Tuesday, November 6, 2007
The term “afternoon dress” can apply to many different types of gowns. In general, any afternoon dress is the opposite of a morning dress: it's meant to be seen. Other than that, the type of situation it was meant to be seen in would dictate its style. During the Regency, light muslins were very popular for afternoon dress. In the first few years of the 19th century, so many young women died after catching a chill or pneumonia due to wearing these light gowns in the winter that it was called “the muslin disease”!
During the day, one's bosom was entirely covered (well, unless one were beyond the pale). Even dresses with low scoop necklines were filled in with a chemisette (a dickey made of thin material) or fichu (a thin scarf tucked into a low neckline). Unlike today, cleaveage was NOT a daytime accessory.
A walking gown or promenade gown was meant for – you guessed it! – walking. It would be made in the most fashionable style, with beautiful trimmings, and worn while shopping or walking through the park. A walking dress could also be worn to pay calls on other families. The name is somewhat misleading, because nothing about it made it better for walking than any other dress. When trains were popular for daywear, walking dresses had them, and I can't imagine that would have been easy!
Another type of afternoon dress was a carriage dress or traveling dress. These were made out of slightly heavier fabrics, ones that would resist wrinkles more than a cotton muslin. Also, they tended not to have as many trimmings, which could become crushed during a long carriage ride.
Riding habits were also worn sometimes for traveling, but more often they were worn for (no, wait, don't tell me) riding. Made out of a sturdy material (like wool), a riding habit consisted of a dress with a very simple bodice and a jacket that was meant to cover it at all times. Imagine it as wearing a sportsbra under a blazer instead of a regular shirt. Sure, it's there, but you're not going to take off your blazer and let everyone see it.
The skirts of a riding habit were also longer and fuller than the skirts for a walking dress or carriage dress. They had to be in order to be draped over the ladies legs and protect her modesty while she rode sidesaddle. Riding habits took many details from men's clothing, the jackets being rather mannish in cut, and even the hats worn while riding were distinctly masculine. Riding habits also took many details from military uniforms, often being decorated with military-style piping or embroidery and epaulettes.
walking dress Outerwear was an important part of afternoon dress, especially if one didn't want to catch the muslin disease! Long hooded cloaks were always popular, as were many different styles of shawls. Some were decorated with classical Greek motifs, others with a paisley pattern (yes, paisley was around even then). The weights of shawls could vary from soft, heavy cashmere to light silk or even muslin in the spring and summer.
Another type of outerwear was the spencer. It was supposedly created by Earl Spencer (a great-great-great… ancestor of Princess Diana) when the bottom of his coat burned off after he'd had his back to the fire. Whether this is true or not, spencers were high-waisted jackets which could be worn over afternoon dresses of any type for warmth.
A close relative of the spencer was the pelisse. pelisse Most pelisses were basically spencers with an attached skirt. They provided more warmth than a spencer, because it would also keep one's ankles toasty. Some pelisses looked a bit more like shorter robes, ending at the knee or so, but to me these seem to defeat the purpose. One's ankles would freeze! Both spencers and pelisses took many details from men's clothing, and often had a military theme. Because of the War with Napoleon, military details were extremely popular for most of the Regency.
Other must-have afternoon dress accessories were gloves, muffs, bonnets, caps or hats, and of course appropriate footwear. But that is a story for another day