Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: 1880s gown


The Accessories: Shoes.

Of the required accessories, the shoes were my biggest concern. Fortunately, although shoes in fashion plates of the time are virtually invisible, there are many extant examples in surprisingly good condition.

Below are some of my favorite examples. You will notice that they all have a low court heel and a scooped throat. Earlier examples have the ghosts of the square toes of the Romantic era, and later examples are trending toward a slight point that would eventually become the attenuated examples of the Edwardian era. Most of them are satin, although some are kid leather, and almost all have some sort of decoration at the throat - embroidery, beading, painting, ribbons, buckles, etc. I have seen only a few examples that do not have some sort of ribbon.


ca. 1870, pink silk,
Northhampton Shoe Museum

ca. 1875, kid, Los Angeles County
Museum of Art (LACMA)

1885-9 silk satin, 1 5/8" heel,
Northhampton Shoe Museum


ca. 1880, silk satin,
eBay

1880-85, kid with satin
trim, LACMA

early 1880s, silk satin,
French, LACMA

ca. 1885, wedding slippers,
prob. American, LACMA

So I was looking for a dressy shoe, either satin or smooth leather, with a low Louis heel, a semi-rounded toe, and a scooped throat. Ten years ago this would have been easier; I remember a lot of low Louis heels, especially in bridal shoes. However, when I was shopping (at the close of 2003), all the cheap bridal shoes had giant chunky heels - argh! Even the ones with so-so heels were in crepe or faille rather than satin.

I looked through far too many department stores, on-line stores, and thrift stores with no joy. And then, finally, I found them. At Payless. Discontinued - in my size - for $10! Although they're really too large, I slapped a pair of vintage Edwardian shoe buckles I had on them, and it gives a surprisingly good effect:

Eventually it would be nice to give them proper silk bows rather than these slightly out-of-period buckles, but I won't bother unless I can solve another problem: the color. While in the photo above and in incandescent light these look a slightly creamy white, in natural light their modern material and dye is revealed in a too-reflective, bluish-white cast that I really dislike. The irony is that these are dyeable shoes and theoretically I should have been able to get them dyed by Payless to a cream color (or any other color, for that matter). But because they were discontinued, the dyeing was not included or even available. And I can't find anybody in this town who will dye somebody else's shoes. It's ridiculous! I know that one can send shoes away to be dyed, but frankly I don't want to spend the money on it when they're almost okay the way they are. Sigh. Maybe one of these days I'll find somebody local to take on the task.

The Jewelry.

Next up was jewelry. I knew that I really wanted one of those narrow chokers with a pendant that appear in so many portraits and plates of the time:

I also wanted some dangly earrings. In the plates these seem to be mostly pearl, but I think that's just so they don't compete with the clothes; portraits and extants examples are often much "busier" designs. There is a very useful page on earrings of the 1880s at Shooting Star History that I didn't know of a year ago when I was researching, or my job would have been easier!

Also of interest, Classic Jewelry of Germany reproduces gold-and-garnet jewelry of the 1860-1880 period. Far out of my price range for this product, but so lovely!

Fortunately, although late 2003 might have been tough for the type of shoes I was looking for, it was perfect for inexpensive Gothic-inspired jewelry. For under $25, The Icing (a sort of big sister to the teen costume-jewelry shop Claire's) yielded up wonderful 1880s-style earrings and a necklace. The necklace even consisted of a pendant on a ribbon choker, although I didn't like the narrow satin ribbon and replaced it with a wider velvet one. The hardware was easily uncrimped from the original ribbon and recrimped onto the new.

The pieces don't match perfectly - the earrings are faux jet, while the pendant is sparklier marcasite in a slightly different design - but they go together very well, especially since they're worn further apart than when seen in the photo. I'm particularly happy with the choker, which really cements The Look.

The Hairstyle.

Lastly, I needed to figure out what to do with my hair. Fortunately, 1880s hair isn't too difficult; the elaborate excesses of the 1870s had subsided, leaving a fairly smooth, neat coil of hair at the back of the head. I simply put mine up in a French twist, which I can rely on staying up with just a large comb (which are practically the same now as they were in the 19th century, only plastic instead of tortoiseshell) and a couple of hairpins.

The one defining feature of 1880s hair is bangs - called at the time a "fringe" - and I already have bangs, so that was easy. The fashion plates mostly show very short, frizzed bangs, but in reality many women left theirs straight, if contemporary paintings are to be believed. I also found several examples of merely waved fringes. I wound up giving mine a sort of semi-frizz with one of those crimping irons with the zig-zag plates.



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Copyright 2005 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.