By Kathy Hammel
"If I thought it would not tempt her to go out in sharp winds, and grow coarse, I would send her a new hat and pelisse."
Sir Walter Elliot
In 1799, as the 18th Century was quietly taking its last breath and the craze was for all things classical, the spencer and pelisse were making their debut. The spencer-- a close-fitting, tight sleeved, waist length jacket modeled on a gentleman's riding coat, but without tails-- is said to be the invention of one Lord Spencer. While references agree that Lord Spencer inadvertently engendered the style through a mishap; what exactly the mishap was, however, is not generally agreed upon. It seems the gentleman in question either had the tails torn from his riding coat when he fell from his horse or had them singed off after he backed too close to the fire while warming himself. Either way, Lord Spencer apparently found the tail-less riding coat to his liking and instructed his tailor to make him several more in the same style. It wasn't long before the fair sex took up the style (note 1) -- the bottom of the jacket raised to match the high waists of the current fashion-- and a Regency classic was born.
The pelisse has a somewhat more mundane genesis: with the fashion of the time favoring lightweight fabrics with almost no underclothing, women were literally freezing to death. 1803 was a devastating year for the fashionable lady; a goodly number of them perished from the "muslin disease," the popular name given a French influenza epidemic credited with carrying off scores of scantily dressed ladies who'd braved the frigid weather in little more than wispy sheaths. To counteract death by fashion, the pelisse and spencer soon became standard wear among Regency belles.
Spencers fit tightly to the body, hugging it as closely as a bodice. Spencers could be worn either open or buttoned tightly over the bosom. They were often in a darker, contrasting color to the dress beneath. Early in the century, the spencer was a collar-less, sleeveless overblouse, that might be pulled on over the head rather than having the more standard front opening. This sleeveless garment might be worn indoors as well as out, and is sometimes referred to as a canezou or hussar vest. At this time, they were often made of white or black lace over colored sarsnet. Also prior to 1804, the spencer, though it was tight under the bosom, might have a loose `skirt' descending to below the natural waist. After 1804, the style of spencer more familiar to Regency readers, came into vogue, usually sporting a standing collar which might be high enough to fold over; in cool weather the spencer could even be fur lined or be worn with a fur tippet or pelerine (note 2) over it to add warmth.
The pelisse, however, was a better choice of outerwear for cooler weather. An overdress or coat dress, the pelisse fit relatively close to the figure (though not tight) and was styled along the same high-waisted lines as the dress of the day. Pelisses were often lined or edged with fur and, in fashionable circles, more or less replaced the fur-lined cloaks of the earlier periods. (note 3) Pelisses were also heavily and variously trimmed with fur, swansdown, contrasting fabric, frog fastenings, etc. practically from their beginning. In May of 1810, a London Miss writes to her country sister: "Pelisses, as is usual at this season are in much request. They are chiefly composed of twill sarsnets, either shot or figured; some reaching to the feet, clasped at regular distances from the throat to the bottom; others are of a demi-length (note 4), rounded at the ends and confined with festooned ropes of floss silk with tassels in the center." (Ackermann's)
Choice of fabric for pelisses and spencers was dictated largely by the season. In the Spring months, the pelisse might be fashioned of silk, satin or light velvets; in the summer, lighter fabrics, such as sarsnet, light silks, or even muslin might be employed. Winter, of course, brought out the fur lined velvets and wools.
Colors (including prints, strips and plaids) were generally decided by the fashionable elite and styles of ornamentation and-- during the years of war and conquest--were heavily influenced by things military. One fashion correspondent bemoans this custom "of drawing names (and styles) of fashions from every popular occurrence": "Mr. Adam's treaty with the Sublime Porte will doubtless introduce amongst our spring fashions a profusion of Turkish turbans, Janizary jackets, mosque slippers and a thousand similar whimsicalities; all of which (provided a northern coalition be accomplished) must speedily give way to Russian cloaks, hussar caps, Cossack mantles, Danish robes, &c, so that by the setting in of the dog-days, our ladies will stand a chance of being arrayed in the complete costume of all the shivering nations of the north." (Ackermann's April 1809) Apparently, our correspondent was not overstating his case, as proved by this letter from Brighton in October 1810: "On the beach and gay parade we see the Arabian coat, Arcadian mantle, Persian spencer, and Grecian scarf, with French cloaks and tippets..." Indeed, our Regency cousins did love anything that gave hint of the exotic.
Unfortunately for the researcher trying to get a handle on fashion trends of the era, dress was subject to rapid and undisciplined changes. Though modern day texts do attempt to report on generalities, a review of period literature shows monthly, if not weekly changes in what was au currante. As it turns out, even contemporary belles had a bit of a struggle keeping up, as one noted in January of 1810: "...at this moment a world of variety prevails...it would puzzle discrimination...to select all that is considered fashionable." While one could say, in general, that spencers changed from long overblouses to short bolero style jackets, and pelisses went from half length open coats to long, closed coats, these were neither smooth nor absolute changes. In August of 1810 our London Miss reports that "the long pelisse is now exploded...or is only worn by a few second-rates, or as a wrap for the open carriage." However, while this preference for short or 'demi-long" pelisses lasted through about 1813, long pelisses continued to be featured in contemporary fashion plates, and by 1822 they were generally worn ankle length. A contemporary report says, "(pelisses) are...worn so long, that one can scarcely discern even the (hem) trimming of the gown."
Besides the spencer, pelisse and cloak already mentioned, Regency ladies might also be seen wearing pelerines, mantles (note 5) and shawls. Any of these might be worn alone, or over either a spencer or pelisse to lend additional warmth. The pelerine, when used as an adjunct to the spencer, often would be made of fur. When worn alone, the pelerine as well as the mantle, were generally used in spring or summer when the milder weather made a lined, form-fitting jacket or coat.
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