Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: 1780s gown accessories


March 30, 2009: Hair-Raising.

Hair is a "big" issue in the 1780s - sorry about the pun! Styles began puffing up in the mid- to late 1760s, rising higher and puffier till the end of the 1770s, when they started expanding outward as well.

Here's the sort of thing I'm faced with - and these are among the more modest styles of the very late 1770s:

There's also a good back view of a dark-haired, unpowdered woman's hairstyle here.

These styles were achieved with lots of false hair and what I can only think of as undercarriages; one can make a sort of frame of buckram, cover it with false hair, and pull one's own hair up over it, or one can wear a wig.

Now, my primary use of a costume of this period is for English country dancing. Wigs are hot, unstable, uncomfortable, and cause collisions when you need to turn under your partner's arm. So I wanted to figure out something that would give the flavor of these hairstyles while staying put, requiring minimum effort, and using hairpieces I already had.

I have two types of false hair in my arsenal that come in handy for all sorts of periods. One is a false bun, a dome of buckram about four inches across with basket-woven false hair over it and little tabs to help you pin it in place. The other is a row of curls, almost like a beaded fringe but with hair curls instead of beaded drops. It's very long and you can just cut off a length with the number of curls you need. For example, three is perfect clipped over each ear for an 1830s look. They both look amazingly like my own hair, although I think it helps that my natural hair color is very dark brown, almost black.

I parked the false bun-dome on the crown of my head, turned my head upside-down, and formed a ponytail over the dome. I then pinned a few curls to the holder and loosely twisted the curls and the ponytail itself into a sort of loop and pinned the heck out of it. And then I attached some curls at the base of the loop to cascade down my neck.

I added a little silver clip at the front to help keep my bangs up with the rest of my hair, and sprayed a lot of Aqua Net over the whole thing. There's nothing quite like Aqua Net when you really, really need your hair to stay put. And a slightly shellacked look is not a bad thing for this sort of hairstyle.

Strictly speaking, the cascading curls should be much fatter and softer, but considering the limitations, I think it came out pretty well. I will also say that it appears much bigger in person, so it's amazing to think how huge those really big 18th-century styles are.

April 21, 2009: Engageantes. Engageantes are those lace ruffles worn at the elbows with 18th-century clothes. Typically they were at their largest mid-century, often in double and even triple layers, and gradually diminished until they became just a sort of frill by 1790 and were often left off completely. The example at left, from the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LACMA), is typical of the size appropriate for my dress, circa 1780.

Real lace from the period is very distinctive and difficult to imitate successfully with contemporary materials - considering that the originals were made by hand from silk threads. The wide lace found in regular fabric stores today is almost always stiff, scratchy, and totally inappropriate. However, I have some vintage lace in my stash that, while not perfect, is very soft and has a nice drape.

Below is one of my engageantes, cut out and folded double. Engageantes are invariably widest at the back of the elbow, narrowest at the front. The dimensions of mine were taken from another pair at LACMA. Sometimes the seam is placed at the side of the arm instead of the back. Please note that real engageantes were "made to shape," and the shape is the reverse of mine. That is, the edge that is gathered onto the sleeve is straight, and the finished, open edge curves. However, I had to work with the straight finished edge I had, and I figured this soft lace would drape all right anyway, which it does.

Engageantes were made in a variety of techniques: several kinds of bobbin and needle laces, as well as whitework embroidery. My lace is vaguely reminiscent of late-18th-century Mechlin lace, seen in the examples below. (On the left, from an old publication; on the right, courtesy of a Wikimedia image collection by Carolus.)

So here are my engageantes seamed, gathered up with linen thread, and set onto a narrow cotton tape. The tape was to make it easier to whip them into the lining of my sleeves. I think they were more often run onto a very narrow drawstring, but I'm not really expecting to move these from one garment to another, thus necessitating a change in size. (If they really were fine silk lace, I might feel differently!)

Despite their limitation, they're really quite floaty and lovely in person. Click for closeup.

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