Elizabeth Bennet’s Wardrobe: Undress, Half Dress, Full Dress, Headdress! Making Sense of It All

Let us understand from the start that the term
“Undress” did not signify being unclothed. Likewise,
“Half Dress” did not mean one was literally half-
dressed. The terms are categorical, not literal.
Like Full-Dress, their name referred more to function
than a state of being. In which case you may ask,
‘What does it all mean?’

It means there had to be many gowns in a genteel
Regency lady’s wardrobe–regardless of the size of
her fortune. Indeed, to be active in society the
necessity of owning a large wardrobe could hardly
be avoided. In a small town such as Longbourne (where
the Bennett’s lived) the categories no doubt
overlapped more than they would, say, for a
debutante in London.

Nevertheless, a number of categories of dress were necessary, and of course there would have to be variety within each category–and this, no matter
where you dwelt, for there were different uses for

the different categories, as we shall see.

Having said that, one could argue there are
only two main categories of clothing for the Regency
belle: Undress and Full Dress. In this
“model”, Undress includes all of the gowns worn during
the day, and what is otherwise called Half Dress.
(Which is to say, the majority of clothing for daytime,
and even perhaps, informal evening wear.)

Day gowns include any gown worn for the morning,
walking out, shopping, carriage riding, or making
calls. Full Dress, on the other hand, was for the
evening Ball, very fancy Dinner, Opera or
appearance at Court. (The Royal Court, not a court
of law.)

The chief difference between Undress and Full was a
lower bodice for the evening, but in practice full
dress implied a whole ensemble; A short-sleeved
empire-waisted, low-necked gown, (generally of muslin
but by no means restricted to such) and including evening
gloves, a fancy headdress of some sort, a few jewels,
a fan, perhaps a reticule, and satin slippers. Other
accessories could also be worn or on hand: feathers,
boas, shawls, scarves and fans, to name the most common.

The following gowns constituted Undress.

  • Morning dress
  • Walking-out dress
  • Carriage dress
  • Promenade dress
  • Afternoon dress
  • Riding dress (or Habit)
  • Half-dress
  • See the difference? In theory, you were in Undress
    in the morning, Half-dress in the afternoon, and
    Full Dress for evening events. (Such as, a dinner or
    soiree, opera, ballet, theatre, concert, or ball).
    Court Dress was also considered Full Dress, though
    it had extravagant requirements that no other
    occasion called for.

    According to the Georgian Index, a wonderful online
    resource for Regency fans, Dinner Dress and Opera
    Dress fall into the category of “Half Dress.”
    And only “Evening, Ball and Court Dresses” passed
    as Full Dress. Is your head swimming, yet? If not,
    consider that the Riding Habit might not fit into
    any of the above, but simply constitute a category
    in its own right!

    Ah, so many dresses, so little time! No wonder the
    all-important Regency “season” was a roller-coaster
    ride of entertainments, diversions and delights.
    A lady must needs have enough events to make use of such an extensive wardrobe, and enough gowns in her
    possession to attend them in “the mode.” Pity the
    poor chit who couldn’t follow protocol or dress for
    the occasion. Such was the challenge for families
    with more pretension than means, who wished to
    launch a Regency buck or belle into the swirl
    of the fashionable elite.

    The Regency. There’s never been a time quite like it.
    You’ve got to love it!

    PS:(I didn’t forget about Headdress. Article coming
    copyright Linore Rose Burkard 2006

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