I believe I’ve written about how ladies dressed for their debuts (with pictures), but I don’t think I’ve talked much about how the guys who went to these things (and there were some accompanying the ladies) had to dress. Although I did describe it in The Bachelor, I go into more detail in A Duke for Diana. It’s fascinating, really, since they were all expected to dress in 18th-century attire, down to their powdered wigs and outdated coats! It would be sort of like having to wear jackets with big shoulder pads and Flock of Seagulls hair to a dressy event today. Oddly enough, they also had to carry ceremonial swords. Imagine dealing with those when normally if you carried something for protection, it was a pocket pistol. Below is a print that shows exactly how both sexes were expected to dress.
Lady Diana Harper, the heroine in my new Designing Debutantes series, is statuesque (which I always wanted to be, but I’m too short). In her case, it means she’s not only tall but shapely. We have many misconceptions about history, but one of the biggest ones is that people were, as a general rule, thinner than we are. As Loretta Chase pointed out in a talk at a writer’s conference, we look at period garments and think, “Oh, how thin they were. Look at how small their waists were.” We extrapolate from that to assume that all Regency women were that small. What we don’t consider is that the gowns most often kept by women were their debut or wedding gowns, which come from periods in our lives when we’re at our smallest. Their everyday gowns were repurposed to make them more fashionable or handed down to the servants, who handed them down to the rag and bone shops. So we don’t get as many examples of the typical gowns of a matron. But all you have to do is look at a few satirical prints from the period to see plenty of women of all sizes, with big bottoms or thick waists or small breasts. (Check out this famous one by Thomas Rowlandson.) People are people, regardless of the historical period.
Did you know how fashion dolls began? They go back to the 14th century, but were mainly popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a way for dressmakers and tailors to demonstrate their fashions to their customers. Dolls could be used to demonstrate a new fashion in various fabrics or to show how variations on a particular fashion could work. They could also show what the latest fashions were in France . . . at least until Napoleon banned them during the Napoleonic Wars. He was afraid they’d be used to send secret messages to his enemies in England! They were still used a while longer in England, but eventually fell out of favor when fashion magazines became popular. But if you want to see an antique one, just check out this doll with a whole trousseau from 1810.
Many country houses had conservatories, but they could be as different as the families who lived there. The one pictured has lots of plants and plenty of space for socializing. Some had only a few plants; some were like inside forests. It was a way of nurturing exotic plants year-round, since essentially conservatories were greenhouses attached (sometimes) to the main houses. We’d probably call them sunrooms now. If you’d like to see a large detached one, check out the pics on my Pinterest page (Regency Tidbit board) for the one at Syon House. I’ve been there! It was built right around the Regency period.
One question I get asked a lot is where I get the names for my characters. Mostly, I get them from a book: The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names (Christian names are first names, the name given at the baby’s baptism/christening). I consider myself fortunate to have been able to buy a copy years ago, since it’s now been long out of print. In addition to telling the origin and meaning of the name, it gives the periods when the name was popular and makes it clear when a name didn’t come into being until later.
But I also use the book to check a name’s suitability after I’ve picked a name for some other reason. For example, in Thorn and Ophelia’s story, I picked Mr. Juncker’s name from a Danish girlfriend I had in graduate school named Juncker. I wanted it to be German-sounding, and Juncker originated as a German surname. I also have a tendency to use Shakespearean names since I like Shakespeare’s works. Sometimes, a name just leaps into my head, and I use that one. But before I make it permanent, I always check for it in—you guessed it—The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names!
Regency era women of the ton wore beads (glass, not plastic) all the time . . . but on their dresses and reticules and even shoes! There’s a lovely example of a Regency beaded gown here. Just imagine how much time it took to sew all those colored beads on, not to mention drawing out the design in the first place. Years ago, I made my own wedding dress and sewed tiny pearls on just portions of it, and it took hours of work for my simple decoration. This is far more complex. So I would imagine only the rich could afford such a gown.
My favorite part about doing research is stumbling over real stories of people. We tend to have misconceptions about the past: Everyone married only once and died young is a popular one. The last part in particular isn’t true, because the data used to determine life expectancy factors in all the many children who died of illnesses that we now vaccinate for—polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, etc. Here’s a case in point. The Duke of Leinster and his wife, one of the famous Lennox sisters, Emily, had 19 children. Of them, only 10 survived to adulthood. One died on the day of her birth although I couldn’t discover if she was stillborn. The last child was actually Emily’s illegitimate son by William Ogilvie, the tutor to her eldest son, although her duke husband claimed him. After her husband’s death, she married Ogilvie and had 3 more children, only two of whom survived to adulthood. She lived to the ripe old age of 82 and he died at 91. He was 18 years younger than she, but they lived happily together for 40 years. She must have been one amazing woman, and he must have been an amazing man. The woman bore 22 children in all. How incredible is that?
My Royal Brotherhood series is about three illegitimate sons of the Prince of Wales, whose term as Regent is what gave the period the name of “Regency.” Two of the three sons are actually considered legitimate by the laws of the time, so those two are able to have titles. English law dictated that if a child was born into a marriage, the father was legally the husband, no matter what he might say about it. And of course there was no way to tell in that period that the child was of a different father. Also, having a child by the Prince of Wales wasn’t exactly frowned upon, especially if the husband looked the other way. In fact, I loosely based Marcus, Viscount Draker and the hero of the second book, on George Lamb—fourth son of the first Viscount Melbourne—who was widely rumored to be Prinny’s son. It didn’t seem to have hurt him—George married a duke’s daughter!
Those of you who’ve read The Bachelor might have noticed that I talked about the odd attire required for those ladies presented at court and their escorts. Well, I didn’t make that up. Queen Charlotte did insist on powdered wigs for gentlemen and hoop skirts, ostrich feathers, and lots of jewelry for ladies. You can see several examples of those odd fashions here.
Young ladies had to wear white, but married ladies (like Beatrice) could wear colored gowns. Add a train to the gown, and you can only imagine how hard it was to walk in those fashions! Fortunately, ladies only had to wear them for their presentation at court. Then they could change into something more flattering.
The concept of my series may seem farfetched: a woman marrying (and burying) three dukes in rapid succession (really, two dukes and a duke’s second son who becomes the duke) and having an assortment of children by them. But real-life debutante Elizabeth Gunning proved that it really was possible to marry well more than once. After taking society by storm as an actress, Elizabeth wowed London’s gentlemen with her beauty and talent. As a result, she ended up married to the Duke of Hamilton and bore him three children. After he died, she was briefly engaged to the Duke of Bridgwater before the engagement fell through. Then she married the Marquess of Lorne, who later inherited his father’s title of Duke of Argyll, and bore him five children. Eventually George III made her Baroness Hamilton of Hameldon in her own right. That’s quite a string of marital (and otherwise) successes for an actress!