Monday, September 7, 2009

Little White Dress

Monday, September 7, 2009

Loretta reports:

Off and on, Susan & I have been discussing those ubiquitous white muslin dresses of the Regency, and trying to decide whether it’s a romance myth that this was the standard attire for the innocent Regency miss. Madame RĂ©camier (note the bare feet--there’s another blog) seems to contradict that concept, but then, she’s French.

Reading Frances Wilson’s The Courtesan’s Revenge, a biography of the famous Regency era ho Harriette Wilson, I came upon this sentence: “It was now that she began to dress in her trademark white muslin and to ensure that she was seen everywhere.”

Trademark white muslin? I’ve read a lot about Harriette, including two versions of her memoirs, but never realized that white muslin was her trademark. Does this mean it was unusual for a young woman to wear it? Are we mistaken to send our Regency misses to Almack’s dressed in white muslin dresses? Or it was she unusual in wearing white muslin exclusively?

Or does this simply tell us something about Harriette? She wasn’t married, after all, at least not during the period of her fame, so she’d qualify as a “miss,” albeit no virgin. She did like a joke, and while her substantial bosom (emphasized in many caricatures) was certainly an attraction, so was her sense of humor.

Maybe, when she adopted the white muslin dress, Harriette was just being funny.

What do you think?


Monica Burns said...

Maybe it means she could only afford a couple of dresses and as long as they were white muslin then no one would know any differently. Which in turn became a fashion statement for her that set her apart from every other woman. Of course, British humor is rather dry, so it's more than possible it was a joke for her, which might have been economical as well. Either way, she must have been one sharp cookie. *grin*

And I LOVE, just LOVE that pic of her on the sofa. It's one of my favorite classics.

An I have to tell you...the two of you have some totally INCREDIBLE, beautiful covers. The Gods are definitely kind to you in the cover department. I'm TOTALLY envious

Loretta Chase said...

Monica, you remind me of the Lily Langtry series--the one black dress she wore constantly. I'm not so sure this was Harriette's situation, since she was notoriously extravagant, running up huge bills for clothes, wine, and all the et ceteras of show required for a celebrity courtesan. Whether she had two dresses or a hundred, though, I do agree that she was a sharp cookie in creating a signature look.
As to our covers: the gods have not always been kind. That makes us all the more appreciative of our good cover fortune lately.

SusannahC said...

Loretta, what an interesting tidbit about Harriette Wilson adopting a "signature style" of white muslin. I, too, have read her memoirs and a biography about her (but not the one you mentioned), and I have not heard this before.

I suspect, since it was well-known that Harriette was not a virginal miss, that she chose the white muslin deliberately, to make herself stand out amongst the courtesans.

grandmem said...

not exactly related to the little white dress, but it seemed to me that you two might know if anyone did - when did it stop being unacceptable for women to attend funerals, and when did it become de rigeur?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

This is all most interesting, Loretta. I'm betting on the sarcasm ticket for Harriette and her white muslin. While white muslin (and linen) had been the fabric of choice for English children for most of the 18th century, I've always doubted that the fashion for the kind of white gown that Harriette's wearing here wasn't nearly as widespread in England as modern Regency novels portray. In France, yes, but not England. For one thing, it's too darn cold. English fashion plates from the time show white, but as an option, not a uniform, and often with lots of color, too. And right off the top of my head, I can't think of any English portraits of a grown woman wearing the filmy, high-waisted, short-sleeved or sleeveless all-white gown -- except for Harriette. So maybe it WAS her "signature look"?

Monica, Loretta's right. We may have some gorgeouso covers now (and we do!), but there are some VERY bad ones lurking in our pasts. It's the law of averages in publishing. :)

Grandmem, I have no idea about the funerals! But a good idea for a future blog....

Vanessa Kelly said...

What a beautiful print of Harriette, and that dress does certainly showcase her attractions. I like the idea that she was flipping the sarcasm bird to those who looked down on her. Maybe the other possibility was that she looked good in white. Some women really do, depending on their coloring. I'm assuming that she would always want to show to advantage.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

Love this. Dare I bring up the ubiquitous 'sprigging?' Whassup w/the whole sprigged-muslin thing? Is that a printed embellishment, a weave? And perhaps part of Harriet's shtick was the whole virgin/trollop thing which, I've been told, some men enjoy...

StyleMaven said...

You are right on the money, Nerdy History Girls. There are numerous formal portraits of British noblewoman in the white muslin of a slightly earlier era, in the robe a l'anglais (see Duchess of Devonshire and Countess of Derby) I can't think of any dressed with the freedom of the French women like Madame Recamier, who was hardly a lady herself. The French fashions were regarded as "racy" by the British aristocracy, even "dangerous" so soon after the Revolution. It would be entirely in keeping with Harriet Wilson to have chosen a subversive fashion like this for her own.

Loretta Chase said...

Susannah C, I can picture Harriette at the theater, standing out among all the rich ladies as well as the other courtesans, everyone dressed in silks and satins and the fashionable color of the month. This is a very interesting bio, BTW, with bits of info I've come upon nowhere else. ___Grandmem, I've no idea, either. But we'll get to funerals, I'm sure.___Vanessa, so many women look washed out in white, so we have to think white was a standout color for Harriette; she's much too smart to wear an unbecoming color or style. __Michelle, sprigged muslin is simply muslin embroidered with sprigs. It could be embroidered with dots or fancy designs.___ StyleMaven, great point about Harriette choosing a subversive fashion--that would be perfectly in keeping with her personality.

Ingrid said...

This famous painting of Mme Recamier does of course predate the Regency (1802). In the second decade of the 19th century fashionable dresses often had heavily flounced and decorated hems and there was on the whole a lot more sewing in them, even in France. The plates of the Journal des Dames et des Modes show this evolution beautifully. You keep seeing an awful lot of white in these plates, but never exclusively, not even in summer. In winter you see warm coats (redingotes or douillettes) and fur was very sought after, as were the famous Kashmir shawls. Ball dresses were usually shown in winter, and these are often white or in pale colours, but mostly in other, more expensive materials than cotton (i.e. muslin). In the second decade you begin to see dresses entirely made of blonde (a silk lace), but that was only affordable for very rich women on very special occasions.
I studied a Dutch fashion magazine that was based on the Journal and appeared from 1807 to 1810. One interesting observation I found was that wearing white cotton was very expensive, as it cost a fortune in laudering and ironing. A dark silk dress was a lot more economical, but a woman needed to have reached a certain age to realise this - grandmotherhood in her forties.

Loretta Chase said...

"One interesting observation I found was that wearing white cotton was very expensive, as it cost a fortune in laudering and ironing."

Great point, Ingrid! Susan and I were just discussing this very topic--what fabrics were the most expensive, and which women would wear them. The Recamier is early, and does correspond to Harriette's heyday, which predated the "official" Regency--which is where we got the idea that maybe the white muslin had racy, French connotations.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Ingrid! How was the Versailles exhibition of court dress?

And yes, Loretta and I were also discussing cotton aka muslin as a luxury fabric. We figured its shift from luxury to practical was tied in with the invention of the cotton gin...once the price of cotton went down, so did its status.

But I agree that no matter how expensive cotton muslin might be, it just doesn't show off jewels the way that silk does. :)

Ingrid said...

Susan, it was wonderful! The clothes exhibited were of course borrowed from other countries, as they have very little left in France. There were coronation robes and wedding clothes, uniforms of the Saint-Esprit, France's premier order of knighthood, like the Garter still is in Britain. And there was jewellery; I was particularly taken with a stomacher of diamonds and pearls that is kept in Munich. But the ruby set that belonged to the prince of Saxony wasn't a bad either: buttons, sword, cane and snuff box.
There was undress too: hunting costumes and Czar Peter the Great's dressing gown from the Hermitage.

Which reminds me that we have a wonderful exhibition in Amsterdam till the end of the year with a lot of 19th-century costumes from the Hermitage. I've tried to link to the pictures with English text.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Ingrid, how I wish I could have seen the exhibition on court dress, too! Though you were a little closer... The website was major temptation. And Peter the Great's dressing gown!!

For anyone else who wasn't fortunate enough to pop over to Versailles this summer (like everyone here in the US!), here's the link:

OK, now I'm having trouble with the Hermitage link, too, and I tried a couple of different browsers. What am I doing wrong?

Ingrid said...

Let's try again. The URL did not divide over two lines in my message, which made it difficult to copy. It should end in: beeldmateriaal.htm
You could also go to, click on the English version and look for the pictures yourself. They're in the press section.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thanks for persevering, Ingrid -- that's a GREAT link! :)

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