Regular Word Wench visitor Nina Paules is writing a Regency historical so she decided to experience Regency costume first-hand. I found Nina’s comments on her experience so interesting that I asked if I could stitch some of the highlights together in a “you are there” blog. So, turning the pixels over to Nina:
NINA PAULES: It all started with one innocent question. “How far down the hip does a Regency corset extend,” I inquired of Kalen Hughes, during her November online class on HOW REGENCY CLOTHES WORK, (http://kalenhughes.com/) and where does all the extra (in my case fat) go when one sits down?" I just had to know.
Four months later, with the help of Kalen’s excellent suggestions and my Mamá’s ingenuity, I stood for the last fitting of my very own Regency corset. Scandalously striped in ivory, gold and blue, it was the most beautiful undergarment I had ever owned. It did magnificent things to my silhouette, lifting my DD’s to heights never before seen, even in my youth.
And, oh! my posture—sitting straight required less effort thanks to the thick busk running from breast to about 2 inches below the navel and standing tall with shoulders back was all that I could do. And while bending at the waist was now a foreign concept as was raising the shoulder above its normal set, limited movement was a small price to pay for the exquisite beauty of my décolletage.
Now, lest you think me crazy, which would not be wholly inaccurate, or find me self possessed, I had a very good reason for doing this mad thing, my dear fellow wenchlings. Research! I did it all in the name of research. If I was to convincingly transplant a 21st century heroine into 19th century England, I needed to know, (and so did she) how it felt to wear a corset. But, before I could don my stays and play the buxom Regency hoyden to my hero, I received an email from Mary Jo. A Ladies’ Regency Weekend was being held in Riverdale, Maryland. I just had to go.
More advice from Kalen, countless trips to fabric stores, twice as many fittings and three waves from my Mamá’s magic wand, made me the proud owner of a white eyelet, full-length petticoat, a deep purple walking dress with matching bonnet and reticule, a simple yet elegant day dress and a burgundy-red silk ball gown with matching shoes and gloves that was sure to turn any royal duchess green with envy.
I was stunned by how much yardage it took to make these delightful confections. When wearing my day dress, I am encased in four different layers (shift, corset, petticoat, dress), totaling about 15 yards of fabric and at my back are 8 hooks and four different gathering laces safely securing everything in place. Experiencing the putting on and taking off of so many layers along with the hooking of the hooks and tying of the strings, put me to wondering just how do our heroes manage to avoid entangling themselves while attempting to free their heroines’ from those bothersome frocks. But, I suppose that is what makes them heroes, eh? (Nina in the walking dress at right.)
Oh, by the by, did I mention that not one garment, save the shift, am I able to put on or take off by myself. Hmm.
Swathed in my purple walking frock, I arrived, quite alone, at Riversdale in the late afternoon of April 20. The mansion was completed in 1807 and was originally the home of George and Rosalie Calvert. ( http://www.riversdale.org/ ) The 90 minute car ride had left me feeling rather breathless and confined. Sitting with one’s bum lower than the thighs (as in a bucket seat) while trussed in a corset is quite uncomfortable, indeed. Bring on the straight-backed seat of a traveling coach!
Glad to be free of my incommodious mode of transportation, I dropped my anachronistic keys into my reticule, donned my flowered purple bonnet and ivory tatted gloves, then set myself to lifting my portmanteau (a.k.a. suitcase) from the trunk.
It was here I discovered a corset posed greater than expected limitations on independence. The heavy busk, which I had become quite accustomed to, unexpectedly rendered my abdominal strength wholly ineffective for lifting. Now I know why Ladies have need of a footman.
(MJP: Nina entered Riversdale and was greeted by the hostess (Ann Wass) and offered refreshments. She found that several of the dozen or so ladies present were writers of Regencies, creating a most congenial company. Then came dinner….)
NINA: I supped upon cold ham, an assortment of cheese, bread and a most wonderful unleavened cake topped with lemon curd, all the while learning that eating in a corset required more than a bit of finesse. That is if one wished to keep one’s décolletage free of food and earn a view of the plate set before her.
Firstly, I scooted back a bit in my chair, but the distance left my lap perilously exposed. So I discreetly reseated myself and pushed my plate a bit deeper into the table, but that merely increased the opportunity for an errant blob of mustard or curd to most embarrassingly drizzle over the brocade table linen. Finally, I gently nudged the food to the far side of plate (so I could see it) and carefully tended to each piece before allowing it to embark upon the perilous journey over the two ripe melons protruding above my bodice as if proudly displayed on a grocer’s shelf.
As the evening aged, I thought to slip away from the activities and prepare for bed. But I was quickly reminded by the swish of skirts about my feet that I was not able to undo even one hook to free myself from the many swathing layers. No longer was I the independent, self reliant modern woman I had been just twelve hours ago. Indeed, I was becoming a Regency lady.
Soon the evening was called and wonderful Marie—my tall, young “corset buddy” (an arrangement we had secretly made earlier in the day) — set her nimble fingers to the task and before long, the walking dress and petticoat slid over my hips. I could taste the coming freedom. Then she began to tug on my double knotted corset strings and I suddenly realized my lovelies were about to head south, very far south, in front of her. In front of everybody! (Right–Nina and her "corset buddy," Marie Grenchik.)
That I would be naked, as my shift covered me wholly, from shoulder to knee. Nor was anyone staring. But I am, as most women probably are, accustomed to much more privacy when my less than flattering secrets are laid bare. No wonder ladies insisted on traveling with their maids as submitting one’s self (and one’s best kept secrets) to a stranger feels, well, strange.
(MJP: After an educational Saaturday of sewing, gaming, and socialization–and glancing out the window to estimate time since the modern watch had gone the way of the car keys–it was time for the ball that would end the Regency weekend.)
NINA: We danced and played the evening away, a swirl of community held together by the illusion of transport we all seemed to guard tightly in our breasts. The dances were divine, allowing every dancer to dance with every other in the room as we turned and turned again, always reaching for another’s gloved hand. We left for the gaming tables just as the windows of the Great Hall were being thrown open, inviting the cool night air to join us when next we returned. And we did return, drunk with laughter, and danced again.
Much too soon, the evening ended with the Duke of Kent’s Waltz and a hearty huzzah for Mr. Jim Wass, our most excellent and long-suffering dance master. (The picture shows Maria Grenchik (green gown), author Kristina Cook (blue gown), Jim Wass (Dance Master), and Nina in her magnificent burgundy ball gown.)
Then, I stood, damp with exertion, my corset buddy at my back, again, her nimble fingers tugging on the corset strings. Embarrassment did not enter my mind as we laughed and talked and others came and went from the room, suitcases and gowns in hand, saying a fond Adieu. When at last I tugged on my jeans, an empty quiet had fallen over Riversdale, almost as if it had all been a dream. But the levity in my heart and the cloud of crowned curls upon my head promised it had not.
My faithful corset tucked under my arm, I descended the front marble steps, alone as when I entered, suitcase bumping along behind me. The illusion fading, I wondered who had the better life?–us with our easy “on/off” bras and stretchy clothing or them with hooks they couldn’t reach and laces they couldn’t untie? “They had the better life,” was my mental decision as I easily lifted the suitcase into the trunk, then comfortably slipped into the driver’s seat. Those women, I mused, really needed one another. And from that base need there seemed to bloom joy in companionship.
I started the car, then glanced back and waved my own fond farewell to a time in which I can only dream (and write) about.
Oh, by the by, should any of you still be wondering where all the fat goes when I sit down… well, thank goodness Regency stays aren’t laced that tight!
(MJP: I couldn’t resist adding a lovely meditation on Regency sensuality that Nina sent me in a separate e-mail):
NINA: It’s sort of hard to explain but wearing Regency fashion is like trading independence for power. IMHO, both women and men lost something in the sexual revolution. Women lost the power to tantalize and lure the opposite sex. Men don’t need to dance with us as an excuse to touch our hand. They don’t need to charm us with wit or a smile in public as they can freely put an arm around our waist. We are no longer a mystery to them. We are independent. Their equal. So, why should they have to open a door or help us on with our coat?
But in proper Regency dress, while a healthy expanse of “neck” is available for admiring eyes, the shape of the body remains a mystery. A very tantalizing one. The right to unwrap the pretty package must be earned with winks and smiles, dancing and wit, sweet nothings and flowers. While lacking independence, woman owned a great deal of power.
The first time my husband saw me in my ball gown he gave me a smile I haven’t seen since our wedding day. He wanted to unwrap the package (though he has seen it thousands of times) and he instinctively knew what he must do to do to earn the right. Perhaps it was because I appeared untouchable, a delicate glass vase set high upon a shelf, something he could only admire. In our entire married lives we have never danced more than once or twice. But the night of the Regency Weekend, he took my hand, led me onto the dance floor and we danced. After the last set he was very glad the package was his to take home and unwrap. <g>
Thank you, Mary Jo, for having me as your guest on Word Wenches. It has been wonderful fun.
MJP: So there are the experiences and insights of a thoughtful wenchling. How about the rest of you? Have you had Regency experiences you’d like to share? Have Nina’s observations invoked some startled thoughts? (No upper body strength gave me pause.) If so, tell us about them!
Mary Jo, offering many thanks to Nina for sharing her Regency experiences!