That Red Dress!
Updated: Nov 22
My book cover designer put my protagonist in a red dress as a pop of color for The Brittany Assignment, my next book. I felt like this dress did not fit her personality as I had envisioned it. But, I decided to keep the red color and ended up writing a first chapter that significantly featured the red dress. Here are the first few paragraphs
Paris – May 1810
“Did this dress have to be quite so red?” Phebe muttered as she glanced down at the offending garment. Even though she wore a mask, her height and poppy-red dress flaunted her presence.
Esmée, a petite and vivacious brunette that Phebe had been tutoring in English for the past six months, laughed and said, “But it has helped you catch the attention of many gentlemen.”
“That certainly was not my intent even if it was Grand’maman’s. And that attention may not be complimentary. I heard one call me La Flambeau Canadienne.” Phebe sighed. Her thoughts were resentful—she had been reluctant to come to this masquerade, especially when she saw this dress that Grand’maman had commissioned.
“You told me your grandmère wants you to find a French husband, n’est-ce pas? This is the perfect place to meet a gentleman. There are so few eligible men in Rennes.”
Phebe looked around the room. And not many eligible men here either, she thought—the wars had pulled so many away from their homes.
Esmée sighed then perked up again. “I thought that at a masquerade ladies would wear bright colors,” Esmée said looking down at her bright yellow dress. “But the bon ton are dressed in such insipid colors though I love their Indian shawls prodigiously.”
Phebe pressed her lips together. She should not have told Esmée and her mother about her grandmother’s wishes as they went out of their way to take her to balls and salons. And she had been foolish to accept their enthusiasm on seeing the red dress. They were middle-class citizens from unfashionable Brittany and this was their first jaunt into high society at the Hotel de Kermorvant, but, like them, Phebe thought a masquerade would be different from a gathering at a Salon. Then her mouth quirked at self-reproach. To be fair, she was as much a provincial as they were—maybe even more so as she came from a small town in Canada.
Phebe looked around at the ornate ballroom of the ducal mansion which dazzled from the light of hundreds of blazing candles that glimmered on the ceiling with its painted landscape and on the ornate gilded moldings. The people gathered in the ballroom glittered too. In spite of Esmée’s assessment of the pastel colors of the women’s dresses, they were heavily embroidered with gold and silver thread so the women glittered as they moved. They draped colorful Kashmir shawls on their arms, and jewels sparkled around necks, dangled from ears and embellished coiffures. Even the officers in military dress glittered with gold embroidery and colorful medals on their chests. Only the American visitors wore subdued and dark clothing.
During Regency times, young women were more likely to wear white with colored trimmings so Phebe stood out not only because she was wearing a red dress, but because she's taller than the average woman (and men) in France. But women did wear red dresses nonetheless, more so on the Continent than in England. So here are some links to fashion plates from the Regency period from La Belle Assemblée, which, despite it's French name, was an English publication, as well as paintings of women in red.
Colors of the Regency In the beginning of this blog is a quotation from Jane Austen who plans on dyeing a feather for her bonnet in fashionable coquelicot which is a poppy-red color.
Regency Colors: Gives information on the names of colors used in Regency novels as well as examples of the color.
Below: paintings of Elisa Buonaparte (one of Napoleon's sisters) in red. I guess she liked the color as she had two portraits in a red dress or maybe it's the same dress with different embellishments.
One of the colors that had problems was emerald green. In those days, arsenic was part of the dye for that particular shade. It was more fashionable in Victorian times and several women died from arsenic poisoning through the skin. But it was also a favorite wallpaper during that era too. Here's more on green dyes: The History of Green Dye Is a History of Death. and https://janeaustensworld.com/2010/03/05/emerald-green-or-paris-green-the-deadly-regency-paint/
Nowadays we have a much larger palette of colors for clothes and some of the names were not around in the Regency period. For example, beige was originally from a sort of soft fabric from French bège in 1858, but became the color as we know it today in 1879. Greige (a combination of grey and beige) became a color term in 1927. So when you read of a Regency belle's beautiful gown that was jonquil, you'll have a better idea of what shade of yellow that is.