The Wearing of Costume

Yet again, I have come across another unique and fascinating book while browsing at my local library. A book which I think many authors of Regency novels will find quite informative. This book is about exactly what the title says it is, how to wear the costumes of days gone by. The author’s stated purpose in writing the book was to provide information for actors in movies and plays, and for readers of historical novels, to help them imagine how the characters in the book they are reading would move, based on the constraints of the clothing of the time period in which the story is set. It would seem to me that this book would also be of use to writers of historical novels, as well as to those who enjoy re-enacting historical events.

Some of the more intriguing aspects of the wearing of clothing in England in times past …

The full title of this book is The Wearing of Costume:   The Changing Techniques of Wearing Clothes and How to Move in Them, from Roman Britain to the Second World War. The author, Ruth M. Green, was a well-known English fashion and costume historian. She notes that there were many books on costume, but no information on how to wear them. Actors need to know how to wear those costumes, to move in them, in order to convince an audience they are the character they are playing. Ms. Green remarked that even people with no training in costume or the manner in which historical garments should be worn, would instinctively be able to tell the difference between someone wearing what amounts to "fancy dress" and a serious actor intent on depicting an historical character with "near-documentary" accuracy. Therefore, Green wrote her book to provide actors with some guidance on how to convincingly wear the dress of various periods in English history. She chose to write the book as a long set of directions to the wearer of each garment, as it was her view that people best understood such information in terms of themselves.

Before beginning her discussion of the wearing of costume through the various periods of history, Green opens with a section on basic principles for the garments most commonly worn over the centuries. Here she includes chapters on the management of long skirts, the changing techniques of wearing a cloak, the history of how men wore their shirts, the wearing of shoes and pattens, and a chapter on children’s clothing. She opened her chapter on skirt management:   "The long skirt is a regular hazard for the modern woman. She doesn’t know how to walk in it and is forever lifting it (usually clumsily) so that her hands are never free." But women who were born to the wearing of long skirts did not have such problems. They learned from childhood how to move in long skirts, it was part of their training in deportment. The trick was to take fairly small steps, partly because a long stride could cause your feet to become entangled in your skirt hem, thereby causing you to loose your balance. But worse, a long stride was considered ugly and unladylike until the latter part of the twentieth century. And, when you took these small steps, you would use your foot to push your skirt forward, away from you, as you completed each step. In that way, you would appear to glide, and would never trip on your skirts. It was also very important to maintain good posture at all times, as this would keep the skirt hem even as you moved. During many periods, women had to walk from the knee, as the swaying of hips was considered indecent. Women also learned to move their whole body when they turned, which caused their garments to turn with them, neatly and elegantly. Those women who could master this technique always appeared to have a great sense of style. Green goes on to explain how women handled their skirts in different periods of history, including when they wore farthingales, panniers, crinolines and trains. One of the things which surprised me was to learn that it was acceptable, in fact, preferable, for women to sit with their knees spread wide under their skirts. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that it began to be considered acceptable for women to cross their legs.

In her chapter on men’s shirts, Green reiterated that a man’s shirt was little more than an undergarment until the early twentieth century. No man would ever have appeared in his shirt or even his shirtsleeves, particularly in front of a lady, before that time. The phrase, "in his shirt," meant a man who had not had time to dress, or a man so dead to propriety that he did not wear his coat and waistcoat. Yet, this basic tenet of masculine modesty and decorum is routinely violated in many films with an historical setting, even those based on the books of Jane Austen. In reality, only the collars and cuffs of a man’s shirt were seen when he was properly dressed, particularly during the Regency. The lace which men had worn at their wrists in the eighteenth century had caused them to make grand hand gestures to emphasize the expensive lace, and in some cases, to keep it clean, such as when taking snuff. Those broad gestures had disappeared by the Regency, when men no longer wore lace at their wrists, with the exception of some very old-fashioned, elderly men who would not relinquish the styles of their youth. However, the practice of shooting the cuff had come in by the beginning of the Regency, that is, men had their plain cuffs starched, and wore them so that perhaps an inch or so of the cuff was visible below the hem of their coat sleeve. Green notes that some men had a nervous habit of routinely tugging on their cuffs to ensure they extended beyond their coat sleeves.

This book, as the sub-title states, covers the wearing of clothing in England from Roman times. Green does not include a chapter specifically on the Regency, as changes in fashion were not that abrupt. Those seeking information on how men and women wore their clothes during that period will want to read both Chapter 10 — Late Eighteenth Century and Early Nineteenth Century, and Chapter 11 — The Nineteenth Century and Since. The information in these two chapters overlaps the period of the Regency. Those who want to understand the wearing of clothing in the broader Georgian era will also want to read Chapter 9 — The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, as well as Chapter 10, in order to comprehend how clothing was worn throughout the century. The information in all three chapters will enable an author to interpret the stance, mannerisms and movements of men or women on the cutting edge of fashion, as well as those who are more conservative or downright old-fashioned, and use those details to help them embellish the various characters in any of their stories set in the so-called "Long Regency."

Green points out that from at least the Middle Ages, women’s clothing was always much more complicated and restrictive than men’s clothing of the same period. Until the late eighteenth century, when the clothing styles were based on the garments of classical Greece. By the mid-eighteenth century, women were encumbered not only with panniers, but with corsets, sometimes made of steel, which essentially caged their upper body from their bodice to their waist. For that reason, most women held their arms out from their bodies, resting their hands on the tops of their pannier-supported skirts. This position eased the pressure of their corsets, but also had the effect of causing their arms to bend out at the elbow. This position of the arms then created an open space on either side of the waist, emphasizing its smallness in an age when a small waist was fashionable. By the end of the century, when women were wearing high-waisted gowns with loose flowing skirts, and much shorter and less rigidly restricting corsets, these movements had disappeared. By the Regency, women tended to allow their arms to hang down at their sides, emphasizing the long, willowy figure they made in their simple classically-inspired gowns. If they did cross their arms, they made a point to do it just beneath their bodice, at the line of the high waist so as not to spoil the line of their skirts. But despite their less restrictive gowns, the young ladies of the aristocracy and the gentry, from the late eighteenth century right through the Regency, were thoroughly schooled in deportment so that their posture was graceful and erect. Many were actually strapped to rigid backboards several hours a day to ensure perfect posture. As noted above, they also learned how to walk gracefully in long skirts, as well as when and how to take some part of their skirt into their hand to climb a flight of stairs or enter a carriage. This was also the first time women were not considered indecent displaying bare arms in public, if only in the evenings. Green notes that a number of women chose to learn to play the harp, rather than the piano, as it gave them greater opportunity to show off their charms.

Though aristocratic males of the Regency did not receive training in deportment, nearly all of them had fencing lessons in their youth. This training had the effect not only of inculcating good posture and balance, but in most men, it also instilled an elegant and graceful way of moving. In addition, fencing lessons gave the majority of men a well-shaped leg, which was considered an important male attribute. Men’s legs were constantly on display in the fashionable skin-tight pantaloons of the time, visible from nearly every angle due to the narrow swallow-tail coats of that same period. Erect posture was very important to men of the Regency, if they wished to wear their coats without the irritation or pain of chaffing. Coat collars were quite high in the back, coming up to their ears. The only way a man could wear one comfortably was to keep his spine straight so that the coat collar did not rub against the back of his neck. Regency men also had to expand their upper chests a bit, partly to draw attention to their intricately-tied cravats, but also to avoid crushing those same cravats by allowing their head to drop forward so that their chins would crumple their starched and tied creations. The younger men of the Regency did not wear ruffles or lace at their wrists so they did not make the grand hand movements their fathers and grandfathers had, to emphasize their lace and keep it clean. Regency men had plain white starched cuffs, which extended an inch or so beyond the sleeve of their coat. This more restrained fashion led to more restrained hand movements. But an older, conservative man might still make those broader hand movements in the Regency, just as he had as a young man.

Green addresses the accessories used by both men and women, including how and where they used them. This book was written in 1966, and the edition I read was published in 1995, with no apparent revisions. Perhaps this, from the final chapter, captures the spirit of the times in which the book was written:   "At this time [1875], and officially still today, the ‘marks of a lady’ are her gloves, handkerchief and shoes." That was indeed true of the mid-1960s, though few women today adhere to such notions of propriety in their dress. But certainly in the Regency, gloves were an important fashion accessory for both men and women. Gloves were worn at nearly all Regency social events by both men and women, particularly any which involved dancing. It was a serious violation of etiquette for a man and woman to dance together without both wearing gloves. Such a serious faux pas would have you expelled from Almack’s on the spot!

During the Regency, only young unmarried women did not wear caps. And women wore their bonnets over their caps, not in place of them. There were even strictures regarding the decoration of bonnets. Fashionable women of good social position could embellish their bonnets with ribbons, feathers, flowers or anything else they liked. But servants were expected to wear plain, undecorated bonnets and risked a reprimand, even termination, if they should have the temerity to embellish their own bonnets. I also learned that it was not until the very end of the nineteenth century that parasols and umbrellas were rolled and fastened by a band as they are today. In the Regency, as they were through most of the century, they were collapsed when not in use, but the fabric folds were left free, not furled and bound around the stick.

Fashionable Englishmen carried canes when they were out and about, right up to the Second World War, when the practice finally went out of fashion. Since the wearing of swords had gone out of fashion in the previous century, many Regency men carried canes which concealed a blade. Cane handles could conceal a snuff box, a small spyglass or a tiny viewer though which could be seen an interesting, sometimes pornographic, image, to be shared only with very close friends. When escorting a young lady down the street or through the park, thus having one hand occupied, with his cane in his other hand, a gentleman might use his cane to touch his hat brim in a salute to a passing friend or acquaintance. Men might carry their cane in their hand, or tucked under their arm, either was acceptable during the Regency. Men would typically not carry a cane when they were riding, they would then substitute a riding crop. Canes were not usually carried when attending evening social events, such as balls, musicales or the theatre.

No well-dressed Regency man would venture out of doors without his hat. For daytime wear, most men wore a tall, curly beaver hat with a slightly rolled brim, usually at a jaunty angle. When holding his hat, a man held it by the brim, usually in the same hand in which he held his gloves and cane. For evening wear, men usually wore a bicorne hat, also known as a chapeau-bras. These hats were typically made of silk and could be folded flat when not being worn. There would, of course, have been a number of old-fashioned gentlemen who continued to wear the tricorne hat of the previous century. Men of the lower orders wore whatever type of hat they possessed.

In her preface, Green makes clear that she will primarily focus on the upper classes as she explains the wearing of costume. She does so because the majority of those in the middle and lower classes would be attempting to ape their betters, so they will be aiming for the same style in the wearing of their own clothes. The difference is that they will not achieve the same refined style as those of the highest classes. Green has included numerous line drawings by a talented young lady of her acquaintance in order to illustrate the wearing of costume over the centuries. For the most part, these have been drawn using contemporary paintings and other period sources, but the artist has simplified each drawing in order to focus on the stance and movement of the body, not on the fine details of the clothing. There is no bibliography, but that may be due to the fact that Green has culled all these bits of information from many sources over the course of her career. There is an index, but it is rather cursory. Despite these minor deficits, The Wearing of Costume, at under 200 pages, is a brief and most informative read for those interested not just in the clothing of the Regency, but how men and women wore those garments. Though this book is currently out of print, there are many copies available from numerous online and bricks-and-mortar used bookshops. If you are a Regency author seeking to add authenticity to the way your characters move and wear their clothes, you will be very glad to have a copy of this book in your research library. So, too, will those who enjoy re-enacting Regency events.

The full bibliographic citation for this book is:

Green, Ruth M., The Wearing of Costume:   The Changing Techniques of Wearing Clothes and How to Move in Them, from Roman Britain to the Second World War. New York:   Drama Publishers, 1995.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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21 Responses to The Wearing of Costume

  1. Fascinating!
    And my wish list grows once again…..
    Interesting that the Regency girls would use a backboard [readers of Miss Marple stories will recall she had been trained in the use of a backboard in her youth] because I’ve been pondering on the Ackermann prints and thinking what poor posture some of the young ladies appear to have, one of the worst being the walking dress August 1816 [EK Duncan’s excellent blog has a full quota of fashion plates] March 1817 opera dress and the morning dress of July the same year all show ladies with rolled forward shoulders and poking chins, a posture bound to cause chondomalachia patelli as well as being most unattractive. One wonders if this was a deficiency in the models or in the artist?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Ah, how well I know that feeling! Books, particularly those on Regency history, should be a controlled substance where I am concerned! 😉 Though perhaps I should not whet your appetite further, Green discusses sleeves in nearly every chapter. But this book should not be too pricey, if you can find a used copy of the 1995 paperback edition. The 1966 hard cover first edition, on the other hand, will run you into the hundreds of dollars, or pounds, if you can find one.

      On the issue of the Ackermann prints, there are a couple of possible explanations. As gently-bred young ladies did not typically pose for artists, it is possible the model was a lower class woman who had not been taught good posture and deportment. There is also the possibility these drawings were made to catch the eye, and nothing catches the eye better than something out of the ordinary. So, a young woman browsing through a fashion magazine might notice a particular dress by the color, or the poor posture of the model wearing it. In which case, would she wonder how much better the dress would look on her, with her very upright posture? Or, would she envy the model, who was able to take a more relaxed pose?



      • That makes a lot of sense – if it was the feeling of superiority, how different to the way clothes are depicted nowadays, when the model is chosen to idealise the costume and nobody ever looks as good in it as on the girl it’s essentially designed for…. I have to say I think that it’s more likely poor girls as models that leads to the posture and I’d further postulate that they are probably the slaveys who did most of the sewing – because years bent over sewing for 16 hours a day is going to wreck the posture in exactly the way I’m seeing in many of the prints, round sholders and poking heads for peering in poor light. [I recall reading that Princess Victoria had a sprig of holly pinned under her chin to improve her posture and wept bitter tears when trying fruitlessly to sew without hurting herself]. There’s a method in the tailor’s cross legged posture, you can sew with a straighter back, but that was not a method open to the girls.

  2. Isobel Carr says:

    I have never seen any proof that average women wore steel corsets. There a couple extant, but according to every costume historian I know or have read, they are either some form of advertisement (a gaudy sign) or they were medical (for people with severe spine issues). And having worn MANY a corset myself, I can tell you that there is no reason to hold your elbows out to “ease” anything. The busk in a Georgian/Regency corset is MORE than sufficient to ensure that the wearer does not slouch, and the shoulder straps hold the shoulders back, giving a very upright and specific posture. Honestly, the main difference between someone wearing “fancy dress” and historic clothing is usually the proper undergarments (followed closely by correct fit, as modern people are used to much looser clothing).

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      On the subject of steel corsets, I think you are probably right. I had always understood they were a novelty, or, as you noted, worn for medical reasons. However, Green does maintain they were worn by aristocratic women in the second half of the eighteenth century. She wrote that some extended up above the top line of the breast, for which reason the women who wore them tried to raise their arms a bit to ease the pressure under their arms. Then again, she did not include a bibliography in the book, so it is quite possible this was apocryphal, rather than based on research with actual garments. There is also the possibility that these women carried their arms in that way solely to draw attention to the narrowness of their waists.

      Green would disagree with you on the idea that correct period undergarments are all that is needed to distinguish someone accurately depicting a character in period costume and someone playing dress up. And on that, I do agree with her. Most people today do not learn correct posture, and tend to slouch, which their clothes allow. More restrictive undergarments might go some distance to force them into more appropriate posture, but they will still appear graceless and awkward in their movements. Many years ago, my grandmother was a bridal consultant for a major upscale department store. She had been taught proper posture and deportment and how to move well in a long gown as a young girl. She spent several hours with nearly every bride she sent down the aisle, teaching them how to stand and move gracefully in a full-length gown. And that was in the days when most women still wore hats and gloves when they went out. I think the situation has deteriorated quite a lot since.

      I work in the Back Bay of Boston, which is surrounded by a number of upscale hotels which routinely host formal evening events. I often see women, and men, walking along in their formal attire as though they were walking across a field or out for a hike in the woods. There is no sense of grace, of style, of elegance. Undergarments alone cannot magically transmit the ability to move with grace and elegance. Few humans have that ability by nature, it has to be studied and cultivated. Very few people in the modern world take the time to do that, but many of our ancestors, both men and women of the upper classes did, because it was important in the image of themselves they presented to their peers, and subordinates. Perhaps we all slouch now because the class system has essentially gone by the boards. Wealth is now the real power in the world, much more than birth and breeding, which is what held sway during the Regency.



      • Walking in a long skirt is an art. Going upstairs with a hod of coal in one hand and a tray of tea in the other in a long skirt is DEFINITELY an art and should not be attempted without a profanity filter.
        I’ve read that Elizabethan women from the age of 10 often wore steel corsets. I can’t lay my hand on the reference off the top of my head, but I think it may have been in Alison Sim who’s an authority on the period.

      • Isobel Carr says:

        I agree about the skirts, but I’m telling you: if you’re wearing a period corect corset, you CAN NOT SLOUCH. It’s impossible. You also can’t bend at the waist, which is an interesting thing to deal with, LOL!

  3. Kathryn Kane says:

    It is very interesting that you should mention the ability to go upstairs in a long skirt without managing it with your hands. In her book, Green tells of an elderly woman she knew who had to learn to do exactly that, walk up and downstairs without ever touching her skirt. It was part of her deportment training. If that woman was elderly when Green knew her, sometime in the middle of the last century, the woman would have had to have been born sometime in the 1870s or 1880s, and would had her training in the late 1880s or early 1890s. I doubt she was allowed to utter a single word of profanity as she practiced. 😉

    I have run across references to steel corsets from time to time, but as my interest is more in textiles than in the costumes made from them, I have never dwelt on the subject. Thank you for the reference. I will follow it up when I have some time and see what I can find out. But I must say, even the thought of caging a young girl in such a contraption seems downright cruel to me. Mmm, I wonder if the Elizabethans would have liked spandex?


    • Judging by the cloth of gold, cloth of silver and cloth of tissue probably they’d have loved spandex…. it’s slightly later than my main period which is Renaissance [I DIG those Florentine cloths, altobasso cloth of tissue, up to 4oz gold loops per yard and a brocaded pattern in the pile too] but many of the cloths are essentially the same.
      And by the way I never said I got all the way upstairs without having to balance the coal scuttle and lift up the skirt; we have VERY deep stairs. I can manage on a 6″ to 8″ fall but not 11″ which is what our stairs are. [House built by a builder for himself and as inconvenient as he could manage to make it lol]
      Fabric is my main interest too, the fashion is by way of a sideline for showing off the fashion, though fashion can be fabric driven, look at the rise of cotton as a different form of conspicuous consumption in the Regency leading to the regency look…….

  4. Isobel Carr says:

    All the documentation I’ve seen shows that Elizabethan women wore corsets that were made with reeds. There are only two extant, and both are made this way. You can see the first in Janet Arnold’s “Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women C1560-1620”. The second is the “effigy corset” which you can see here:

    Though yes, there is a a lot of apocryphal stuff out there about steel corsets, most of it quite old and out of date. Valerie Steele discusses the issue in “The Corset: A Cultural History”.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I was wondering about that. Was steel even made in Elizabethan times?

      On the subject of Regency-era corsets: I thought they were rather shorter than those which had been worn in the eighteenth century, so they would not have reached all the way down to the natural waist. Was that not the case?

      Another question, to one who has actually been inside a corset: Can you breathe once you are all cinched up? I have always wondered.


      • Steel was invented in the early middle ages, but was hard and expensive to make until the mid 19th century when Sir Henry Bessemer came up with the bessemer process. Swords were steel – had to be for those whippy rapiers. I do actually doubt it would be wasted on corsets, there was a post about the use of reeds which I am inclined to believe, though I wouldn’t dispute the odd iron bracing piece necessarily. The Spanish Farthingale was initially held with hoops of rope or reed.

      • Isobel Carr says:

        Regency era corsets are long line, like this one. You can see the thick busk that runs down the front (made of wood, ivory, steel, or even silver):

        The shorter versions that you see are half stays, and were meant for lounging about the house, not for wearing under gowns in public. Period sources such as those quoted in “The Lady’s Stratagem” make this very clear.

    • Excellent ref, Isobel, thanks for that! Recreation is the only way we can really learn about things about which there are myths, glad you knew to debunk that. Even experts can quote myths they’ve learned as fact.

      • Isobel Carr says:

        A lot of older sources seem to have the same errors ingrained in them. Cunnington’s books, for example, are generally quite good, but they do have quite a few errors in them due to more recent scholarship. Every time new garments are found and studied, we learn something new, debunk an old myth, and further solidify our understanding of the past. For those of us who recreate clothing and do historical re-enactment, it’s a great time to be alive and active. The internet has given us access to so many things that we’d never have seen otherwise. For me, really strange discoveries have included 18thC lace stockings, a knit (or crocheted, not sure) gown from the Regency period, and the fact that short stays during the Regency has a specific purpose and were not interchangeable with the more commonly seen long one.

  5. Never worn a corset but my great aunt reckoned that she felt all droopy without one. She didn’t sleep in it though. She said it braced her back. I wouldn’t dispute that. it was a very 1920’s sort of corset that she had, which was when she was a young woman [but never a flapper; my gran however was a suffragette and burned her corset].

  6. anniefoote says:

    I agree (nearly a year after the orginal entry!) that Ruth Green’s book is excellent. I’d love to read another on the same subject by a different author to get a balanced view.

    Re corsets – the 18 and 19 cent lady regarded her corset rather as we regard a bra – a lot more than fashion but comfort and modesty. Many of us are not “comfortable” without a bra – that would send all the wrong messages. If you have worn a firm, but not necessarily very tight corset al lyour life then you will be very unhappy without the support and shaping. Even up to 1920 there are adverts (often French) for corsets for girls as young as 11 – so they were well and truly accustomed to stays.


    • My great aunt, born in 1897, wore a corset all her life because she was uncomfortable without it. I however wish I were petite enough not to wear a bra.

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        Me, too! I never went bra-less in the 70s, since there was too much of me to be allowed out on its own! 😉 I was always jealous of those small women who did not need to wear one.

        I am not particularly fond of bras, but I don’t leave the house without mine. I am sure my grandmother would approve!


    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I know what you mean about missing a corset. My grandmother had worn one since she was a young girl, and was unwilling to give it up, even as styles changed. Though she could no longer buy them in the local stores, she found a foundations/lingerie shop in a city not too far from her small town that could order them for her. Apparently they did the same for a number of other women who felt the same way my grandmother did.

      My grandmother lived through the 1970s, and imagine how horrified she, and many women of her generation were, at all the women who burned their bras and went bra-less! To her, such behavior most definitely sent the wrong message!

      What most surprised me, while researching children’s clothes, was that both girls and boys were put into stays from the eighteenth century, right through the Regency. From the descriptions, they were fairly flexible and not tied too tightly, fortunately. The boys left off wearing stays when they were breeched, but the girls continued on. By Victorian times, it seems that stays for boys were falling out of fashion, but not for girls.

      I agree with you, it would be nice if another costume scholar would tackle the issue of how people wore and moved in their clothes in the past. Green’s book is now nearly twenty years old and surely there has been more research in the field since her book was published. We can but hope!

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to share your insights.



  7. Pingback: The Wearing of Costume | The Beau Monde

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