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