Article: The Regency Gown: The Importance of White
The Regency Gown: The Importance of White
The White Regency Gown in Austen's Novels
"'Mrs. Allen,' said Catherine the next morning, will there be any harm in my calling on Miss Tilney today? I shall not be easy till I have explained everything.' 'Go, by all means, my dear; only put on a white gown; Miss Tilney always wears white.'"
-Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818)
You might have caught yourself wondering, why does Jane Austen's Miss Tilney always wear white? The answer is relatively simple: the tubular white gown was for the women of Austen's day what the little black dress is today: a fashionable necessity for every season. In the early years of the nineteenth century, a white gown was an integral part of your wardrobe if you who wished to be stylish. From her letters, we know Austen herself owned white gowns and fashion plates from 1790-1820, like the one given on the left here, commonly feature white gowns for day and evening wear. We see several white gowns modelled in Ackermann's Repository of Arts, an illustrated British periodical that recorded current fashions. When the fashionable shape for dresses moved towards an hourglass rather than tube in the 1820s, many of the stylish white gowns popular in earlier years could not be modified to match the new style and were thus stored away.
According to Jane Ashford's The Art of Dress (1996), a large number of these white gowns still exist and can be seen in museum collections around the world. In the last five years, several of these white gowns have even been offered for sale by various sites specialising in historical textiles and clothing. Two other reasons for the survival of so many a tubular, white Regency gowns from Jane Austen's day are the ease of storing such a small, flexible garment. The white gown was easy to store because it was made of a soft, thin fabric just like that used for late eighteenth and early nineteenth century underwear.
What acted like the modern slip was a white or natural beige chemise: a thin cotton or linen undergarment that protected the dress from contact with sweat and prevented dresses from catching in the buttocks and legs and offered some concealment of the breasts and crotch. When the white dress first became fashionable in France in 1780s, it was called a "chemise gown" or "chemise dress" (or "chemise à la reine"--a chemise in the style of the queen) because it was made in the same style and from the same fabric fibers as the chemise. What distinguished the chemise gown from an actual chemise was the fineness of the fabric and its subtle needlework.
The Three Graces in High Wind, a satirical print by James Gillray (1810)
White Regency Gown: Virtuous or Scandalous?
So why was the white gown so popular, especially in the first decade of the nineteenth century? The white gown was associated with virtue: for centuries white, and white lily flowers in particular, had been associated with chastity. Simple white cotton dresses were associated with idealised pastoral life: the most moral and happy people supposedly lived simply in the country from honest labor, such as sheep herding. This ideal is celebrated in both the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans and of the eighteenth-century Neoclassical writers, who saw themselves recreating the golden age of Augustus Caesar. The white dress thus enabled women to identify themselves with virtuous restraint in dress. When Fanny Price in Austen's Mansfield Park worries that she is overdressed for a dinner party by wearing a white gown made for her to wear at her cousin's wedding, she is told by her future husband, "A woman can never be too fine while she is all in white. No, I see no finery about you; nothing but what is perfectly proper. Your gown seems very pretty. I like these glossy spots." Edmund's reply stresses the idea of white as associated with virtuous restraint in dress. Yet, at the same time, he notes the "glossy spots," which are likely cotton or chenille embroidered white work--in other words, hundreds of hand-sewn white embroidered spots on a white fabric. The white fabric was probably one of several very fine types of cotton available- mull, muslin, lawn, or gauze. Another possibility is the dress might be silk, "shot" with a more glossy thread, or even a silk net fabric, like tulle, covered with needle or bobbin lace. Less likely is the "glossy spots" were clusters of beads sewn onto the gown. The speculation above on Fanny's glossy-spotted white gown reveals the other major appeal of the white gown: its luxury. Paradoxically, while the white gown could suggest virtuous restraint on the one hand, on the other, it could simultaneously also suggest that the wearer wanted to appear desirable, sensual and characterised high-class, conspicuous leisure.
"'That Mrs. Whitaker is a treasure! She was quite shocked when I asked her whether wine was allowed at the second table, and she has turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns.'" -Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)
As the quote above suggests, a cheap domestic cotton or linen cloth dress, perhaps even with some wool or cotton embroidery trim, could be made by a poorer, lower-class woman to imitate the white finery of the rich. Austen's Mrs. Whitaker turns away or fires the maids, not for the impracticality of their wearing white, but for their attempts to look as fashionable as the women for whom they work. In addition, depending on how thin the fabric of the maid's gowns were or what the gowns were worn over, the dismissal of maids could also relate to their attempts to allude and hence, appear immoral. In 1808, Jane Austen wrote her sister about a dinner party at which "Mrs. Powlett was at once both expensively and nakedly dressed; we have had the satisfaction of estimating her Lace and Muslin."
Mrs. Powlett's white muslin and lace gown was probably very sheer and worn over flesh-colored silk undergarments and stockings to hint at her naked flesh beneath the dress. The 'naked' look was intended to imitate the clothing of the ancient world, so highly favoured by Neoclassicism. The discovery of the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Napoleon's campaigns in Egypt, and Lord Elgin's transfer of the Parthenon sculptures in 1803-12 from the Acropolis to London, all made dressing in white clinging drapery popular. Although scholars were aware that ancient Greek clothing was often colorful and patterned, it was the many white marble statues that remained in the public's mind as typical of ancient costume. Thomas Hope's 1812 expanded Costumes of the Greeks and Romans (which was excerpted in women's fashion journals of the time) notes in his introduction, "Where the human figure, instead of only being covered, is concealed by the garment, it no longer offers beauties superior to what the various articles of apparel might have displayed, collected in a mere bundle". Hope's comment goes some way to explaining the philosophy behind the "naked" look of thin, white gowns: dress should accentuate and reveal the superior beauties of the human form, not cover or conceal it.
To summarise, the white dress could be seen as both virtuous or scandalously naked; simple and restrained or luxurious and costly, an aristocratic fashion. This paradox is probably the reason that for some forty years, it was important that women of style were also a woman in white.