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Entries in regency (12)


Whatever Happened to the Spencer?

Once upon a time, in the Regency period, the spencer was a woman’s short jacket worn over the long empire-line gowns of the era. Day dresses, particularly for younger women, were usually made from white muslin or other light colours, and the spencer added some colour – as well as warmth – to the ensemble. They often featured puffed shoulders as well as decorative trim in the form of braid or tassels, or intricate detailing in the fabric such as pleats, gathers or ruffles.

Hat from Naples split on the sides. Spencer in velvet with bursts in satin. Dress has flounces.A cream spencer gorgeously edged in black and trimmed with tasselsMy herringbone patterned spencer is by Catalan designer Celia Vela, and is part of a suit. It is an unusual hybrid, featuring an Oriental neckline and closure (those little buttons are a right pain to fasten and undo), but it has puffed and gathered sleeves rather than puffed shoulders in the Regency manner. It was those sleeves that sold me when I saw it in a boutique in Sitges, Spain.

A modern day equivalent to the spencer would be the Spanish bolero, which is most often buttonless and worn open. This more formal and tailored jacket should not be confused with a shrug, or short cardigan, which is typically knitted.

But today there still exists a spencer, in the form of a warm knitted undergarment – that may or may not be matched with that very elegant piece of lingerie, the longjohn. The woollen spencer allows one to wear skimpy clothing in the depths of winter, and is thus a very useful garment to have in one’s arsenal.

For all its brevity my little woollen tank spencer has its own charms, does it not? I did own, once upon a time, a matching long sleeved spencer – the perfect length of the three-quarter sleeves kept it safely out of sight when worn under tops – but it has long-since gone to the Great Tailor in the Sky. I had black and white versions with both long and no sleeves in fact, but only this black tank survives.

Strangely, these versions of the spencer are difficult to find today, which is a pity, for they would prove extremely useful to those pretty young things who insist on gallivanting about on freezing Saturday nights in inappropriately flimsy garments.


In Grace

I’ve been interested lately in fashion editorials that are directly inspired by master artworks. I have collected a few over the years, shoots inspired by Ingres, Bonnard, Gauguin and Tamara de Lempicka. From French Vogue (possibly a 90s or early Noughties issue) and photographed by Michael Thompson, here is a photoshoot styled in the manner of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Sublimely beautiful in its simplicity, the image above is directly influenced by Ingres’ painting Half Figure of a Bather, (below) although my preference is for the second, The Bather of Valpincon (1808). There is a wonderful flavour of aristocratic indolence with the towels wrapping the hair as in a Turkish hammam. (Where else can one be literally waited on hand and foot these days?)

Half Figure of a Bather, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1807The Bather of Valpincon, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1808

I actually do not like these clothes much at all: they are far too fussy for me, even if I had occasion to don them. The hairstyling, and headdresses are great though – so evocative of historical paintings. The little black tiara in the third image is actually a nineteenth century comb (or a copy of one) – a wonderful gothic take on a traditional tiara. What an enviably beautiful glow these models possess too. I love the minimal, natural makeup; the heavy-lidded eyes – it’s quite startling to see naked eyelashes.

The photographs are beautiful works of art in their own right: here is the whole shoot below.

Click on images for larger versions. 


Fine and Dandy

Dandies, also known as beaus or gallants, have been around for a long time. A dandy’s raison d’être is Style – through ‘physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of Self.’ [Wikipedia]

George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell, caricature in watercolour by Richard Dighton, 1805Though not the founder of the movement, Beau Brummell (1778–1840) epitomises the notion of the dandy in English society, and was the arbiter of fashion in Regency days (think Jane Austen for you non-history-nerds). He was elegant, immaculately dressed and groomed, and despised the extremities of fashion as worn by the outlandish ‘Macaronis’ of earlier decades.

Fond of plain, dark suits worn with perfectly starched linen and accessorised with an elaborately tied cravat, Beau Brummell instituted a style of men’s dress that has reigned for the past two centuries. He was one of the first celebrities, famous chiefly for being famous, as a ‘laconically witty clotheshorse’. A socialite of olden days in fact. 

This fashion shoot elegantly photographed by Jurgen Teller for Arena Homme in the 1990s is inspired by the dandies of Evelyn Waugh’s era. There is an elegance in these pictures, with a dash of subversive wit to leaven them. The (mostly) black and white photography with faint echoes of René Margritte and the minimal set are immaculate, and the styling and art direction clever.

Enjoy this wonderful homage to the dandy of the twentieth century.

Click on the images for larger versions.


When in Roman Sandals

Gladiator sandals have been around for a long time. Ever since, well, the gladiators – that is since Roman times, at the beginning of the first millennium. Undoubtedly sandals were worn long before that of course, for their practicality and comfort in the warm weather.

Roman sandals from the first century AD discovered in LondonAbsolutely no Roman citizen would appear in public with bare feet. This would indicate dire poverty. Roman citizens wore sandals (soleae) – footwear without toe coverings indoors and shoes or boots (calcei or calceus), footwear with toe coverings with straps which covered the ankles, the calf, or up to the knee, outdoors. Sandals are believed to be the first rigid shoes crafted. A stiff sole was attached to the foot by leather cords, straps, or braided thongs. Sandals were generally the most worn type of footwear in warm climates such as the countries surrounding the Mediterranean – the Roman Empire. [Roman Colosseum Info]

Delicate sandals feature in this painting of a slave dressing a young girl’s hair; painting from Herculaneum

Parisian sandals and Grecian style dress in 1798In my tome A History of Costume in the West by François Boucher (Thames & Hudson, 1988), a silver pair from 6th century Switzerland rate a mention. These look a lot like engraved flip-flops – Havaianas for the wealthy. Sandals do not appear again in the book until Regency days, when the Grecian style – brought into fashion by Josephine Bonaparte along with all the tomb-raiding that was going on in that era – was all the rage.

In her book Vintage Shoes (Carlton Books, 2008) that celebrates shoes of the twentieth century, Caroline Cox does not mention gladiator sandals until the very last pages, when they reappear fittingly at the dawn of the second millennium. This current incarnation is most similar to those worn by the original gladiators, and most likely was inspired by the rash of films set in the ancient world.

gladiator sandals … reappear fittingly at the dawn of the second millennium

Gladiator sandals by Urban OutfittersI first remember wearing very simple brown leather Roman sandals (probably similar to the sort Roman slaves wore, for only Patrician Romans were permitted to wear red-dyed shoes) when I was a child in primary school. They were ubiquitous in summer. I owned another pair of white lace ups when I was about 16 – they left horrible tan marks on my feet, I wore them so much. Now I own this flat pair, and also a high-heeled pair in black patent that go up to the knee. Now, a real Gladiator chick wouldn’t be caught dead in those … or maybe she would have been – dead, that is, in those heels. 

See more gladiator sandals at ShopStyle.


The Russian Princess (an excerpt)

Chapter 1

Bringing a tankard of ale to the coachman who was waiting impatiently, the tapboy glanced curiously at the window of the opulent carriage. Just as he did so, a gloved hand appeared between the folds of lace, and pushed the curtain aside. A white face peered out. Not white from fear, Ned realised immediately, but naturally fair – so pale that he could almost fancy the young woman was a ghost. Dark curls peeped out from a straw bonnet, and her shawl swirled with strange colours and patterns he’d not seen on a lady of quality before. Her eyes appeared to be enormous as they darted about curiously, taking in her surroundings.

The yard of The White Hart was nothing out of the common way; Ned knew that. There was not much to look at indeed, unless she enjoyed the sight of the ostlers scurrying about as they exchanged the horses. She must have agreed with him, for her hand began to lower the curtain – but not before her eyes fell on Ned, standing transfixed, while the coachman slowly downed his refreshment. Her chin lifted haughtily at Ned’s impertinent stare, and then the lace curtain abruptly fell.

“Here, lad! Take the cup! What are you staring at?”

Ned was shaken out of his trance, and embarrassed, he lifted his tray so that the coachman could relinquish his tankard. But curiosity got the better of him, and he asked boldly, “Who is she?”

“Not for the likes of you, lad!” the coachman snorted in amusement as he lifted the reins. “She’s a Russian Princess, and we’re off to London. You’ll not be seeing her again!”

Left standing in a cloud of dust, Ned gazed after the carriage as it bowled out of the yard, through the gates and on down the London road.


For a real Regency romance, pick up a Georgette Heyer book today! The Toll-Gate is one of my favourites: romance and adventure on the high-road rolled into one. Here's what Queen Magazine had to say about it back in 1971 when this edition was printed:

‘Georgette Heyer is famous for her delightful Regency romances, and there is a modern sophistication about her handling of them that makes them irresistible. She has innumerable admirers already, but there must still be some who only wait to be awakened to her spell. Let them wait no longer before joining the happy circle of her readers.’