Dress for Excess: Regency Fashion
The breath-taking ‘pleasure palace’ of King George IV, the Royal Pavilion, is a sight that Brighton residents become accustomed to, but one step inside its door and the splendour within is immediately apparent. For the 200th anniversary of the Regency Act, the Pavilion has on display an exhibition showing some of the most lavish and extraordinary clothes that George and his peers would have worn.
It was once said of George, ‘He is fond of dress even to a tawdry degree, which, young as he is, will soon wear off.’ The exhibition demonstrates that this may not have been the case, and spans his flirtations with fashion that lasted a life time. In the 16th century, wealth and status were often displayed through silk, and women typically wore a robe and a petticoat, whilst men wore breeches, a vest and a coat. In 1785, George owed the modern day equivalent of £1.5 million to his tailor, something of an indication of the extreme nature of his love for exquisite dress.
In the early 17th century, dress became more modest, and women often wore high waisted dresses to give prominence to their bust and bottom, whilst men used padding and corsetry in order to have a broad chest, sturdy legs and a small waist. For the first time, fit was the most essential part of an outfit, and the style of the dandy grew in popularity. Looking at these outfits is highly reminiscent of something from the costume department of Pride and Prejudice, and clearly far more understated than what had been previously in fashion.
Fashion changed once more in the next century, as both military and oriental styles became popular. Elements of men’s military uniform became part of formal fashionable wear, whilst ‘chinoiserie’ – a European art inspired the by the Orient – had been going in and out of fashion since the 17th century and was revived by George. Indian textiles were regularly imported, and became popular not just for their low cost but also for their practicality.
A demonstration, though, of the astonishing nature of George IV’s fashion comes most obviously from being able to see his coronation outfit. An astonishing crimson mantle made from silk velvet and gold embroidery is like nothing we would ever see today, and it is rumoured that the amount George wore, along with the corset-like body belt underneath, caused him to nearly faint. The scale of the importance he placed on his appearance is betrayed by these figures – to date George’s coronation remains the most expensive in history, costing almost £15 million; one tenth of this figure was spent on George’s clothes. However, after his death, many of George’s clothes were auctioned by his brother and successor, in what was deemed to be a public rejection of his extravagance. Despite this, his passion for the monarchy being displayed as something lavish and regal is remembered, and perhaps summed up in these words from William Thackeray – “That he was the handsomest prince in the whole world was agreed by men, and alas! By many women.”