Search This Blog

Monday, July 30, 2018

Truly the best and worst in fashion

By Jen Johnson
Truly the best and worst in fashion
1793 France

Writing a romance that happened in the middle of the French Revolution both in France and in England was exciting and challenging at the same time. The intrigue of the time, the danger, the influence across the water in England, even the politics of it all was fascinating. And I especially enjoyed turning it into a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. So much to love.

Up to this point, my research and my books have all been set in the Regency time period. And much of 1793 has a similar tone and feel to it.

Except for the fashion. Let’s talk French Fashion. London often sought for new designs, fabrics and fashions from across the channel. Even during the times of the French Revolution, the British were still mimicking Marie Antoinette. Not many new styles came forward during the reign of terror but much of the dear queen remained to tide them over. She was extravagant in every way, pushing the limits and seeking attention. She set the trend quite clearly in France and in England as well. The British had only men in their own country to mimic, and while Prinny had his set and Beau Brummel made his mark, the women in England were left to seek for ideas in their neighbor, France.

Of particular interest were the women’s and men’s hairstyles. The closest thing I can think of in modern day for women would be the beehives from the 1960s, sometimes towering above a woman’s forehead the same size as her actual head. Besides those, I can think of nothing that holds France’s equivalent. The styles were built up upon the woman’s head in many layers. My particular favorite is the bowtie. After using all manner of objects as a foundation on the lady’s head, to give the hairstyle some height, the hair itself would be smoothed and then be wrapped and tied in one large bow.

The men seemed in many ways to require less effort for their hair. A low ponytail or a wig would do the trick for most of them. Though it did require wig powder and the constant care of the wig.

The dresses were also beautiful of course, but in manner of apparel, the men’s jackets were of equal splendor. They wore bright colors and the embroidery on them was exquisite. The men also had a fetish for sleeves, their drape especially, and they desired a multilayered, crisp cravat. Their breeches were multicolored. Their shoes were pointed and at times boasted an ornament at the tip. They carried spy glasses for no apparent reason other than to adorn themselves. They powdered their wigs, naturally, but often their faces as well, adorning themselves with pomade or other paints to improve their costume.

The bumps, rumps, rolls of the dresses are fascinating to consider. Especially when you remember that real people actually wore them. The skirts grew wider and larger, many petticoats and hoops holding them up and out until greater width was necessary. They started with two side rolls in their skirts, that gave them wide bumps at each hip of their dresses. Their waists were cinched as tight as they could endure and their chest overflowed out the top of their gowns. The side bumps made walking beside a man difficult and so often the lady’s hand was stretched as far as she could reach in order to grasp onto the fingers of another. The other option of course would be the twisting of her body so that she scooted along in a diagonal fashion so as to be closer to the man at her side. One could never complain of the presentation however. These costumes left the women with tiny waists, large breasts and the ability to seemingly hover above the ground, gliding wherever they went.

The side bumps evolved into one rather large rump that balled out the back of the gown. This accessory made sitting difficult. And as their waists were still cinched so tight, their breathing became shallow, sitting was difficult no matter what they were wearing.

Much of the French fashion of the time seemed to seethe with excess: Extravagant, showy, ridiculous attempts to draw attention. It is no wonder Charles Dickens aptly defined the time as the best of times and the worst. Because while the wealthy went to great lengths to appear obscenely wealthy, the poor were languishing in the filth on the streets with barely a bite of bread to eat. Their clothing was mostly muted colors of tan. The workers clothes were sensible, often torn, mended if they were diligent or had the time and energy. The servants of great homes wore the colors and livery of their estates.

From there, the fascination with France ebbed somewhat and the sensible Georgian and Regency attire emerged.

Because the Pimpernel is a character of many disguises, dressing her was just plain fun. Combining that with the outrageous styles of the day, the story lent itself to hours of research and fun description.

Jen writes regular posts at

She is an award winning author, including the gold in Foreward Indies Romance category and the creator of Regency House Party. She just published her second book, a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel where she features many of these fashions described above. You can find it for sale here. An award winning author, including the GOLD in Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards, Jen Geigle Johnson discovered her passion for England while kayaking on the Thames near London as a young teenager. 
She once greeted an ancient turtle under the water by grabbing her fin. She knows all about the sound a water-ski makes on glassy water and how to fall down steep moguls with grace. During a study break date in college, she sat on top of a jeep's roll bars up in the mountains and fell in love.  
Now, she loves to share bits of history that might otherwise be forgotten. Whether in Regency England, the French Revolution, or Colonial America, her romance novels are much like life is supposed to be: full of adventure. She is a member of the RWA, the SCBWI, and LDStorymakers. She is also the chair of the Lonestar.Ink writing conference.
Twitter--@authorjen Instagram--@authorlyjen

No comments: