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WHAT IS REGENCY? By Blair Bancroft - page 2 / 10

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Constantinople! (Signet, July 2004).] Technically, “the Regency” is the time when King George III became so incapacitated that his eldest son legally assumed his role (1811- 1820). But the enormous threat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the striking changes in dress and attitudes of that era began years before, around the turn of the century.

Since the word “Napoleonic Era” makes people think of battles instead of romance, I suspect the term “Regency” was “borrowed” by American publishers to give the era a more romantic cachet. To the British, the years from 1795 until the death of George IV (1830). and even into the short reign of King William, are considered late Georgian. Only with the ascension of George IV’s niece, Victoria, to the throne (1837) did the freer ways of the Regency truly fall by the wayside. Many historians credit the strong evangelical influence of the non-Anglican churches (Methodist, Baptist, Scottish Presbyterian, etc.) for this tightening of moral values in Britain, rather than laying the blame at the feet of the fun-loving young woman Victoria was when she ascended the throne. Victoria’s very serious husband, Albert, also comes in for his share of finger- pointing for obliterating the open highjinks which characterized the early part of the nineteenth century—the “Regency” era.

The first, most obvious, sign of the new era—not counting Napoleon’s megalomania—was a dramatic change in clothing. Beau Brummel took men out of brilliantly colored satin and put them into short-fronted, often dark, tailcoats, a style still seen in the modern tuxedo. He was also a strong advocate of cleanliness, a virtue almost unknown in the eighteenth century. In France, Josephine Bonaparte exemplified a similar revolution for women, taking them out of pinched waists, panniered hoop skirts and towering headdresses. Other significant features of the eighteenth century also bit the dust—powdered wigs, swords, coffee houses, even rampant lawlessness—began to fade away. In fact, men were more likely to wear corsets than women, as it was they who now had the skin-tight fashions, while women could luxuriate in the comfort of a high waist and a single chemise beneath lightweight columnar gowns (a classic Greek influence, also popular in Regency furniture and other household design).

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