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Tuesday 15 March 2016

Regency opera dresses

Opera dresses from The Mirror of the Graces (1811)
Opera dresses from The Mirror of the Graces (1811)
Here is the final post from The Mirror of the Graces depicting fashion at the beginning of the Regency. The other posts are: morning dresses, promenade dresses and evening dresses. This post looks at opera dresses.

Lady in pink
The fourth plate represents two females in opera or full dress. First figure attired in a round robe, with a demi-train of pink imperial gauze, worn over a white satin slip, ornamented round the bosom, back, and shoulders, with fine Vandyke lace: white satin short sleeves, and appliqued stomacher of white satin, rising above the robe in front of the bust, so as decorously to shade the bosom: a Pomeranian bonnet of white satin, or silver frosted velvet: two white ostrich feathers drooping towards the left side: a diamond or pearl neck-chain, with Carmelite cross: a silver cestus and clasp: a Chinese scarf of white or fawn-colour silk, with variegated ends, and narrow corresponding border: white satin or kid slippers, trimmed with silver fringe: white gloves of French kid, and fan of spangled crape.1
Vandyke lace

The lace is described as ‘Vandyke’, a term that was also used in the description of the morning gowns in The Mirror of the Graces which I looked at in a previous post. This means that the lace was edged in v-shaped points, the name coming from the Flemish painter, Sir Anthony Vandyke, who was known for his short pointed beard. 

Vandyke lace detail on a dinner costume from   La Belle Assemblée (1808)
Vandyke lace detail on a
dinner costume from  
La Belle Assemblée (1808)
Pomeranian bonnet

The bonnet is described as Pomeranian. Pomerania is an area in north east Europe bordering the Baltic Sea. As far as I can work out, in 1811, part was ruled by Prussia and part by Sweden. If anyone is an expert in European politics during the Regency, please feel free to correct me.

Carmelite fashion

The pendant worn by the first figure is described as a Carmelite cross. I wondered what the significance of Carmelite was and discovered the history of the Carmelite nuns. 

Carmelite derives its name from the Carmel mountain range in current day Israel. In the biblical story, it was on Mount Carmel that Elijah demonstrated that his God was the only true god and defeated the wicked prophets of Baal. This gave rise to various Carmelite Orders including the Discalced Carmelite nuns. Apparently discalced simply means that they went around with bare feet. 

The Discalced Carmelite nuns of Paris were guillotined in 1794, during the French Revolution, and became known as the Martyrs of Compiegne. I suspect that it was this tragic story that probably inspired the fashions based on the devotional clothes of the Carmelite nuns.

I have been unable to find out exactly what a Carmelite cross looked like, but have discovered a number of other references to Carmelite in the fashion descriptions of the period including several references to ‘Carmelite brown’, the colour of the Discalced Carmelites’ clothing. 
Grey satin hats trimmed with rose colour, which forms a beautiful union, or of a Carmelite brown velvet, are reckoned most elegant;2
The dresses of the Ladies B was so singular in their construction and design, that they will be found worthy of delineation, were it only on the score of novelty; they were styled the Carmelite, or Convent vest, and were formed of a gossamer satin, the colour a nun's brown.3
…it will therefore only be necessary here to specify such articles as are most worthy of distinction in this and every other style of fashionable decoration. The Carmelite, or Convent cloak, of coloured sarsnet;4
The Carmelite cloak, though much in esteem, is rivalled by the Rugen mantle, or Swedish wrap, which owes its origin to the exquisite taste, and invention of my dashing cousin.4
Mary wore a single row of fine brilliants, by way of necklace, from the centre of which was suspended a Carmelite cross, her earrings and bracelets to correspond.4
A silver cestus

The first time I Googled ‘cestus’ to find out what it was, I was told that it was an ancient battle glove a bit like a boxing glove. This didn’t sound right, so I looked again. Elsewhere in The Mirror of the Graces, it referred to “the cestus of Venus as the talisman of beauty”. By searching for ‘cestus of Venus’, I came up with a much more appropriate definition for cestus: a woman’s belt or girdle, particularly those worn by women of ancient Greece. 

Pale pink cestus or belt on an evening dress from La Belle Assemblée (1812)
Pale pink cestus or belt on an evening dress
from La Belle Assemblée (1812)
Lady in white
The second figure in this plate appears in a Grecian robe of white gossamer satin or sarsnet, ornamented at the bottom with a deep silver border in the Egyptian style, and confined up the front, and across each side the bosom with small turquoise snaps, and clasps to correspond: the hair in full curls in front, formed in helmet crown behind, and ornamented with a wreath of white roses: a large pilgrim’s or Carmelite pelerine of spotted ermine, lined with blue silk: blue kid slippers, with silver clasps: gloves of French kid, and fan of carved ivory, with blue and silver crape mount.1
More Carmelite fashion

A pelerine is a short or waist-length cloak or cape with long pointed ends hanging down in the front. Pictures of current-day Carmelite nuns show them wearing a shoulder cape or pelerine underneath their brown scapular or tabard-like garment. However, this picture of Mother Teresa of St Augustine suggests that they may have worn them over their scapulars.5 We can be sure of one thing though – they certainly wouldn’t have been made of spotted ermine!

Mother Teresa of St Augustine, a Carmelite nun,  from Life of the Venerable Mother Teresa of St Augustine (1879)
Mother Teresa of St Augustine, a Carmelite nun,
 from Life of the Venerable Mother Teresa
of St Augustine (1879)

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian Regency era romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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(1) From The Mirror of the Graces; or the English lady's costume (1811) by a lady of distinction.
(2) From La Belle Assemblée (Dec 1814)
(3) From La Belle Assemblée (Aug 1807)
(4) From La Belle Assemblée (Sept 1807)
(5) Mother Teresa of St Augustine was the assumed name of Princess Louise of France (1737-1787), youngest child of Louis XV. She joined the Carmelite convent at Saint-Denis in 1770.

Sources used include:
A lady of distinction, The Mirror of the Graces; or the English lady's costume (1811)
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée (1806-1837)
Life of the Venerable Mother Teresa of St Augustine: Louise of France, daughter of Louis XV, Carmelite nun of the convent of St Denis (1879) (in French)


  1. Thank you for this article. I learned so much, just as I do with all you post. I always look forward to hearing from you. SJWEARSCH

  2. Brown was too ordinary, of course; it had to have some glamour, like Carmelite brown, Devonshire brown or Dust of Ruins

    1. They did like their fancy colour names, didn't they? At least when they add the colour, you know vaguely what colour they're talking about!

  3. SO, would opera dresses be worn only to go to the opera? How did they differ from evening dresses or ball dresses? I love the Vandyke lace, btw.

    1. These dresses are also described as full dress and were not exclusively for wearing at the opera. According to Kristen Koster (see my fashion links page), full dress was for the most formal occasions including opera, evening concerts, balls etc Evening dress was a subset of full dress, suitable for some occasions requiring full dress but not all.