You've learnt the steps, laughed your way through a few massed tangles, remembered the name of that hop pity-flick step and you're looking forward to your first ball. Then - panic! What do you wear?
Period dance clothing standards can vary between good fancy dress to slavishly-observed, hand-stitched period construction and fabrics. But dancers are free to choose their comfort level. Let's concentrate on the middle ground, where a little attention produces a very smart result at a sensible cost.
There are lots of excellent online resources detailing clothing of the period, so links to the best are included below.
The Regency Period
Broadly speaking the term "Regency" is applied to a far longer period in clothing (mid 1790's to mid 1820s) than the political 1811-1820 Regency occupied historically. But unlike a theatrical or re-enactment event, dancers can choose which part they prefer.
The earlier "Classical" style is the further simplification of Georgian dress, (nominally 1797 - 1806) which continued with fuller bell shaped skirts and robes, fichu-wraps, shorter tunic coats and bib-front dresses. Think of the Empress Josephine. This is a lovely fashion to wear, flattering to fuller or very slender figures and progressively simplified by the influence of archaeological discoveries in Rome, Greece and Egypt.
From about 1806 - 1815 styles were further streamlined, looking more "modern" - trimmings become more discrete, bonnets become plainer, short spencers, (jackets), long pelisses (coats) and columnular white dresses being the main signature of fashion. The "Jane Austen" period. It is flattering to all types and very easy to reproduce, hence it is very popular and easy to source
The Romantic Influence
As a reaction, skirts then flared from 1815; decorative detail, hem flouncing, lavishly trimmed bonnets and strong colour schemes were reintroduced. The Romantic influence is making itself felt: the "Quality Street" look. Very picturesque but not as popular as it is harder to reproduce.
Dressing the Regency Belle
Regency Balls are danced in period clothing - but as this is a period of radically simplified, elegant women's clothing, it doesn't have to be daunting. They are easy to make, acquire or even borrow. Accessories are the key; they can be recycled to great effect. Ribbons will become your new best friend. "More dash that cash" was the watchword for many regency women and so is utterly period correct!
You will need a simple dress, long gloves, a stole to keep warm, a long petticoat, white stockings and flat shoes with ribbon ties sewn on and a drawstring bag to keep your items in. A single short strand of beads for your neck, simple drop earrings. a pretty ribbon sash and band for your hair complete your ensemble.
Mid period regency dresses are easy for even beginner to make and there are many patterns for dressmakers to use; accessories like reticules are easily made from scraps by beginners. Fabrics can be fine coloured silks for the matron or white cottons for the youngsters but the muslin-mania of the period means you can use £1/m cottons from your local rag-market to excellent effect. A canny seamstress will complete a cotton practice run first and use it as a spare day dress; two outfits and no waste!
Regency dresses and suitable accessories are also easy to find on ebay, so if you don't sew, a loan isn't possible, you can’t find a costumier or dressmaker and don’t want to hire you needn’t worry. A little time and thought really does pay off – the simplest dress will last a long time as the foundation to a slowly built wardrobe.
Many balls include a dance workshop, the ball itself and an optional daytime visit to round the weekend off. Clothing changes aren’t necessary, but in this period of clever dressing, one carefully accessorised dress will see you through all three if desired.
In most other period fashions, the best attempts to dress will fail if the body is not shaped to the period look with the correct underwear – but in Regency dressing, the corset was initially abandoned (very French) or at best cropped to the closest thing you will see to a bra between Pompeian wall paintings and it’s re-invention in the 1920’s, you can cheat without a compromise. Use a modern gallery bra for the best shape. A full length long slip (petticoat), whether modern or in period cut, is indispensable to lightly bulk your dress and to prevent show-through. Wear opaque white stockings if you can stand the heat, although long cotton stocking can be obtained cheaply. Hold them up with an elastic garter and a pretty ribbon to cover it.
Dressing the Regency Beau
For gentlemen, the desirable Regency look was achieved by English tailoring which transformed practical clothing of the county gentry lifestyle for town by refining fabrics, detail of cut and improving fit. After Beau Brummell’s input, frequent changes of good, plain fresh linen, the best tailoring and no frippery were established as desirable codes of dress. He established misleading simplicity, insisting on minimal jewellery, but intricately arranged cravats. This was subtly elitist, but very practical as it stretched a man’s wardrobe further by allowing him to recycle garments with other accessories and simplifying his choices. A man’s formal clothing now never clashed unflatteringly with his partner’s outfit. The essence was in the detail rather than display. The Dandy and Corinthian clubs may have respectively followed the fashionista's or the sportsman’s path, but in the main the dress reforms imposed by Brummell were so convenient to most men that they formed the basis of dress codes still observed today
For civilian men, plain-fronted shirts (frilled for the Dandy), a cravat, a collared waistcoat, a fitted tailed coat, formal drop front breeches, white stockings, black dancing pumps and white gloves completes your ensemble. For serious investors, Regimental or dress uniform can be worn.
At a later date, you may choose to add a coloured cravat, or plainer waistcoat or even pantaloons for day wear, but these are optional. A large clean handkerchief is a must for mopping the brow!
Hiring or Investing
Initially, therefore gentlemen dancers are going to have to invest in a costumier or heavily bribe the family dressmaker; but once bought your basic wardrobe is complete. Another short term option in the short term is to hire clothing, but after three balls / events bear in mind that you will have invested the cost of buying your own clothes.
These sites offer a wealth of original illustrations, tips and hints on hair styling, how to make simpler garments, cosmetics and manners. Have a thorough browse. Once you have your eye in, you will be able to spot modern items that will compliment your outfit at a fraction of the cost of other sources. The dressmaker links have useful references and views of the inside of garments and garments in wear.
The Period Costume Shop - Excellent supplier based in London, this small but enthousiastic company prides itself on historical accurate products. Clothing comissions are also available for those who want beautiful clothing - We unreservedly recommend this supplier.
The Greater Bay Area Costumer Guild - Excellent resources, but the Pattern review is invaluable; search by period and pattern designer to find out how good or easy other people found different makes of pattern before you invest your time and money.
A very good compendium of information - It is an excellent American site but you may want to be aware of national preferences (printed fabrics were very popular there and less so in England).
Excellent, with extracts by year from fashion journals and publications of the period, a linked gallery of real garments in museum collections, details of what is worn at which time of the day and a gentleman’s section.
For images relevant to gentleman, including the Neckclothitania – instructions on how to tie 14 styles of cravat
Specifically for gentlemen.
Sense and Sensibility Patterns – the most used and versatile women’s dress pattern out, also supplied under license to Simplicity. A full range of regency garments, a gallery of customer’s dresses and variations (the further back you go the better). Online help, lessons, hints and tips for better sewing.