Aigrettes Through the Regency

Aigrettes were delicate and elegant tufted ornaments which had been in use in multiple forms in various parts of the world from at least the Middle Ages. They went in and out of fashion over the centuries, as they came to the attention of different cultures. During the Regency, they were back in fashion, though they were made of different materials than had been the earliest aigrettes, and they were worn by different people and for different purposes. There are any number of ways in which an aigrette might provide a decorative embellishment or a plot point for a Regency romance.

Aigrettes through the Regency . . .

Aigrette is the French word for egret, a large water bird also known as the lesser white heron. Serendipitously, that same French word also means "brush," probably referring to the long, fine feathers which can be seen cascading down the back of an egret during their breeding season. Since the feathers of these graceful birds became an essential part of an elegant ornament from at least the sixteenth century, the term "aigrette" also came to be used for such ornaments in France. By the early seventeenth century, the same term was used for those same ornaments in Britain, as well.

The earliest known aigrettes were created to decorate the turbans worn by the sultans of the Ottoman empire. Similar, though larger, ornaments were also made to decorate the top of the armour which protected the head of the sultan’s horse. Typically, an aigrette for a sultan’s turban consisted of a spray of one or more egret feathers which were secured in place by a large, ornate pin of gold or silver, usually studded with diamonds, rubies, emeralds or other precious stones. When Europeans to traveled to the Ottoman Empire, they took a fancy to these ostentatious ornaments. It was not long before aigrettes became a new fashion on the Continent, particularly in France. As had been the case with the Ottoman sultans, the first aigrettes worn in Europe were worn by aristocratic and wealthy men, as ornaments for their hats. That remained the practice across Europe through the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth. Initially, aigrettes were only worn by civilian men, but gradually, they also became a favored ornament on the hats and caps of some of the higher ranking officers, first in the French army and later, in some of the armies of other European countries.

Even before the mid-eighteenth century, most civilian men had ceased wearing aigrettes. Instead, they had become primarily an ornament for military hats and caps. However, at about that same time, aristocratic and upper-class women in France began to appropriate the aigrette from the military for their own purposes. They found this tall, but light-weight, ornament an ideal embellishment for their elaborate and elongated wigs. French fashions spread across the Continent and it was not long before fashionable upper-class women everywhere were wearing richly jeweled aigrettes in their tall powdered wigs. Not content with only a few plain bobbing feathers, fashionable ladies wanted more ornate and sophisticated aigrettes and the talented jewelers of France were well able to accommodate them.

The most pleasing aspect of many aigrettes was the gentle, trembling movements which were made by the feathers when a breath of air wafted past, or a lady nodded her head. Skilled French goldsmiths and jewelers were able to create aigrettes in gold or silver, using very fine stiff wires, or thin coiled springs, which would also tremble in much the same way. Such jewelry was part of what was known as en tremblant pieces. These en tremblant aigrettes would be studded with precious or semi-precious stones, and were typically made in a plume-like shape similar to that of a real feather. Some of these elaborate jeweled aigrettes were made to be worn on their own, without the addition of any feathers. Others, though made in elaborate feather-like shapes, with gold or silver in the shape of the plumes, were sometimes still embellished with real feathers as well. In the eighteenth century, though egret feathers were still sometimes worn in an aigrette, ostrich and peacock feathers were even more popular. Aigrettes remained in fashion across the Continent and in Britain through the end of the eighteenth century.

One particularly ornate aigrette of the late eighteenth century had nothing at all to do with fashion and everything to do with courage, skill and determination. It also harked back to the earliest known aigrettes of the Ottoman sultans. In August of 1798, Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson commanded the Royal Naval fleet in the Mediterranean which defeated a French fleet in the Battle of the Nile. In early September, His Imperial Majesty, the Grand Signeur (the current Ottoman Sultan) of Egypt presented Admiral Nelson with a superb diamond aigrette, known as the Plume of Triumph. This elegant and valuable diamond aigrette, taken from a royal turban, was given to Nelson in gratitude for his decisive defeat of the French. The aigrette was valued at at least £1200. Because it was the gift of a foreign ruler, Nelson had to seek permission from Parliament in order to wear the aigrette as part of his uniform. Permission was granted and Nelson wore the diamond aigrette on the cocked hat of his dress uniform for the rest of his life. [Author’s Note:   That Plume of Triumph aigrette can be seen on Admiral Nelson’s hat in this portrait of him, painted by Lemuel Francis Abbot, in 1800.]

Through the eighteenth century, and well into the nineteenth, including the decade of the Regency, aigrettes remained a traditional part of the dress uniforms of many military regiments, both in Britain and across the Continent. However, the fashion for powdered wigs faded away near the turn of the nineteenth century, when the more restrained Grecian style became popular. The simplicity of this new style initially left no place for aigrettes in ladies’ evening fashions. However, quite a number of ladies did continue to wear aigrettes on their hats for day wear. In particular, aigrettes were especially popular as an ornament for the hat or cap a lady wore with her riding habit. The style of many riding habits during this period were influenced by military dress uniforms, so it is no surprise that hats and caps to be worn with those daytime garments were decorated with aigrettes.

Even the Prince of Wales wished to wear military-style uniforms. Once he became Regent, he finally had the power to grant himself the military rank of field-marshal, something his father had resolutely denied him. The Prince himself designed the heavily embroidered dress uniform he would wear for his new, self-appointed military position. The Regent first wore his ostentatious new uniform on the night of his celebratory Grand Banquet at Carlton House, on the evening of 19 June 1811. With his new uniform, he wore the star of the Order of the Garter and a splendid diamond-encrusted aigrette.

Rather like the Prince Regent, in the early years of the Regency, the majority of ladies who wore an aigrette most often did so on the hat or cap they wore with their military-style riding habit. In the evenings, these same ladies were more likely to wear a ribbon, a diadem, a tiara or a Spanish comb in their hair than they were to wear an aigrette. However, as the Regency progressed, aigrettes began to find their way back into the ballrooms and drawing rooms of Britain. For formal evening affairs, ladies’ hair was typically swept up to the back and/or top of the head. Such styles made an ideal setting for a delicate jeweled aigrette. And, by this time, English jewelers were quite capable of making aigrettes which were every bit as intricate and elegant as those which had first been made in France in the previous century. Gold and silver aigrettes, set with precious or semi-precious stones, glittered brightly in a lady’s hair when they caught the candlelight which illuminated the room. And, should that aigrette be holding one or more feathers in place, the gentle movement of the plumes was believed to be quite alluring. Though tiaras and Spanish combs were regarded as the most formal hair ornaments for evening wear, aigrettes gradually became the preference among Regency ladies who preferred a less ostentatious and lighter hair ornament. In general, aigrettes seem to have been most often preferred by younger ladies.

Aigrettes made of gold and precious stones were still created for some wealthy ladies during the Regency. However, such costly aigrettes were less common in the nineteenth century than they had been in the eighteenth century. By the middle years of the Regency, novelty of design and materials was thought to be more fashionable than the use of expensive materials for ladies’ jewelery. Women from across the social spectrum, including the aristocracy, were usually more pleased with an aigrette crafted in a unique shape, and/or set with unusual stones, or small enamel plaques, than they were with one fashioned solely of gold and diamonds. Despite the growing popularity of colored stones and other materials over the course of the Regency, there are several instances in which debutantes, or very young ladies, were to be seen clothed in a white or ivory gown and wearing an aigrette of silver, often set with pearls and/or diamonds, both of which were considered to be symbols of purity.

Throughout the Regency, aigrettes were usually worn in the hair, on their own, or combined with feathers. Ostrich feathers, peacock feathers and bird of paradise feathers were most popular, though the aigrette’s namesake egret feathers were also sometimes worn. Feathers were a very popular Regency fashion accessory, though they gradually made way for fresh flowers as the decade progressed. The use of feathers was especially popular as part of a headdress, since a tall plume secured in the hair with an aigrette had the effect of lengthening, and thus slimming, the silhouette of the wearer. Feathers also imparted an air of elegance and celebration to any lady’s ensemble.

Over the course of the Regency, aigrettes were sometimes converted to be worn as brooches. Initially, this was most often done with smaller aigrettes, which were more suitable for the purpose. These brooch-aigrettes were not usually used to secure any feathers in place, and were generally worn as would be any other brooch. However, later in the decade, as jewelry pieces became larger, even bulkier aigrettes might be converted to brooches. In the later Regency, and in the years which followed, some aigrettes were used to secure a small spay of flowers to a lady’s gown or coat.

Dear Regency Authors, might you allow one or more of your characters to wear an aigrette in an upcoming story? Will your characters be military men who wear them on their uniform hats, or ladies who wear them in their hair when out for a formal evening affair? Might a petite young lady prefer to wear an aigrette with a plume of feathers, knowing it will give her the perception of more height, and perhaps a bit of extra confidence, when she is out in public? Since aigrettes need not be made of very expensive precious metals and gemstones, even ladies of more modest means could afford one. Mayhap a heroine from a middle-class family wears her aigrette to an assembly at Almack’s. Though set with semi-precious stones, it is unique and very attractive, but a wealthy, spoiled young woman casts aspersions on it since it is not made of gold and diamonds. Will that act backfire, when the spoiled woman’s brother, or suitor, find the other young lady more attractive? Then again, a very wealthy young lady’s mother or grandmother might be scandalized because the young lady prefers to wear a light and delicate aigrette for an evening out, rather than a more formal tiara or Spanish comb, which they consider not in keeping with that young woman’s position in society. How else might an aigrette ornament a Regency romance?

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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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