Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rediscovering the Evening Bodice, c. 1817

Sunday, March 24, 2013
Susan reporting,

In deciphering the mysteries of historic dress, a picture is worth a thousand words...except when it isn't. When Loretta and I have seen fashion plates like the one, left, (full image here) from 1812, we've assumed that the colored bodice was part of the dress itself, an early 19th c. version of colored-blocking. We also assumed that the word "bodice" in the plate's description simply referred to a section of the dress: "a peasant's bodice of pink satin or velvet, laced in front."

However, we don't have to elaborate on what happens when you assume, especially about fashion. Fashion changes constantly and always has, and what often seems like a logical description can refer to something entirely different.

Fortunately, one of our readers and fellow nerdy-history-girls is Natalie Garbett. Natalie is a professional historical researcher, costume-maker, and re-enactor whose work has appeared in productions of the BBC, Shakespeare's Globe, and many others. While she specializes in creating reproduction clothing from 1600-1940, she is especially drawn to the clothing of the early 19th c.

Natalie had also seen bodices like the one above, but while we assumed, she researched. Turns out that peasant bodices and evening spencers were in fact separate garments.  Usually made of a luxurious fabric like silk or velvet and often decorated with fringe, lace, and other trimmings, these bodices added a touch of color and richness (and a smidgen of warmth) to the white and light-colored dresses of the day. In an era when the cost of fabric still outweighed labor, they were an economical indulgence, too, as well as being a way to change or update the look of an existing plain gown, or make it more suitable for evening wear.

The photograph, right, shows a reproduction evening bodice that Natalie created based on her research. It's made in silk satin with a military inspired decoration using vintage linen cord and Dorset high top buttons. The lace is antique silk blonde lace.

Here's the link to Natalie's own blog post on the bodices, with more examples of fashion plates, plus several actual examples. Also included are photographs of the bodice that Natalie recreated, both inside and out – very useful to historical seamstresses as well writers like us who worry about correctly getting our characters dressed (and undressed.)

Above left: Fashion plate, "Ball Dress: a round Circassian robe of pink carpe,or gossamer net, over a white satin glip, fringed full at the feet; a peasant's bodice of pink satin or velvet, laced in front." c. 1812
Lower right: Reproduction evening bodice by Natalie Garbett. Photograph by Natalie Garbett.


Chris Woodyard said...

Great post, Loretta! I'm always intrigued by these bodices and spencers since they are so very short in the body--almost freakishly so, but obviously people did wear them. It runs in my mind that I saw a similar bodice in the exhibition catalog: LUISE : DIE KLEIDER DER KONIGIN - MODE, SCHMUCK UND ACCESSOIRES AM PREUSSISCHEN HOF UM 1800 / Luise: the Queen's Clothes - Fashion, Jewelry and Accessories At the Prussian Court around 1800 by Barbel Hedinger. My copy's gone to my daughter so I can't check. It's a great book with lots of illustrations of the Queen's clothing and personal objects, which were obsessively saved after her early death, almost like a saint's relics.

Chris Woodyard said...

Sorry--ISABELLA!! Addled wits this morning.

Kathy said...

A lot of women's clothing was pinned in place, and they did like to "mix & match" things like bodices, hem ruffles, cuffs, neck ruffs, "over-skirts", and of course hats & shawls. I don't think they worried too much about clothes "coordinating", I've seen plenty of pictures of odd color combinations, lace with plaid etc.

I recall Georgette Heyer often made a point of the heroine & hero having TASTE (especially in Cotillion and Frederica), tho she often denigrated (gently) her most "tasteful" characters by having them be idiots, such as Charis, Fanny in These Old Shades,endsOc3245 Selena from Black Sheep, and of course Freddy and Kit from Cotillion. Dang- now I'll have to re-read them!

Regency Romance Author, Donna Hatch said...

What a lovely way to dress up a simple gown! So good to know. I knew about spencers but hadn't heard of the separate bodice. I can't wait to put this tidbit of knowledge to good use. Thanks!

Amelia Mansfield said...

How interesting! I've always assumed the same thing from that particular fashion plate - but it makes so much more sense to have a separate bodice which could smarten up different plain gowns. Much easier and cheaper than a whole new gown - and I like the idea that it adds an extra layer of warmth as well :) (With the current cold snap in England, I am left particularly wondering how Regency ladies survived in muslin!)

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