The Regency era began after George III became unfit to rule and, it lasted from February 1811 to January 1820. During this period, George III’s son, the Prince of Wales, ruled as Prince Regent, until George III died in January of 1820, after which the Prince Regent, nicknamed by the people Prinny, took the throne as George IV.
Although the Regency era is a short nine years it often represents a much longer time period—usually stated to be from 1795 to 1837. It was during this 42 year period that Great Britain was moving from the Georgian era to the Victorian era and facing transitions in politics, culture, fashion, technology, and society.
The main area of transition that was most uncertain during this time period was political. At the time, upheavals were occurring throughout Europe because of the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars, which left most people feeling uncertain as to their future. George III’s mental stability also made it uncertain whether or not he would continue to rule. In addition, a new burgeoning middle class made the English aristocracy fear that a revolt might occur, which also threatened their stability.
Maybe hoping to reassure the aristocracy, the Prince Regent embraced cultural transitions, but this extravagance required that he dip into the treasury to complete pet projects. Moreover, when he became king, he freely spent the people’s money engaging British architect John Nash to rebuild and refurbish “Regency” London. Nash’s designs were influenced by Gothic, Greek, Palladian, Roman, and Egyptian architecture and styles, which now defines the Regency in what is often called, Nash’s “Regency style.”
Fashions also changed, even as the aristocracy continued a ritual of changing their clothing three or four times a day and going from states of undress (casual clothing) to half dress (dressy casual) to full dress (formal wear). For men, the dandy Beau Brummell established male fashions and popularized the cravat, trousers, and the flamboyant greatcoat. Women’s fashions were thinner and embraced gauzy fabrics, and women’s wear was also classified by the activity or the time of day. Thus, in a single day a woman might wear everything from a morning gown to carriage dress to a ball gown or from a riding habit to a walking gown to a promenade dress. Hairstyles of the Regency era were also more natural. Wigs were out and men began sporting cropped curls in styles known as the Brutus, Caesar, or Titus. Women’s poufs and complex hairdos were replaced by face framing curls and simple chignons.
Technological advancements during this time were numerous. For instance, steam printing came into fashion and this increased the capability of printers to publish the written word. Steam printing, along with Prinny’s patronage, encouraged the publication of novels and poems by many well-known writers, such as Robert Burns, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Noel Gordon (better known as Lord Byron), William Wordsworth, John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, and Hannah More.
Despite society being highly stratified, changes occurred there too. Some of these differences were highlighted in the popular novels written by Jane Austen, which probably more than any author characterize the Regency era. Her books embraced the romantic feel so often associated with this period. Additionally, in stark contrast to the wealth and extravagance of Prinny and the aristocracy, there existed a less affluent London where gambling, drinking, thievery, womanizing, and rookeries existed. Charles Dickens immortalized this, as well as the suffering of the poor in his psychologically compelling characters noted in his many novels.