top of page

The Regency Wardrobe collection - research - Whitework

Dress, cotton embroidered with silk trimmed with linen lace, tapes of linen, c. 1810

"White was the color of choice at the beginning of the Regency period, although pastels grew to become acceptable. Women resembled statues from ancient Greece and Rome. The Empire silhouette elongated the body. Gowns flowed unimpeded by ornamentation. Ribbon often embellished the neckline and the waist, tying in the back. Whether sleeves were short for evening wear or long for daytime, the shoulder was poufed or capped. Gowns slowly evolved between 1800 and 1815. The back inched higher and fullness was added in the back to allow for freer movement. Ornamentation returned to skirts. By 1820 skirts were fuller still and hints of things to come could be seen in a slight lowering of the waistline"

"The delicacy of the sheer cotton fabrics of the early 19th century stood in stark contrast to the stiff silks of the earlier decade" -

Muslin was the most fashionable of materials for informal and even some formal gowns. An important feature of muslin is its ability to drape. Regency fashions were based on robes and garments from antiquity. The ability to drape and maneuver fabric over the figure was an important feature at this time and flowing white, fine muslin was perfect for imitating Greek statuary.

"In the 17th century and until the late 18th century, England imported muslin, a thin cotton material, from India. The British East India Company traded in Indian cotton, silk fabrics, and Dacca (Dhaka or modern-day Bangladesh) muslins. Muslins from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa were also imported. The delicate cloth, which first originated in the Middle East in the 9th century, was perfect for clothing and curtains in hot, arid countries. – Muslin: Encyclopedia Britannica Muslin was a finely woven light cotton fabric in plain weave without a pattern, and had identical warp and weft threads. The fabric selection is quite flexible, coming in a wide variety of weights and widths. It accepts dyes and paints so successfully that today it is often used for theatrical backdrops and photographic portraits. One observation must be made: muslins of the past were made of much finer, more delicate weave than today’s muslins."

Some Indian imports would have silver or gold threads pulled through the muslin.

Examples I saw as part of my research include these from the Fashion Museum Bath store. Both worn under a silk pelisse (below) by Arabella Millbanke at her wedding to Lord Byron. For more images please see:

It's interesting to note that white wedding gowns in styles of the sort we're more familiar with did not become di rigour until Queen Victoria’s marriage in 1840. Until that point, coloured gowns were as common as white for brides. For more on that please see:

This gown stands in the museum itself

Because they were quickly spoiled by dirt and use, fine muslin gowns helped separate the upper classes from the lower. white fabric quickly became a mark of gentility. White was difficult to keep clean or required constant cleaning. It was one thing for an aristocratic lady like Eleanor Tilney to wear white, but another for a maid to presume to wear such a high maintenance garment. Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park, approved of Mrs. Rushworth’s housekeeper’s action of turning away two housemaids for wearing white gowns.

Even though cotton is more washable than fine silks, such loose-woven muslins would tear and stain easily, tend to unravel or disintegrate in the wash. Despite all practicality of course there have always been those who are unable resist a new fashion, so it was in the early nineteenth century and some serving girls irritated their betters by donning white muslin gowns, just as their predecessors had irritated their betters in the eighteenth century by donning silk ones.

Of course embroidery transformed a simple white muslin gown into a work of art. Whitework - white-on-white embroidery sometimes incorporating eyelets - was particularly striking, and a popular activity for those ladies in their morning gowns, but coloured threads could be equally beautiful.

White-on-white weaves were popular. Trim could be seen at the hemline, neck, waist, sleeves and down the front of the dress.

Other colours were often worn for balls and dinners, light sheer overdresses in colourfully embroidered net or fine sheer silk, over satin, in contrasting colours was also fashionable and riding habits were always dark and made in more practical materials. But morning gowns in particular, worn for the period spent indoors sewing, writing letters etc, when whites were least likely to be ruined and the light materials were comfortable, white became the colour of choice.

The sister of Henry Tilney, the hero in Northanger Abbey, only wears white.

"Muslin was imported from the Far East for centuries. Then the weavers in west Scotland, who were proficient in spinning fine cottons such as linen, cambric, and lawn, began to pay attention to weaving a finer, more delicate cloth. Muslins, therefore (plain for the most part in Glasgow, and fancy ornamented in Paisley),were among the earliest and principal cotton fabrics produced on the looms of the west of Scotland...To differentiate your muslin dress you might choose a material with a pattern woven into it or embroidered on it, it might be sprigged or spotted, checked or striped Once fairly established, the muslin trade and various other cotton manufactures developed with extraordinary rapidity, and diverged into a great variety of products which were disposed of through equally numerous channels. Among the earliest staples, along with plain book muslins, came mulls, jacconets or nainsooks, and checked and striped muslins. Ginghams and pullicats formed an early and very important trade with the West Indian market, as well as for home consumption. These articles for a long period afforded the chief employment to the hand-loom weavers in the numerous villages around Glasgow and throughout the west of Scotland. The weaving of sprigged or spotted muslins and lappets was subsequently introduced, the latter not having been commenced till 1814. Although the weaving of ordinary grey calico for bleaching or printing purposes has always held .and still retains an important place among Glasgow cotton manufactures, it has never been a peculiar feature of the cotton industry; and the very extensive bleaching and print-works of the locality have always been supplied with a proportion of their material from the great cotton manufacturing districts of Lancashire. – p 501, The Encyclopaedia Britannica: a dictionary of arts, sciences, and general literature, Volume 6, Thomas Spencer Bayne, 1888."

And of course white outer garments demand white undergarments:


Tambour work has at times been at least as popular as embroidery (perhaps because it's faster to produce). The fabric to be worked is stretched on a large frame held on a stand, and the tambour worker use a hook (like a tiny, sharp crochet hook) to repeatedly punch through the fabric in order to create a chain stitch. The result is almost indistinguishable from embroidered chain stitch except that it is so very fine and even, and the work goes more quickly. Tambour work is still used on couture clothing today. The fine muslins of the Regency period were perfect for tambouring because the loose weave was easy to punch through without damaging. Therefore a lot tambour work of the era was white-on-white, the translucency of the muslin contrasting with the opacity of the tambouring on dresses, fichus, shawls and accessories.

Whitework happening in my studio


This research was done as part of the process of designing and making The Regency Wardrobe collection.

This project has been supported by:

Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page