‘Undressing Mr Darcy’

Posted: December 17, 2011 in Parameters
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The History Wardrobe

The History Wardrobe recreate the clothes and styles of various periods of English and French history. All clothes are wonderfully recreated, using museum and private collections.

These are the reminiscences of one enjoyable afternoon spent in their company.

Using characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the Mistress of Ceremonies – was it Elizabeth Bennett?  – in full Regency style indoor day dress: a pleasant pale yellow on white, complete with white satin pumps, introduced, on cue from back of the hall, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy. And dressed in full outdoor great coat, of double-breasted bottle green.

All early Regency men’s clothes were styled on riding wear, and so the back of the coat, below a high waist, had two long tails cut so as to lie well whilst ‘on horse’.

The mid-shin length coat was tailored to the body; a broad shoulder cape attached to the back (the more flamboyant added many, many layers of cape). A peculiar fashion-note was struck by specific use of buttons to specific colour of great coat: all but blue coats had self-fabric buttons, but blue, oh no, blue must be brass. Perhaps a nautical connection?

Mr Darcy very obligingly dispensed with Great Coat for us. Underneath, layer on layer of clothing, was an indoor coat of brown cotton material. This was very distinctively cut with very high bowed waist trailing once again to a long back of coat tails. The close fit tailored sleeves were made in two pieces so as to provide a greater effect of stylish dress. The fold-over collar, a recent innovation, was broad-lapelled to emphasise broad shoulders. There was, indeed, quite a cult of youth in this period.

As Mr Darcy obligingly doffed his hat he revealed the very latest hairstyle. Natural hair. No more the powdered wig or periwig! Not only natural, but cut short, curled, and swept forward. A good example of the style is a period portrait of Napoleon. The idea was to copy the styles of Roman heroic statuary (no doubt complete with certain posturings and posings, for the ladies). The style was known as ‘a la Titus’, or ‘a la Brutus’.

And the gloves! Soft white calf skin for outdoor wear, and the statutory requirement of a further five pairs to be worn at certain times throughout the day, each with distinctive material, cut, and use. And the six pairs to be prepared afresh each and every day.

The hat itself was very much a signature of the time: broad brim and mid-tall crown, tapering to the flat top. Hats varied of course, and innovations appeared all the time. Indeed, the first milliner to create the classic shiny silk topper landed himself in very dire straits. It is reported when he first appeared on the street so clad dogs barked, children fled, ladies fainted.

Beneath Mr Darcy’s day coat was yet another coat: a waistcoat, cut at the front a little lower than the day coat to show off watch chain with added key-fob attachment. This attachment held one’s signet. The material a light silk, pale, and tailored to fit close to the body. The reason here was to reflect what was known as ‘naked from a distance’: the light colour and close fit, along with the hair style, to reinforce the effect of Roman heroic statuary.

The Prince Regent’s styles at this time were notoriously so extravagant as to be a constant source of amusement: striped silks, or antagonising clashes of colour, and all bejewelled expansively.

Wigs, powdered and pigtailed, as well as the tied knee breeches, were still de rigeur at Court, and woe betide anyone so urbane as to adapt a more modern style!

The coordinated effect was one of those new styles. As were more subdued colours and designs.

A certain military officer of no significant birth but an eye for effect appeared on the scene; and when he began receiving invites from Names in the City, everyone knew something was afoot. Beau Brummell had arrived, and with him a new emphasis on the masculine: the breeches of light coloured material, sometimes the yellow of nankeen: a heavy denim cotton, finished mid calf; the hose below was to specifically emphasize the youthful, well turned calf.

To take off one’s waistcoat, to be seen in shirtsleeves, was considered positively indecent; a shirt, after all, was the man’s last undergarment. And yet we are very familiar with those shirts: white linen, large floppy collar, and voluminous sleeves. The sleeves gather at the wrist, leaving a fluting around the hand, whilst the shoulder panel extends down to mid bicep. The huge sleeve, therefore only balloons out for three quarters the arm length. There is a deal of pragmatism gone into the dress: all had to able to fold small and neatly beneath the over layer without ridging or (too much) discomfort.

Breeches, waistcoat, shirt, and even… yes, I have seen Mr Darcy in his drawers… all tied at the back with neat arrangements of draw strings.

And horror of horrors, under Mr Darcy’s shirt, a girdle, a stomacher for men. The cult of youth required modelling; even to the padded calves of more senior members.

Another of Beau Brummell’s innovations was the semi-starched cravat: a neck cloth folded and arranged exquisitely, carefully, beneath chin and shirt front. It is reported washerwoman fainted when he introduced this. And no wonder, on top of everything they had to wash, iron, and mend they now had this semi-starched neck cloth: not full starch so it could be done with all the others, no, it had to be semi starched.

But Mr Brummell was too nouveau for our Mr Darcy: no, Mr Darcy had the good eye to allow so much but no more of the ‘new look’ into his wardrobe.

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