Spring Fashions in the age of Jane Austen
It's Spring and to celebrate, journalist and author Sarah Jane Downing takes us back to Regency England to discover what Jane Austen, her friends and characters, would have been wearing as the sun and flowers came out
After a cold dark winter the flowers and longer lighter days of spring would have been warmly welcomed by a country girl like Jane Austen. Naturally the coming of spring heralded the bringing of new life, and of course a new season called for new fashions!
As the social season of theatre going, assemblies and concerts gave way to walking, promenading and picnics, it was a necessity and a pleasure to choose new items for spring. Helpfully illustrated each month by magazines such as La Belle Assemblée and Ackermann’s Repository of Arts there was plenty of fashion inspiration! Armed with their chosen illustrations and a few personal touches, the wealthy would compete to commission their dressmakers first. For those whose budgets were smaller, the best way to update any ensemble for spring was to trim a bonnet with the latest ribbons, flowers or fruit like Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice: ‘Look here, I have bought this bonnet’ ‘I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better.’
Whilst staying with her brother in April 1811 Jane made the most of an opportunity to access the most fashionable shops in London, writing to Cassandra: ‘I am getting very extravagant & spending all my money; & what is worse for you, I have been spending yours’. As well as pretty coloured muslin and bugle bead trimming, she bought stockings, a straw hat for herself, a bonnet, and pelisses for them both. A pelisse was a beautifully fitted cross between a jacket and a coat, usually full length, that would often be made en suite with a gown. In velvet or wool for winter and kerseymere or sarsnet for spring, it was a warm layer perfect for walking or carriage rides but still stylish and elegant. The fashion press offered numerous depictions of ‘Carriage Dress’, rivalled only by the number of ‘Walking Dresses’ reflecting just how popular it was to venture in search of the picturesque whether perched sedately in a carriage with friends or wandering lonely as a cloud.
The Bath Guide for 1800 stated proudly ‘the publick roads about Bath have been much improved within these last few years’ suggesting that visitors would enjoy driving out to Lansdown and Claverton for the beneficial air and fabulous views. The following year in May 1801 Jane enjoyed driving out to the hills which surround Bath, writing to her sister: ‘I am just returned from my airing in the very bewitching phaeton and four… we went to the top of Kingsdown, and had a very pleasant drive’.
However like her beloved character Lizzie Bennet, Jane’s great love was for walking. She characterised herself as a ‘desperate walker’ proud of her pace and keen to meet a challenge. She wrote to Cassandra on May 21st 1801: ‘we went up by Scion Hill, and returned across the fields; in climbing a hill Mrs Chamberlayne is very capital; I could with difficulty keep pace with her, yet would not flinch for the world. On plain ground I was quite her equal. And so we posted away under a fine hot sun, she without any parasol or any shade to her hat’
As enjoyable as it might be to stride out across the countryside, a bracing walk could also create a fashion disaster like Lizzie’s muddy hem in Pride and Prejudice. Mrs Chamberlayne was taking quite a risk that her complexion might become freckled or damaged by the sun and wind. She was also missing an opportunity to wear a beautiful bonnet perhaps with a fashionable short veil or to carry a pretty parasol. Jane wrote in April 1805 ‘yesterday was a busy day for with me or at least with my feet and stockings… I was walking almost all day long’. Stockings of a weight heavier than the usual silk were worn for long walks, frequently with more robust footwear. Emma is told in The Watsons:
‘nothing sets off a neat ankle more than a half boot; Nankin galoshed with black looks very well’, but she replied ‘unless they are so stout as to injure their beauty, they are not fit for country walking.’
Social walking was far less demanding allowing for finer clothes and shoes and a light pace suitable for conversation and window shopping. A highlight of Sundays in Bath was to walk in the Royal Crescent and the green slopes of Crescent Fields where you could hope to run into the people you wanted to see or at least to be seen in your best bonnet!
Bonnets were a constant fascination as they would govern a first impression more than any other item, and, as La Belle Assemblée cautioned in 1806 ‘A lady is not considered fashionable if she appears in public for two successive days in the same bonnet.’
In Northanger Abbey, upon her arrival in Bath, the first thing that Catherine Morland does before attending any public event is to spend ‘three or four days… in learning what was mostly worn, and buying clothes of the latest fashion’. Aside from the fashion press or letters from observant fashionable friends already in the city, the best way to assess the new fashions was to take a stroll along Bond Street or Milsom Street. It was window shopping upon the latter where Isabella ‘saw the prettiest hat you can imagine’ telling Catherine reassuringly that it was ‘very like yours only with coquelicot ribbons instead of green’.
In 1811 Jane was completing Sense and Sensibility in which she writes of the gossipy old (nearly 30!) spinster Anne Steele that she has chosen her new bonnet specifically to appeal to a certain man:
‘There now, you are going to laugh at me too. But why should I not wear pink ribbands? I do not care if it is the Doctor’s favourite colour. I am sure, for my part, I should never have known he did like it better than any other colour, if he had not happened to say so.’
Sadly the romance did not come to fruition, but the bonnet was very pretty!
Sarah Jane Downing is the author of Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen and Pastimes and Pleasures in the Time of Jane Austen. http://www.sarahjanedowning.co.uk
Shops & Shoplifting: Jane Austen’s Aunt & a Card of Lace
In this month's Musings, Jennie Batchelor, Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Kent, looks at shopping in Regency Bath and tells the intriguing story of how Jane Austen's aunt went shopping for lace and ended up in Lichester gaol
"Bath is a charming place, sir; there are so many good shops here. We are sadly off in the country … here one can step out of doors and get a thing in five minutes.Northanger Abbey
Shopping has been a popular pastime among Bath visitors since the eighteenth century. The city’s wealth of shops – from butchers and bakers to book shops, high-end furniture makers, drapers, haberdashers and dressmakers – was noted in countless letters, diaries, travelogues and novels of the time. For people of means, as Mrs Allen observes in Northanger Abbey (1818), it seemed as though everything conceivable was available for immediate purchase within a few minutes’ radius of the city’s centre. And for those on a more limited budget, there were still pleasures to be had in visually consuming Bath goods in the form window shopping. Jane Austen, whose tastes often exceeded the contents of her purse, wrote excitedly about visits to stay in Bath with her uncle and aunt, James and Jane Leigh-Perrot, where she browsed ‘Gauzes in a shop in Bath Street’ and marvelled at ‘Almonds & raisins, French plumbs & Tamarinds’ in a grocer’s shop of the ‘dearest kind’ (2 June 1799).
There was also one other, less salubrious, way of acquiring goods from shops: shoplifting. When Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, about Bath Street gauzes, little did she know that just eight weeks later, in the same street and perhaps even in the same shop, her aunt would be suspected of just such a crime. On 8 August 1799, Jane Leigh Perrot visited Elizabeth Gregory’s milliner’s shop where she paid £1 and 19s for some black lace. After leaving the establishment, she was followed by Gregory who asked if she had pilfered a card of white lace in addition to the length of black that she had legitimately purchased. Jane Leigh Perrot denied possessing the lace but it was subsequently found in the parcel with which she had left the shop. After repeated efforts to bring the episode to the notice of the authorities, Gregory and her shopman, Filby, successfully persuaded the law to intervene. On the 14 August 1799, Jane Leigh Perrot was imprisoned for theft and committed to Lichester gaol.
As a gentlewoman, Jane Leigh Perrot’s imprisonment was more comfortable than that of her fellow inmates. She and her husband, who stayed at her side throughout, were confined in the jailer’s house, rather than the public gaol itself. But her letters nonetheless reveal her physical discomfort while living in a crowded and less than sanitary house with people she considered her social inferiors. The discomfort was intensified by the length of her confinement. The wait from August until the March Assizes when her trial would be heard was long, and the prospective punishments that awaited her if she were found guilty too horrible to imagine. Because the card of lace was worth more than five shillings, Mrs Leigh Perrot faced a charge of Grand Larceny. Punishments for this class of felony included transportation and even death by hanging.
On 27 March 1800, Jane Leigh Perrot appeared at the Taunton Assizes. Her trial attracted a good deal of local press interest and was the subject of two pamphlets issued by Bath publishers. It also received national coverage, too, perhaps most notable in the Lady’s Magazine (1770-1832), a popular women’s magazine that her niece, Jane Austen, read.
The Lady’s Magazine’s report of the trial of the Mrs Leigh Perrot in the April 1800 issue unfolds over six densely printed pages and opens with an engraved portrait of the accused. Leigh Perrot’s face is striking, particularly her sharp-angled nose and sad yet defiant eyes. Only part of the sitter’s curled hair is visible. Otherwise, her head, neck and body are covered by layers of clothing and accessories. Around her neck and tucked under her ‘very light lead-colour pelisse’ (a wrap dress), she wears a ‘muslin handkerchief’ as well a ‘cambric cravat’ (a fashion usually associated with men but also worn by women) tied closely round her neck. Her head is covered by ‘a small black bonnet’, which is partly concealed by a ‘black lace veil’ she wears over the top of it. Her modest and decorous clothing is designed to tell a story. Her tightly swathed body and simple, plain-coloured gown and accessories show her modesty and decorousness. How could the jury have found so visibly sober and respectable a woman guilty of such a mercenary crime? They did not. After seven hours of testimony, character witnesses for the accused and her accusers and cross-examination, the jury took just a quarter of an hour to find Mrs Leigh Perrot not guilty. Mr and Mrs Leigh Perrot returned to life in Bath. She died at nearby Scarlet’s – the country home of the Leigh Perrots – in 1836. She was in her ninetieth year.
Questions about Mrs Leigh Perrot’s innocence or guilt remain. We may never know whether the matter was simply a misunderstanding or whether Jane Leigh Perrot was unfairly set up by an unscrupulous couple who wanted to extort money from her husband through blackmail. Likewise, we will likely never know how much the Leigh Perrots’ status and class prejudice against shopkeepers and workers affected the jury’s verdict. Perhaps she did steal the lace after all. In 1800, kleptomania was yet to be identified. It was as unthinkable to the jury at the Taunton Assizes as the notion that a woman of Mrs Leigh Perrot’s rank would condescend to steal when she had no financial reason to do so.
But the question that has always intrigued me more than Jane Leigh Perrot’s guilt or innocence is how this prolonged and devastating episode in her life affected her and her family. Aside from letters written during and in the immediate aftermath of her imprisonment of her trial, there is little documentary evidence in the Austen family archives as to how she or the family felt about it. Indeed, there seems to have been a concerted effort to conceal this unhappy period of their lives. So, we are left to speculate about various aspects of Jane Leigh Perrot’s life in Bath post-1800. How, I wonder, did she feel walking the streets of Bath and entering its shops after the trial?
Jennie Batchelor is the author and editor of eight books and many articles on women's writing, dress history and needlework. Her most recent books include (with Alison Larkin) Jane Austen Embroidery (2020) and a book about the Lady’s Magazine (2022), the first modern women’s magazine and one that Jane Austen read. She is Patron of the Jane Austen Society Kent Branch and previously worked at Chawton House.
Nobody Writes a Love Story like Jane Austen
To mark the month of love, Robert Morrison, British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University and author of The Regency Revolution, celebrates the most famous romance of the past two centuries - Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
All six of Jane Austen’s published novels are similar, some detractors might even say formulaic. They are all comedies of manners in which courtship is the foremost interest and marriage the highest ambition. All six end happily with misunderstandings cleared up and obstacles swept away. Like tens of thousands of other romances from Austen’s day to ours, in all six of her novels the central couple is united and a lifetime of happiness together at least seems assured.
Most of the romance novels published in the last two hundred years, however, made little or no impression when they first appeared and soon faded from view. Yet we return again and again to Austen, and especially to Pride and Prejudice, which is her most successful love story, and which continues to exert an enormous hold on the popular imagination, for to ‘fall in love’ today still means in many ways to fall in love like Elizabeth and Darcy. How does Austen make Pride and Prejudice so much more compelling than the love stories of her countless imitators and rivals? What makes the novel so seductive and romantic?
Several factors are of course at work. One of them is Austen’s ability to bring to life in fiction her own intense interest in her characters. She cares what happens to them and she makes us care as well, transforming us in spite of ourselves into Mrs Bennet, as we, like her, fret endlessly over the five Bennet daughters and how to get them all married off. By this point we all know what happens in Pride and Prejudice. But when we reread the novel—for the first or for the umpteenth time—we turn the pages as anxiously as ever to find out what is going to befall these characters. ‘The power of making you do this is the greatest gift a novelist can have’, observed the British author and playwright Somerset Maugham in his 1948 essay on Austen, and it makes all of her romances immensely readable.
Jane Bennet, for example, lived so clearly in Austen’s mind that, wandering through a London picture gallery four months after Pride and Prejudice was published, she spied ‘a small portrait’ that was ‘excessively’ like Jane following her marriage to Mr Bingley, an incident that reveals that Austen continued to imagine the lives of her characters even after the action of the novel had finished and the novel itself had been published. ‘Mrs Bingley’s is exactly herself’, Austen enthuses in a letter to her sister Cassandra, ‘—size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her’. Austen had also hoped on the same visit to see a painting of Jane’s sister Elizabeth after her marriage—dressed ‘in yellow’, she conjectured—but she discovered ‘no Mrs Darcy’ among the portraits.
She is tolerable: but not handsome enough to tempt me
Another element that energizes the love story between Darcy and Elizabeth is Austen’s remarkable ability to convince us that they are moving steadily toward one another even as outward events seem to be pushing them further and further apart. The first time the two are in the same room, Darcy rejects the opportunity to dance with her, declaring infamously, ‘She is tolerable: but not handsome enough to tempt me’. Elizabeth laughs off the slight but this is the last thing she wants to hear. She needs to marry well, and in the judgment of a handsome, rich stranger, she is not pretty enough to attract a man.
Six months later, Darcy proposes to Elizabeth in the most famous scene in Pride and Prejudice. This time it is her turn to snub him and she does so with vigour, damning him for his ‘arrogance’, his ‘conceit’, and his ‘selfish disdain of the feelings of others’. Concludes Elizabeth: ‘I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry’. No one—let alone a socially inferior woman—will ever have spoken to Darcy in that tone and in those terms.
Yet one part of Elizabeth’s declaration is far from what we might have expected. Darcy’s rudeness to her at their first encounter, it is easy to assume, turned her against him almost immediately—in, say, ‘a moment’, ‘an hour’, or ‘an evening’. But in the proposal scene she lets slip that she had not known him ‘a month’ before deciding that he was ‘the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry’. Darcy has stayed in Elizabeth’s thoughts, then, and perhaps in her fantasies too, far longer than the tension and verbal sparring between them has led us to believe. The fireworks in the proposal scene end when Darcy accepts Elizabeth’s rejection and leaves. But the exchange itself becomes heated because he matters to her, and she is trying to get through to him, to make him see the extent to which he has misunderstood both her and himself.
A final factor animating the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth is Austen’s conviction that mutual respect is at the crux of romantic love. At the outset there is a stark power imbalance between them. He is a man of eminence who is used to getting his own way, and who moves assertively through a world of elegance, tradition, and landed wealth. She is a vulnerable younger woman who can already feel the pressure of spinsterhood and penury, and whose only opportunity to climb the social hierarchies is through marriage to a man like him.
Darcy’s proposal is—at least in his view—a very romantic one. Yes, he knows he should not even be contemplating a match with Elizabeth. Her position in life is so far below his own as to be a degradation to him, while her family is an acute embarrassment. But he cannot help himself. His love for her is overwhelming. He wants her to become his wife.
The comeuppance Elizabeth hands him is unforgettable. Darcy was expecting deference and gratitude. Instead, Elizabeth confronts him with a demand for respect. Darcy believes that he was born a gentleman. Elizabeth believes that someday he might become one. He presumes that he knows what she wants and talks down to her. Elizabeth looks straight through him and speaks her mind. Darcy tells her that he ‘hopes’ she will accept him. Elizabeth recognizes this claim as the empty formality that it is. She ‘could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security’.
Ultimately, of course, both Elizabeth and Darcy are transformed by their need for each other. Elizabeth accepts that Darcy ‘improved on acquaintance’, while Darcy learns ‘how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased’. There is, Elizabeth smiles, still work for her to do even after she accepts Darcy’s second proposal, for she ‘remembers that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin’. But theirs is a union of equals in which merit triumphs over birth, individual preference over dynastic alliance, and female desire over male presumption.
Love, Austen knew, is the very largest concern of life, then as now, and in Pride and Prejudice she produces the most famous romance of the past two centuries, and one that demonstrates the enormous possibilities for innovation and insight within the familiar formula of the Regency romance. Austen imbues her characters with a depth and vitality that live in our imaginations as intensely as they lived in hers. With great subtlety she reveals the ways in which Elizabeth and Darcy are drawing closer to one another even in those moments when their relationship seems to be stalling or unravelling.
Above all, Austen knew—far ahead of her own time—that couples for all their differences needed to treat each other as equals, and that respect is the foundation upon which love flourishes.
The Regency Revolution is Robert Morrison’s latest book. It was named by The Economist as one of its 2019 Books of the Year and shortlisted by the Historical Writers’ Association for its Crown Award for the best in historical non-fiction. He is also the author of The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, which was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography. His edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion was published by Harvard University Press.
Jane Austen’s Regency World
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Walking with Jane Austen
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Jane Austen, Needlewoman & Crafter
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