Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dressing the Regency Era's Plus-Size Woman

Thursday, May 9, 2013
1802 British Vessels

Loretta reports:

The following questions about Regency era fashions for plus-size ladies appeared in the comments for my Fashions of May 1810 post:


“These historic illustrations are very pretty but it seems they do the same injustice that modern day models do. They portray ultra thin women. That might be okay for even an average size woman but what was the 'larger' lady to do? How was she supposed to know what a particular fashion would look like on her? Are there any illustrations of fashions for 'fat ladies'?”

The illustration at top is typical of Regency images of women.  As Susan pointed out in The Myth of the Regency Sylph, a plumper ideal of beauty (e.g, "A First Rate" in the print) held sway than what appears in fashion plates.  However, this doesn’t mean that the caricaturists didn't mock fat women.  The era was misogynistic to a horrifying degree.  Still, as the image below demonstrates, the caricaturists made fun of fat men, too, even when that fat man was the Prince of Wales.  But satirical prints were equal opportunity mockers, ridiculing skinny people as well. 

Fashion illustration, then and now, can be as exaggerated as caricatures, and thin women prevail—though, as slim as the women in my 1810 fashion post are, they’re certainly not the size 00 we see in today’s fashion magazines.  The less curve you have to draw around, the easier to display a dress design, apparently.

Inconveniences of a Crowded Drawing Room
So what did the not-sylphlike ladies do?  Anyone aspiring to the kinds of fashions shown in, say, Ackermann’s Repository or La Belle AssemblĂ©e, would have her clothes made by a dressmaker.  This person, known by the 1830s as a modiste, would not only make the clothes but, to the extent the client permitted, act as stylist as well.  A dressmaker who wanted a successful business would take care to dress her client in the most flattering way, a point I do try to get across in my Dressmaker series(The third book, still in progress, will address directly the challenges of the less-than-fashionably-ideal figure.)

Illustration  credits
Top: British Vessels. Described for the Use of Country Gentlemen,1802, courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.  Bottom: George Cruikshank, Inconveniences of a Crowded Drawing Room, courtesy Wikipedia.

5 comments:

Michelle Styles said...

have either of you read the Dorothy Moore book on WOmen in Fashion that was published in late 1940s.Margot Fonteyn's brother did the photo and the she used actresses, leading models and ballerinas wearing the actual clothes from the various decades in the 19th century. Dorothy Moore is one of the first fashion historians and indeed her collection provided the nucleus for the British Fashion museum's collection. She had some interesting things to say about waists, corsets and how a good dressmaker can really fool the eye. The Regency with its high waists was much kinder to older women than later decades and she argued it said something about the status of women.

Anonymous said...

Because today both the UK & the US are in midst of an obesity epidemic, we tend to forget (or overlook) the fact that there simply weren't nearly as many "Plus-Sized" people of either gender in the regency era. People of every class were much more physically active then. Consider how often Jane Austen's heroines go visiting or to town on foot, thinking nothing of walking several miles. There was no "Supersizing" of meals then, either. Gluttony was still considered not only a sin, but impolite and rude. Part of the reason the obese women and men (including the Prince Regent) are being lampooned in these prints is because they were a freakish curiosity, a grotesque, and not an everyday occurance.

hopegreenberg said...

I love that print but it should be noted that the print is directed at "Country Gentlemen" for a reason. They are all variations of the term more familiar to readers of regency romances, that of the "barque of frailty." However, the range of sizes can be seen in more fashionable women as well in Rowlandson's "Exhibit Stare Case" http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/t/thomas_rowlandson,_exhibition.aspx

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Another thing that Loretta and I have discussed: this is a time before mass-produced clothing and standardized sizes. Whether you were a colonial slave or a duchess, in the majority of cases, your clothes were made, or remade, to fit only you and your measurements. Everything was bespoke. I suspect women were much more comfortable with their bodies, whatever their size, before the tyranny of having to conform (or not) to the sizes available in stores.

Jasmine Kyle said...
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