the trimmings and accessories and, in one case, the bodice, to bring colour to the outfits. The earlier two plates show short sleeves and long gloves; by 1810, the sleeves were long. The dresses are in the Empire style, with high waistlines and the material falling loosely below.

Sources used include:
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée, various (1806-1810)

Saturday, 10 March 2012

How much did a ticket to a Regency ball really cost?

Top: The Ballroom, Assembly Rooms, Bath  Bottom left: Top left: Assembly Rooms, Bath;   Bottom right: Dancers from La Belle Assemblée (1820)
Top: The Ballroom, Assembly Rooms, Bath
Bottom left: Top left: Assembly Rooms, Bath;
Bottom right: Dancers from La Belle Assemblée (1820)
*This post was written in March 2012 and updated in September 2016 with new relative values based on 2015 data.*

While researching my posts about the Bath Assembly Rooms, I found a list of subscription rates in a contemporary guide. (1) I discovered that a season’s entry to the 28 dress balls being held in the 1815 season cost 14 shillings per person, a gentleman’s annual subscription to the reading and card room cost a guinea and a lady’s subscription to the card assemblies cost five shillings. Tea on ball nights cost an additional sixpence.

But what was a guinea? Was it worth more than 14 shillings? Was sixpence really the trivial sum that I assumed it to be? And how much would this be in today’s money? 

Regency money

The main denominations were pounds, shillings and pence. 

There were 20 shillings in a pound. Pounds were denoted by “£” or sometimes by “l”, standing for libra—a pound weight in Latin; shillings were denoted by “s”.

There were 12 pence or “d” in a shilling. The “d” stood for denarius, a small Roman coin.

A crown was worth five shillings; a half-crown, two shillings and sixpence.

The value of a guinea varied according to the price of gold, but by 1815, its value was fixed at 21 shillings. 

This tells us that a gentleman’s annual subscription to the card room cost half as much again as a single person’s entry to all the dress balls for the season, but gives no indication of what amount this was in today’s money.

What would it cost today?

This is not a straightforward question to answer as there are many factors involved in translating prices from one time period to another. Not only prices, but income levels have changed. What seems like a small monetary value to us could represent a huge proportion of someone’s income back in 1815.

I have found the MeasuringWorth website (2) very helpful in understanding the relative values of commodities and incomes from the Regency period compared with today. They have researched alternative ways of comparing relative worth between different time periods and have used historic data to create calculators to enable us to compare the cost of something in 1815 with today’s prices.

The cost-of-living index

When Regency prices or incomes are quoted in books, a second figure is often included representing the amount 'in today’s prices'. This comparative amount is typically based on the retail price index (RPI). The RPI, or cost-of-living index, compares the cost of purchases of a typical household in 1815 with the cost in 2015. It is possible to get an idea of what something would have cost in today’s money by using this measure.

The RPI gives us the following values:

Subscription to the dress balls: 14s = £46.76, equivalent to a mere £1.67 per ball!

Gentleman’s annual subscription to the card and reading room: 1 guinea = £70.14.

Subscription to the card assemblies: 5s = £16.70.

Tea: 6d = £1.67.

Though interesting, these results are not as helpful as they could be, because they do not give any indication as to whether these sums were within a person’s means or not.

Playing cards

What was the real cost?

To include a measure of affordability, it is necessary to look at relative earnings. This is important because average wages today are higher than in 1815. For example, a teacher in 1815 would have earned about £51. (3) Using the RPI calculator, this would be £3,410 in 2015. However, the relative salary of a teacher in the UK today is much higher than in 1815, with a starting salary in excess of £22,000 (4)

The MeasuringWorth website uses average earnings to calculate an alternative relative value. Compared to an average 2015 salary, the relative values are now: 

Subscription to the dress balls: 14s = £511, equivalent to £18.25 per ball.

Gentleman’s annual subscription to the card and reading room: 1 guinea = £767.80.

Subscription to the card assemblies: 5s = £182.80.

Tea: 6d = £18.28.

Playing cards

So how much did a Regency ball really cost?

A subscription to the dress balls at the Upper Rooms in Bath in 1815 cost 14 shillings, equivalent to 6 pence per ball. This represents about £1.67 in today’s money. However, I believe that the average earnings indicator can give us the best idea of the real cost, and this measure gives us a price of about £18 per ball. This seems surprisingly inexpensive, though the price is doubled when you include the cost of tea.

However, two things should be borne in mind. Firstly, this price was only available if you took out a subscription for the season; a ticket to a single ball for a non-subscriber cost five shillings, equivalent to a massive £182.80! The second is that the relative earnings calculator is based on average earnings. How affordable these things really were would have depended on an individual’s personal circumstances.

(1) From Feltham, John, Editor of the Picture of London, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places (1815).
(2) All calculations from
(3) Salary details from Jeffrey G. Williamson, "The Structure of Pay in Britain, 1710-1911", Research in Economic History, 7 (1982), 1-54.
(4) Teacher salaries from Department of Education website.

Sources used include:
Feltham, John, Editor of the Picture of London, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places (1815)
Williamson, Jeffrey G, "The Structure of Pay in Britain, 1710-1911", Research in Economic History, 7 (1982)

MeasuringWorth website - for calculators of relative worth
The Old Bailey website - for details of coinage
Photographs © Andrew Knowles -

Monday, 5 March 2012

Balls at the Upper Assembly Rooms, Bath

The entrance to the Upper Rooms, Bath
The entrance to the Upper Rooms, Bath
Dress balls and fancy balls

In Georgian times, the Bath season ran from October to early June. The Upper Rooms held two balls a week in season, a dress ball on Monday nights and a fancy ball on Thursday nights. In 1815, subscribers were told they could expect a total of 28 balls on each subscription. However, an advert for the 1811-12 season shows the number of balls as only 24, which suggests that the number being offered varied from year to year.


In 1815, a subscription to either the dress balls or the fancy balls cost 14 shillings per person. Alternatively, you could purchase a subscription to the dress balls for 26 shillings which included two tickets for ladies, which were transferable. Non-subscribers, on the other hand, were charged the sum of 5 shillings for a single ball.

The balls

According to the 1815 guide, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places, the Monday dress ball consisted exclusively of country dances whilst the fancy ball included two cotillions, one before and one after tea. In the height of the season, the 1815 guide suggests that there were generally 12 sets.

The ball room, the Upper Rooms, Bath
The ball room, the Upper Rooms, Bath
Mr King’s rules stated:
That the Dress and Fancy Balls shall begin as soon as possible after seven o’clock, and conclude precisely at eleven, even in the middle of a dance.1
The musical band in the rooms was to consist of twelve performers including the harp, tabor and pipe.

It seems likely that there was some variation over time as the The Assembly Rooms, Bath, the Authorised Guide gives a slightly different account. It says that the dress balls began at 6 o’clock rather than 7, and that there were only eleven musicians, who played from the first floor gallery. The ball consisted of two hours of minuets, followed by an hour of more lively country dances until tea at 9 o’clock. More country dances followed until the evening’s entertainment finished, promptly at 11 o’clock.


On ball nights, everyone was required to pay an extra sixpence on entrance for tea. Supper was served in the tea room.

The tea room at the Upper Rooms, Bath
The tea room at the Upper Rooms, Bath
Jane Austen at the Upper Rooms

While living in Bath in May 1801, Jane Austen writes of a visit to the Upper Rooms:
By nine o’clock my uncle, aunt and I entered the rooms and linked Miss Winstone on to us. Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath! After tea we cheered up; the breaking up of private parties sent some scores more to the ball, and tho’ it was shockingly and inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies.2
1. Feltham, John, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places for 1813 (1813).
2. Austen, Jane, My dear Cassandra, letters to her sister selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett (Collins & Brown Ltd, 1990, London).

Sources used include:
Austen, Jane and Hughes-Hallett, Penelope, My dear Cassandra, Selected letters of Jane Austen (Collins and Brown Ltd, 1990)
Editor of the Picture of London, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1815)
Cecil, David, A Portrait of Jane Austen (Constable, 1978)
Garnett, Oliver and Dunlop, Patricia, The Assembly Rooms, Bath, the Authorised Guide (c2011, Opalprint)

Photographs © Andrew Knowles -

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Upper Assembly Rooms, Bath

The entrance to the Upper Rooms, Bath
The entrance to the Upper Rooms, Bath
The Upper Rooms, Bath

The New Rooms opened in Bath on 30 September 1771 with a combined dance and concert, known as a ridotto. Bath already had two assembly rooms at this date, but these were in the lower part of the town and were proving inadequate for the rapidly increasing population. The New Rooms were built to the north east of the Circus, between Bennett and Alfred Streets, in the fashionable, newly-built, upper town. The New Rooms became known as the Upper Rooms, superior in both facilities and location, whilst the old rooms were henceforth referred to as the Lower Rooms.

The building of the Upper Rooms

The architect, John Wood, designed the Upper Rooms and raised the money for their erection by a “tontine” subscription. This was not a regular investment, but contained an element of lottery: as subscribers died, their shares were added to the holdings of the other subscribers, with the last surviving subscriber inheriting the whole. By April 1769, around £14,000 had been raised from 53 individuals and the foundation stone was duly laid on 26 May 1769. The interior decoration was finished in 1771, ready for the grand opening.

The rooms

The design of the Upper Rooms is essentially U-shaped, with two long rectangular rooms flanking the entrance hall and linked by an octagonal room at the far end. The ball room is over 100 feet long and nearly 45 feet wide, whilst the tea room on the other side is about 70 feet long by 27 feet wide. Beyond the octagonal room is a purpose-built card room which was added in 1777. The Rooms were lit by huge cut-glass chandeliers.

One of the chandeliers in the tea room  Upper Rooms, Bath
One of the chandeliers in the tea room
Upper Rooms, Bath

The Master of Ceremonies

Bath’s most famous Master of Ceremonies was Richard “Beau” Nash who ruled over the city from 1706 until his death in 1761. Nash’s rules for polite behaviour transformed Bath into the most fashionable watering place in Georgian England.

At the time that the New Rooms were built, Captain Wade was Master of Ceremonies, but after his resignation in 1777, the role was fought over by two rival contestants and it was determined to create two Masters of Ceremonies, one over the Upper Rooms and one over the Lower Rooms.

Mr Tyson was Master of Ceremonies at the Upper Rooms from 1785 until 1805 when Mr King was promoted to the role from that of presiding over the Lower Rooms, further confirming the superiority of the Upper Rooms.

The Master of Ceremonies liked to be informed of new arrivals in Bath. He therefore requested
…that they will, on their arrival cause their names, with their places of abode, to be inserted in the book kept at the Pump Room for that purpose, which will afford him such information as will enable him to comply with his own wishes, and the expectations of the public.1
The entertainments

The entertainments at the Upper Rooms  from A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1815)
The entertainments at the Upper Rooms
from A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1815)
The ball room

The Bath season ran from October to early June, during which the Upper Rooms held two balls a week, a dress ball on Monday evenings and a fancy ball on Thursdays.

The tea room

The tea room  The Upper Rooms, Bath
The tea room
The Upper Rooms, Bath
The tea room was mainly used for refreshments and concerts. On ball nights, each person was charged an extra sixpence for tea. Public breakfasts could also be ordered by fashionable visitors for their friends here. The favourite drink was tea, served weak and black but sometimes with arrack and lemon.

Subscription concerts were held on Wednesday evenings during the season and many leading musicians visited the rooms including Haydn.

The octagon

Gambling was very popular in Georgian society and the Upper Rooms catered for this by providing rooms which were open for card games every day except Sunday. Card playing took place in the octagonal room, and later in the card room.

Mr King had particular rules about card playing in the Rooms. These included a rule forbidding anyone from playing with cards left by someone else and another banning hazard and other unlawful games.

In 1815, gentlemen could purchase a subscription to the card and reading room for the sum of 1 guinea for the year or ½ guinea for two months. The ladies’ subscription for the card assemblies was priced at 5 shillings.

The ball room, the Upper Rooms, Bath
The ball room, the Upper Rooms, Bath
The Upper Rooms today

The Upper Rooms were given to the National Trust in 1931 and have been home to the Fashion Museum since 1963.

1. Feltham, John, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places for 1813 (1813).

Sources used include:
Feltham, John, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places for 1813 (1813)
Feltham, John, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1815)
Garnett, Oliver and Dunlop, Patricia, The Assembly Rooms, Bath, the Authorised Guide (c2011)

Photographs ©