Navigation Menu+

What to Wear – Women


“Fine taste in apparel I have seen the companion of pure morals, whilst a licentious style of dress was as certainly the token of the like laxity in manners and conduct.”

The Mirror of the Graces, A Lady of Distinction

Regency and Napoleonic dress for women is quite becoming on nearly every shape of body.

And readers be warned, with easy-to-sew gowns, dressing up for time travel is an addictive prospect. Few ladies have found that one dress is at all sufficient.

Women’s fashion during the period was marked by a style known as the Empire waist. This raised waistline sat just under the chest and was popularised by Napoleon’s bride, Josephine. The principle advantages of this style to a lady’s figure is that it accentuates all a woman has to offer at the top, while conveniently covering any flaws below.

fashion10To achieve the proper look stays are a must. The empire waist of the Regency is slightly higher than in subsequent incarnations. After a certain age a woman can only achieve this with the support of proper undergarments. 

As a rejection of the tight corsets and impractical hoops of the previous generation, Regency dresses highlighted a more natural silhouette.  And for some scandalous upper class ladies, particularly on the continent, this meant revealing as much of the natural bodyline as possible. Techniques included dampening petticoats so as to cling to the body, at least until some of the upper crust contracted pneumonia as a result.

fashion19Here in Upper Canada, styles were more subdued and practical. While high fashion surely made it into port cities, such as Montreal, and trickled inwards, the climate and realities of life in early Upper Canada impacted styles of dress.

The most striking difference between dress for fashionable and working classes was the fabric. As the empire waist gown is simple to construct, copying it posed little challenge to any accomplished seamstress. With little money and incredible self-reliance, most women in early Upper Canada not only sewed their own clothes, but also spun their own fabric.

Thus, any empire waist dresses found along the St. Lawrence in 1812 would more than likely have been made from a linsey-woolsey, a coarse plain-woven fabric of either a linen or cotton warm and a woollen weft, rather than a light muslin or silk.

fashion9Fashionable and wealthy Canadians aside, women in early Upper Canada would likely have been apt to dress more warmly than their European counterparts, covering the neckline with a chemisette or a shawl.

The average women in 1812 might have had one working gown for every day and a fancier outfit for church, which likely began as her wedding gown. With few houses keeping maids to dress women, most fashion would have consisted of front closing dresses, such as the bib-front.

Some older ladies might have clung to the Loyalist fashions of 20 years before, sporting a fuller skirt, separate matching top and scarf over the neckline.

fashion12All married woman would venture into public with covered heads – except to a ball. Head coverings included a mop cap, bonnet or straw hat.  Options for formal hair dressing included turbans, hair bands and plumes. Curls were the height of fashion, and women bound their locks with rags to achieve the right look.

“The best chosen dress is that which so harmonizes with the figure as to make the raiment pass unobserved.”



  • Butterick 6630 Making History  – An easy pattern with a great solution to closing the back, the sleeves should be decreased to be period appropriate.

  • Simplicity 4055 – A simple dress with two sleeve and bodice options.

  • Rocking Horse Farm Gown with Calf Length Overdress – A period appropriate pattern with fuller skirt, most flattering for ladies of a certain stature.

  • Simplicity Elegant Lady’s Closet – A wrap gown for the Regency fashionista, the pattern can be challenging to follow.

  • Circa 1796-1806 Lewis & Clark Era Front Closing Gown – Great option for a working woman, more conservative and practical than both Butterick and Simplicity.

  • Period Impression 1812 Bib Dress Pattern – For the experienced and patient seamstress, this pattern is period and working class appropriate, while still pretty.