Elizabeth Bennet’s Wardrobe: Undress, Half Dress, Full Dress, Headdress! Making Sense of It All

Let us understand from the start that the term

“Undress” did not signify being unclothed. Likewise,

“Half Dress” did not mean one was literally half-

dressed. The terms are categorical, not literal.

Like Full-Dress, their name referred more to function

than a state of being. In which case you may ask,

‘What does it all mean?’

It means there had to be many gowns in a genteel

Regency lady’s wardrobe–regardless of the size of

her fortune. Indeed, to be active in society the

necessity of owning a large wardrobe could hardly

be avoided. In a small town such as Longbourne (where

the Bennett’s lived) the categories no doubt

overlapped more than they would, say, for a

debutante in London.

Nevertheless, a number of categories of dress were necessary, and of course there would have to be variety within each category–and this, no matter

where you dwelt, for there were different uses for

the different categories, as we shall see.

Having said that, one could argue there are

only two main categories of clothing for the Regency

belle: Undress and Full Dress. In this

“model”, Undress includes all of the gowns worn during

the day, and what is otherwise called Half Dress.

(Which is to say, the majority of clothing for daytime,

and even perhaps, informal evening wear.)

Day gowns include any gown worn for the morning,

walking out, shopping, carriage riding, or making

calls. Full Dress, on the other hand, was for the

evening Ball, very fancy Dinner, Opera or

appearance at Court. (The Royal Court, not a court

of law.)

The chief difference between Undress and Full was a

lower bodice for the evening, but in practice full

dress implied a whole ensemble; A short-sleeved

empire-waisted, low-necked gown, (generally of muslin

but by no means restricted to such) and including evening

gloves, a fancy headdress of some sort, a few jewels,

a fan, perhaps a reticule, and satin slippers. Other

accessories could also be worn or on hand: feathers,

boas, shawls, scarves and fans, to name the most common.

The following gowns constituted Undress.

  • Morning dress
  • Walking-out dress
  • Carriage dress
  • Promenade dress
  • Afternoon dress
  • Riding dress (or Habit)
  • Half-dress
  • See the difference? In theory, you were in Undress

    in the morning, Half-dress in the afternoon, and

    Full Dress for evening events. (Such as, a dinner or

    soiree, opera, ballet, theatre, concert, or ball).

    Court Dress was also considered Full Dress, though

    it had extravagant requirements that no other

    occasion called for.

    According to the Georgian Index, a wonderful online

    resource for Regency fans, Dinner Dress and Opera

    Dress fall into the category of “Half Dress.”

    And only “Evening, Ball and Court Dresses” passed

    as Full Dress. Is your head swimming, yet? If not,

    consider that the Riding Habit might not fit into

    any of the above, but simply constitute a category

    in its own right!

    Ah, so many dresses, so little time! No wonder the

    all-important Regency “season” was a roller-coaster

    ride of entertainments, diversions and delights.

    A lady must needs have enough events to make use of such an extensive wardrobe, and enough gowns in her

    possession to attend them in “the mode.” Pity the

    poor chit who couldn’t follow protocol or dress for

    the occasion. Such was the challenge for families

    with more pretension than means, who wished to

    launch a Regency buck or belle into the swirl

    of the fashionable elite.

    The Regency. There’s never been a time quite like it.

    You’ve got to love it!

    PS:(I didn’t forget about Headdress. Article coming


    copyright Linore Rose Burkard 2006