5 Fun Facts about Regency England that May Surprise You

by Donna Hatch

1.       It was not scandalous for ladies to show their ankles during the Regency Era. A number of Regency fashion plates and caricatures depict ladies revealing silk stocking-clad ankles and low-cut slippers, which were much like todays ballerina flat, while dancing, sitting, and walking. During the Victorian Era, shoe fashions changed from slippers to the Victorian boot. This happened about the same time that hemlines lowered and skirts widened. In addition to the Victorians following their monarch’s example of becoming exceedingly prudish, it eventually became scandalous for ladies to show ankles. However, during the Regency, it really was no big deal for ladies to hold up their narrow skirts to avoid a mud puddle or to allow greater freedom of movement to walk quickly, thus exposing ankles. Fun fact: It was, however, scandalous to say “legs.” Apparently “limbs” was the more accepted word in polite company.

2.       A dance set at the ball included two dances, not just one. When a gentleman asked a lady to “stand up with him” they were committed to 20 to 30 minutes together. Of course, country dances were all the rage which allowed couples to change partners frequently during the course of the dance, so they weren’t truly “stuck” together much. This practice of dancing sets of two is partly why a gentleman seldom asked a lady for two dances, meaning two dance sets, and never three unless they were engaged, because it basically tied them up together for most of the evening, giving little opportunity for other partnering.

Drury Lane Theatre

3.       An evening at the theatre lasted most of the night. The main production was the play. However, after the main event, the theatre performed a light “afterpiece” – usually a comedy in the form of a pantomime or one-act play. A few theaters performed one short production prior to the main performance as well so there might be as many as three performances. With all these performances and intermissions, one expected to be at a London theater half of the night. Some patrons came and went, but many stayed all night, I suspect to people-watch rather than to enjoy the arts.

                      Evening Gown 1819

4.        A fashionable lady’s unmentionables did not include drawers or pantalettes. With the narrow, slender gowns fashionable during the Regency resembling statues dating back to ancient Rome, bulky drawers with drawstring waists would have messed up the silhouettes of ladies’ gowns. Also, I have not found evidence that ladies wore pantalettes during previous eras either. The only women who wore drawers or pantalettes during Georgian and Regency England were prostitutes who wore them underneath their slitted skirts. Ahem. And that’s all I care to say regarding the matter. During the Victorian Era, ladies began wearing drawers or pantalettes underneath their wide bell-shape skirts, possibly to preserve modesty should the skirt accidentally tip upwards too far. Oh my! Later, this garment was also known as “pantaloons,” however Georgian and Regency pantaloons were men’s knee-length breeches.

Yours truly modeling my shift and stays.

5.       It is a common myth that Regency ladies often fainted because their corsets were too tight. First of all, ladies during the Regency wore stays, not corsets. The difference is the shape and boning. Previous era corsets were made to cinch the waist. Regency stays, much more flexible and comfortable, were made to smooth and support. I’ve worn a corset and it is possible to feel truly uncomfortable if it is cinched up way too tightly. I even got a small bruise on my lowest rib on one side from having it laced tighter than it should have. What can I say? It was steam punk party and I wore it tighter than I would have it I’d planned to wear it all day. But I digress. I have also worn authentic Regency stays and they are so comfortable and well fitting that if they were easier to get into and out of (where’s my maid when I need her?), I would wear them every day.

My stays are a little too big as you can see since there is supposed to be a two or three-inch gap between the two sides, but one cannot fault my seamstress; I lost weight between my first and final fittings. I cannot, therefore, be unhappy about it.

I hope you enjoyed my fun facts. Comments and questions are welcome!

Leading Strings

I love looking at photos and portraits of people who lived long ago. We can gleam so much information by the way they dressed and posed. I often wonder about them, their lives, their thoughts. One detail in pictures that involve small children that I sometimes see is the presence of a belt or rope attached to the child’s garments right under the arm. These fabric belt is called Leading strings, sometimes also called Leading Reins.

Leading strings seemed to have served two purposes: to aid the child while learning to walk, and to keep the child from straying too far away.

By Pieter de Hooch (1629–after 1684) – http://www.mdbk.de/sammlungen/detailseiten/pieter-de-hooch/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40616518

As a mother of six children, I spent a lot of time leaning over, with my fingers extended, so my babies could hold onto them to keep them steady as they learned to walk. A leading string might have saved a lot of time with a tired back. And in a busy public place, keeping track of a toddler can be a challenge. I always had the fear that the second I looked away, they would run off after some new fascinating diversion or be spirited away by a stranger.

Translation: “A young governess helps a very small child to walk. He wears a little sailor suit and carries a (rattle?), and still wears leading strings.”

 I sometimes wonder why we stopped this practice of sewing leading strings into children’s clothing, don’t you?

 

Regency Easter Customs

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org
/w/index.php?curid=50313

By the Regency Era, Easter had evolved from its pagan origins to a much more religious, and family-friendly tradition. Normally Parliament did not begin its first session of the year until after Easter and activities were curtailed between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, and especially during the 40 days of Lent when people were expected to refrain from “indulgence foods” like cakes or pastries, dairy foods, and fats Monday through Saturday, and from meat on Friday. (Sunday is not part of Lent) Even during years when Parliament resumed early, the official London Season with all its parties, balls, and routs did not fully begin until after Easter Sunday.

The day before Lent began was Shrove Tuesday, a day to confess sins to one’s priest (or to get “shriven”). According to Regency researcher and author, Regina Scott, it was also a day they referred to as “pancake Tuesday,” the last opportunity to eat all the foods forbidden during Lent. The custom might have begun as a way to use up any of these foods one had in the house so they wouldn’t spoil. Other cultures used their last day of anything goes to create events such as Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday.

In England, a host of games accompanied Pancake Tuesday, including pancake races (flipping a pancake in a frying pan while running) and Street Foot Ball, or Hurling, which is a cross between soccer and American football. You can read more about those games here.

Then Lent, a time of fasting and abstinence began. Behavior was also curtailed during Lent.

According to noted Regency researcher, Nancy Mayer:

Though the theatres were open during most of Lent, they presented more oratorios and  benefits than   dramas. The theatres were usually closed during Holy  week– the week between  Palm Sunday and Easter.

Easter was a pivotal date on the calendar. Though  it wasn’t and isn’t  a fixed date, many  events depended on  the date of Easter. Schools, universities  and  courts had Easter terms. Several events occurred  a week or so after  Easter.

Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday were  government holidays.

Many of the fashionable set  went to London in February when Parliament resumed and the Queen’s birthday was celebrated. The official  celebration of royal birthdays, often had no connection to  the actual date of birth. The  celebration of the Queen’s birthday  usually took place in the first week of Feb.  before Lent.  Those  in town  before Easter  seem to have  had more dinners and routs  than balls– according  to those newspapers I have read. Balls were not considered proper during Lent.

Even the royalty had a custom for Easter called “the Maundy,” usually the Thursday before Easter Sunday. On this day, the ruling monarch gave food and tunics to the poor who lined up for help following the example the Savior who helped the poor. In old times, there was even a foot washing ceremony representative of when Jesus washed the feet of his apostles during the Last Supper (a ceremony still practiced in some churches). A version of the Maundy continues even today.

Many families also colored hard boiled eggs using natural sources for dyes to give as Easter gifts. Pasche Eggs, which were also called Pace Eggs, were dyed and recipient’s name and age carefully scratched out with a blade so that the white of the shell showed through the color.  Others decorated eggs by using tallow to draw a design on the egg then dying it, then removing the tallow to reveal the design. People also decorated eggs by painting pictures on them using colored dyes. Children participated in egg rolls where they rolled eggs down hills or other angled surfaces in a race to the finish line, or even to see how far the eggs rolled.

True believers viewed Easter and Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, as even more important than Christmas due to its reminder of the Resurrection. Multiple church services occurred during the week complete with choirs singing. On Easters Sunday, worship included choirs singing, incense burning, chanting, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, and lighting candles during personal prayers. Some churches today, especially larger cathedrals, still practice these traditional forms of worship. A common practice includes draping the statues in black and stripping the altar on Good Friday symbolic of mourning the Savior’s death, then on Easter morning, remove the black and dress the altar as a celebration of His Resurrection.

According to Gaelen Foley, new gowns and Easter bonnets were a must for all gently-bred Regency ladies.

Easter dinner was an important part of the day, usually including ham or lamb, and, of course, hot cross buns–a tradition that continues today.

In my family, we balance the fun of Easter with the Christian religious aspect, normally reserving the celebratory customs of decorating, egg hunts, and parties for Saturday. This leaves Easter Sunday open for church service and more reverent observances. (However, the Easter Bunny does leave a few small gifts and candy in my children’s Easter baskets, which await them on the breakfast table Easter morning.) We also have a nice ham dinner that evening upon our return from church.

What are your favorite Easter customs?

Sources:

The Historical Royal Palace Blog

Lesley-Anne McLeod, Regency author blog, an article written by Regina Scott

Nancy Mayer, Regency Researcher

Gaelen Foley

 

Mounting a Horse in Regency England

The Countess of Coningsby in the Costume of the Charlton Hunt     circa 1760

RIDING on Horseback is, confessedly, one of the most graceful, agreeable, and salutary of feminine recreations. No attitude, perhaps, can be regarded as more elegant than that of a lady in the modern side-saddle; nor can any exercise be deemed capable of affording more rational and innocent delight, than that of the female equestrian.

From a Young Lady’s Equestrian Manual, published 1838.

With few exception, most of my female characters are accomplished horsewomen. I cannot claim to be accomplished, but I do love to ride. Still, sidesaddle, or aside, is a bit different. When writing my soon-to-be released novella, The Matchmaking Game, I needed to fine tune the details about how a lady mounted a horse. To this end, I turned to the aforementioned manual, and found the details that I wanted. Here they are:

The horse being thus left to the lady’s government, it is proper, that, in passing her hand through the reins she should not have suffered them to become so loose as to prevent her, when her hand is on the crutch, from having a light, but steady bearing on the bit, and thus keeping the horse to his position during the process of mounting.

She next places her left foot firmly in the right hand of the groom, or gentleman, in attendance who stoops to receive it. The lady then puts her left hand on his right shoulder; and, straightening her left knee, bears her weight on the assistant’s hand; which he gradually raises (rising, himself, at the same time) until she is seated on the saddle. During her elevation, she steadies, and even, if necessary, partly assists herself towards the saddle by her hands; one of which, it will be recollected, is placed on the crutch, and the other on her assistant’s shoulder. It is important that she should keep her foot firm and her knee straight.

Armed with this knowledge, here is how I wrote my scene in The Matchmaking Game, when the hero and heroine, childhood friends, first realize there may be more between them than friendship:

How kind of you to notice,” she said dryly. “Give your major a leg up?”

With a smile at her reference to the honorary rank he’d given her at the ball, Evan dismounted. He laced his fingers together so she could mount her horse. A pert smile came his way before she placed her left foot in his cupped hands. She put one hand on his shoulder to steady herself as he boosted her up. Her soft body brushed his arm and chest. Her scent, something soft and feminine he could not name, tingled his senses. Mere inches away, her smooth cheek and moist lips taunted him. His chest squeezed and his knees wobbled. Awareness of her, of the desirable woman she had become, rendered him immobile. She glanced at him, one brow raised, and a half smile curving those luscious lips. A burning energy formed in the middle of his stomach and shot outward like sunbursts.

She parted those lips and spoke. “Am I too heavy for a big, strong man like you?”

“Er, no. Of course not.” He cleared his throat again and boosted her up with a bit too much force.

Despite his aggressive boost, she placed her right leg over the leg rest of the side saddle and found her balance. She settled the long, heavy skirts of her riding habit around her while he helped position her left foot in the stirrup.

With the reins in one hand and her riding crop in the other, she eyed him with an expectant lift to her brows. “Shall we?”

The Matchmaking Game will be released April 18, 2017 and is available now for pre-order here

 

 

 

Riding Sidesaddle in Regency England

Riding sidesaddle was the epitome of genteel upbringing for the Regency lady. It provided a convenient form of transportation, a good method of obtaining fresh air and exercise, and a great way to socialize–especially with gentlemen 😉 . Riding sidesaddle also effectively proclaimed one’s wealth and status. Sometime during the 17th Century, ladies started riding sidesaddle, also known as aside. Prior to that they rode astride or sat in an awkward riding seat and hung on for dear life.

In order for a lady to be a good rider in Regency England, she had to have both time and money. She must take riding lessons, have time to practice the art of riding, and be wealthy enough to afford a horse trained as a lady’s mount. Work horses could simply graze; riding horses called for more expenses–a stable, feed, grooms, tack, farrier fees, etc. A lady competently riding aside, combined with a stylish riding habit, spoke louder than words of her social standing.

Riding habits were usually made by tailors, although some sources cite ladies dressmakers, or modistes, making riding habits, too. Riding habits included a fitted bodice with long sleeves, or sometimes a spencer, that fit well through the torso and shoulders. A long, full train covered the legs while riding. Regency ladies’ riding habits did not include a split skirt–those didn’t appear until the late Victorian Era. They seem to have come in a variety of fabrics, depending on weather, velvet being very popular.

Little girls were taught to ride astride on a pony or donkey. Then, as they grew in competence and size, they learned to a sidesaddle and usually graduated to a horse. This was a sign of skill and distinction. In urban areas, riding donkeys seemed to be pretty common, but riding in London seemed to require a beautiful horse, since in London, appearances became crucial.

Very few grown ladies rode astride in the city or country; not only was it unladylike and downright scandalous, it could be viewed as a declaration of one’s incompetence at riding side saddle.

Jane Austen herself didn’t learn to ride until nearly at the end of her life. Historians believe Jane had a fear of riding. If this is true, it may be due to a dear friend of the Austen family being killed while riding. Jane’s personal records cite this loss. It’s also possible that Jane didn’t ride in her youth because her family simply didn’t have the money for such a luxury. Most of her novels suggest a certain disapproval of ladies riding, and in a few cases, a touch of envy.

The Countess of Coningsby in the Costume of the Charlton Hunt, circa 1760

A common misconception about riding sidesaddle is that it was uncomfortable. In truth, it’s actually comfortable. The seat and pommel are both padded. In addition, one does not sit twisted, but rather with one’s back straight. It’s a lot like sitting in a chair with the right leg crossed over the left. I often sit sideways on the sofa with one knee propped up higher than the other. This is not much different than riding sidesaddle.

Others claim that riding aside is difficult. However, many women today who learn sidesaddle prefer it to astride. Both ways of riding are more about balance. When I ride astride, especially if the horse is large, I get sore in the soft tissue in my inner legs. Riding more frequently would help, I am sure, but sidesaddle would at least alleviate discomfort due to the girth of a horse.

Another myth is that it’s hard to get on a horse with a sidesaddle. Actually, one only needs a mounting block to mount a horse. Of course, having a handsome gentlemen nearby to give on a “leg up” is always welcome 🙂 Also, a trained lady’s mount stands very still for mounting or dismounting, they have a smooth gait, a light mouth, and are a pleasure to ride.

Many critics claim that it’s easy to fall off and therefore dangerous to ride aside. This is true of riding in general. Some riders, as my writer friend and horse expert Shannon Donnelly says, could fall off a merry-go-round horse; other riders can stay on anything–even a bucking bronco.  Look at rodeo riders. They don’t rely on strength; they stay on by keeping their center of gravity over the horse. Again, riding is all about balance and skill whether a person rides astride or sidesaddle.

Another common myth about riding aside is that one can’t gallop or jump. Again, this goes to skill–a skilled rider and well-trained horse can jump, gallop and do haute echole (dressage movements)–anything that can be done astride can also be done sidesaddle. There are numerous documented recordings of Georgian and Regency ladies riding side saddle as they “rode to hounds” which required a fast pace and much skill to charge through the country side after a pack of hounds chasing a fox.

Riding sidesaddle is fun! Part of the trick is a well-trained horse. Some horses have a harder time adapting to his rider’s legs both on one side but others pick up on it quickly.

Now, like everything, the side saddle has evolved. However, the Regency side saddle was very similar to today’s side saddle. The main differences are that there was no no leaping horn, and the Regency stirrup is a ‘slipper stirrup’ which is different from today’s.

Some images from the Regency Era show ladies riding with a sort of belt wrapped around them. It’s not clear to me if it’s attached to the saddle or not. It’s possible it was merely a way of keeping a lady’s skirts down flat, since I can’t imagine any woman would have secured herself to the saddle.

Is today’s saddle safer? Probably. But many Regency ladies managed to ride anywhere they wanted, and as fast as they wanted, just fine, thank you very much.

Sources:

Much of this information came through years of research. However, some recent sources are:

Shannon Donnelly on Historical Hussies

Jill Ottman on the Jane Austen Centre of North America

Kathy Blee on Ladies Ride Aside