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Regency Influencers, Hot Colors

By Jan Ashton, contributing author to Affections & Wishes


“However, I did not hear above one word in ten, for I was thinking, you may suppose, of my dear Wickham. I longed to know whether he would be married in his blue coat.”

--Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 51



Jane Austen gave scant detail of her characters’ eye or hair colors, but wrote often of the hues they wore, such as in the scene in Mansfield Park, where Mr Rushworth was excited for his play costume of ‘a blue dress and a pink satin cloak’ and rooms were in need of ‘green baize’ for curtains and decoration. Descriptions of fabrics and wall-papers, gowns and bonnets are even more ubiquitous in the films and variations inspired by her novels. We can thank Andrew Davies and costume designer Dinah Collin for providing us with 1995’s indelible image of Caroline Bingley as an enthusiastic wearer of feathers and vibrant shades of orange (a color that went poorly with the pale complexion of any gentle English lady and was used mostly as a trimming).


The Affections & Wishes anthology initially began with a theme of colors, prompting the question: What were the most popular colors in fashion and décor in the Regency era?


Two centuries ago, without Pantone or Sherwin-Williams to name ‘Colors of the Year,’ the influencers of ‘prevailing colors’ were fashion magazines such as Ackermann’s Repository, Ladies’ Monthly Museum, and La Belle Assemblee,


From 1800 to 1815, whites and pastels such as primrose and blossom (light pink) dominated morning, walking and evening gowns, with stronger colors usually confined to outer wear, trains, shawls, and cape linings. White was the default color for the beau monde, especially for young women’s dresses. A lady could fashionably promenade in a beautiful white cambric round robe, with a spencer or pelisse in a fashion color, any month, of any year until 1826. Upkeep was costly (more frequent replacement and a lot of extra laundering), so wearing fine white garments was synonymous with privilege.


In addition to white, yellow, green, rose, pale purples, and white were the most popular colors of the era. While many variations of these colors were named after plants, e.g., lavender a delicate pale greyish purple, similar fashion colors were marketed under catchy names to differentiate them, just as they are today. Bright or pale tones of azure went by names such as Arctic blue and Haitian blue, similar to the color we know as baby blue.


Yellow was especially fashionable—and the preferred names for its various shades were plentiful. Jonquil, a shade of daffodil, was the go-to hue, regardless of whether it was flattering to one’s complexion. Primrose, a shade lighter than jonquil, was a staple of the era, especially favored by young women both in day dresses and evening gowns (which were more lemony or canary yellow). Citron, or lemon, was never out of fashion, especially for gloves and half-boots. It was versatile, easier to maintain than white kid, and more delicate than York tan. Straw, a light warm golden yellow that looked like its name, was especially popular for kid gloves and shoes between 1804-1808. Many women found it a kinder shade to wear than jonquil or lemon, which tended to make some complexions look sallow.


Fawn was a wardrobe staple for the Regency ladies, and a popular choice for gentlemen, whose breeches and pantaloons were often seen in fawn, buff, and beige tones, all of which correspond to the colors we know in present times.


There also was drab, a soft grayish-beige, and unlikely as it seems to modern sensibilities, puce was one of the most popular colors of the era; its brownish-purple or purplish-pink hues aligned well with its meaning in French: flea.


Current events also influenced colors and designs. The wedding of Princess Charlotte to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg in 1816 led to an outpouring of ‘Coburg’ fashions, including Coburg green. Popular interest in Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns led to exotic motifs and trims. And as the war went in Britain’s favor and economic pressures lessened, vibrant shades like rich purples and mazurine blue (a mix of indigo and violet)—made from expensive dyes and associated with wealth and power—became a status symbol, especially among the nouveau riche dressing and decorating to impress.


The martial and patriotic symbolism of blue made it a popular color. Azure blue, similar to in hue to grape hyacinth, was a staple at any draper or modiste, as was royal blue (also referred to as French or sapphire blue). Another wardrobe favorite was celestial blue, a vibrant light shade made possible after the discovery of cobalt blue in 1799. La Belle Assemblée featured a Roman spencer in celestial blue in 1807, boosting it to peak popularity from 1812 to 1817. More intense tones were favored for promenade outfits, cloaks, and pelisses in heavier fabrics. While Clarence blue was a popular shade for spencers across the age spectrum, the deeper tones of cerulean blue made it a favorite for married women (and for furnishings as well).


Pomona was the defining green of the Regency era, used in both furnishings and clothing. The deep, rich apple-green hue leapt to prominence in 1809 when the niece of Lord Nelson wore a lavishly embroidered Pomona green train to the King’s birthday celebration at court. Pomona vied with the venerable tones of pea-green and spring green but by 1811, it was the green of the beau monde.


Six years later, it was eclipsed by emerald green, a shade Ackermann’s deemed ‘exceedingly elegant’ for women’s fashions. It also was widely used in home furnishings, especially as wallpaper in newlyweds’ bedchambers, since green was thought to promote fertility. Its popularity held, and in 1829, it was listed Ackermann’s cited it as among the most popular colors of the year.


Olive green was never out of fashion, especially for the Regency gentleman who wore tailcoats in the darker shades. Lighter olive tones were popular among ladies, especially in the years spanning 1812-14, when Ackermann’s featured more than one evening dress in pale olive at a time when white was all but universal for ballrooms. Bottle green and rifle green were fairly interchangeable during the era, especially in riding habits and gentlemen’s attire.


Red was not just for redcoats. La Belle Assemblée listed coquelicot as a ‘prevailing color’ in 1812. The poppy-red shade was featured often as hats or trim. Jane Austen herself was a fan of the color, writing in a December 1799 letter that she intended to use a coquelicot feather to decorate a hat “as being smarter, and besides coquelicot is to be all the fashion this winter.”


Claret, a rich purplish red, was listed by The Lady’s Magazine as a ‘prevailing’ color in 1805. Women wore it mostly as trim, while men favored it in tailcoats. By 1810, it was eclipsed by shades like pomegranate and morone; the latter, a brownish red with a hint of purple that got its name from the French word for chestnut, was a popular choice for winter fashions and accessories throughout the Regency, especially among matrons of a certain age.


As colors became dated or were considered to be ‘grandmother’s colors’ by younger Regency women, the fashion and textile industry rebranded colors or deepened shades to stay trendy. The often sickening means by which dyes for many of these colors were created and the health risks posed to those who wore or decorated with fabrics laced with arsenic (including emerald and Pomona green) and other poisons is not the purpose of this overview. We prefer to focus on fashion and beauty and romance. But fashion to die for would be a very interesting post (or story) in the future!



Image Sources:

BBC

La Belle Assemblee plates, public domain on Wikimedia

LA County Museum of Fine Art, Public Domain via wikimedia

A lithograph plate showing a variety of ways of wearing shawls in early 19th-century France (ca. 1802-1814); redrawn from various early 19th-century sources by Durin for Albert Charles Auguste Racinet's Le Costume Historique


Sources:

Robert Morrison, The Regency Years, WW Norton, 2019








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