Winter Fashions of 1817
What were Jane, her family and her characters wearing to keep warm and look fashionable in the winter of 1816-17? We’re all familiar with that classic Regency silhouette – the high waist, straight skirts, white muslin – but the fashions of Jane’s day are a bit more varied than we might think. We’ll take a look at a few original gowns and prints from the period so we can imagine how Jane and her characters might have looked 200 years ago.
By 1814 the waistline for dresses and jackets was changing from the very high waists and full skirts of the “round gowns” of the early Regency. We can see it just beginning to slide into the early Victorian fashions of a lower waistline with large puffy sleeves – both long and short sleeves are more often seen with significant puff at the shoulder during the mid-Regency. Bodices are also becoming more elaborate, with pleating, braid and embroidery. Hemlines, rather than becoming longer, rose to the ankle, and adding wide rows flounces, embroidery or beading to the bottom of the skirt became the fashionable thing to do. Skirts were also made with fewer, if any, gathers in the front, and with an A-line shape.
1790s round gown
Jane’s letters are peppered with references to the fashions that she, her sister, family and acquaintances wore. They paint a picture of someone who, though she never seemed to aspire to be the pinnacle of fashion and could see the ridiculous in some of the more popular extreme trends, had an eye for fashion and kept up with the style of her day.
Her opinions of flounces seem to have changed a little over time. In a letter to Cassandra there is a tone of poking fun at the many flounces and shorter hemlines of 1813.
“Miss Chapman's name is Laura, and she had a double flounce to her gown. You really must get some flounces. Are not some of your large stock of white morning gowns just in a happy state for a flounce -- too short?”
But she must have gotten used to them, seeing as she recommends them to Cassandra a couple of years later:
“I am glad you have put the flounce on your chintz; I am sure it must look particularly well, and it is what I had thought of.”
Jane appears to have been a savvy shopper, with many references in her letters to all sorts of fashionable and practical fabric she was able to find, and how much she paid for them. She mentions silk, dimity (a thin durable white cotton with a white pattern), sarcenet (a fine silk fabric similar to twill, used for lining and gowns), persian (a cheaper, thinner silk), Irish linen, velvet (worn by someone else), and chintz (a cotton with a brightly printed floral pattern, usually from India). British gowns and outerwear that survive from the period are usually silk, cotton, linen or wool.
Mrs. Clement walks about in a new black velvet pelisse lined with yellow, and a white bobbin net veil, and looks remarkably well in them.
Henry talks of being at Chawton about the 1st of Sept. He has once mentioned a scheme, which I should rather like -- calling on the Birches and the Crutchleys in our way. It may never come to anything, but I must provide for the possibility by troubling you to send up my silk pelisse by Collier on Saturday. I feel it would be necessary on such an occasion; and be so good as to put up a clean dressing-gown which will come from the wash on Friday.
I gave 2s. 6d. for the dimity. I do not boast of any bargains, but think both the sarsenet and dimity good of their sort.
I do not mean to provide another trimming for my pelisse, for I am determined to spend no more money; so I shall wear it as it is, longer than I ought, and then -- I do not know ... My head-dress was a bugle-band like the border to my gown, and a flower of Mrs. Tilson's.
These two Ackerman’s Repository prints are from 1815 and 1816, and are examples of what ladies were wearing to balls and parties. Jane possibly would have preferred something simpler, but her nieces may have aspired to this more elaborate look for their ball gowns. These dresses still have the very high waists of the early Regency, but the skirts reflect the new styles with a more prominent A-line, heavy detail around the hem, and shorter length.
Elizabeth Elliot and Mrs. Clay would have admired these designs, and it's easy to imagine Miss Elliot commissioning one of them for the concert at the Bath Assembly Rooms.
These original gowns might have been worn as day dresses or for more informal parties.
The green is a French gown, and is a prime example of mid-Regency style with it’s very round puffed sleeves, a lower waistline, a straight A-line skirt with a heavily decorated hem.
The blue gown is from 1815, made of linen. It is an example of the more elaborate sleeves and bodice with a straighter skirt that has a larger amount of decoration at the hem. The sleeves are also made in a looser shape with gathering at the cuffs – a look never seen in the early Regency.
It is fun to imagine Emma wearing the green gown to the Weston's Christmas Eve party, and Anne Elliot might have worn the blue gown on her visit to Lyme Regis.
These five examples show a variety of outerwear styles from the winters of 1814-1817, including a pelisse, carriage dress, walking dress, a spencer jacket, and promenade dress.
The pale brown pelisse is sporting a variety of the intricate designs and details of the mid-Regency. The sleeves are decorated with a sort of tassel and pleating, while a matching braid was added to the collar, bodice and border of the skirt, and the addition of leaves to the front opening of the skirt are a unique detail. Perhaps Jane's niece Fanny Knight commissioned a pelisse in a similar style.
The print of the blue carriage dress shows a coat with another element coming into fashion during the mid-Regency, which are the many gathers concentrated in the center back of the bodice. There is a white chemisette with a ruff at the collar, helping to keep the wearer’s neck warm on a chilly ride. The skirt and sleeves have a popular style of ruffle along the edges, and the skirt is at the fashionable height of the time – with just a peep of ankle showing. It is a slightly more subtle style that Anne Elliot might have favored on her rainy Bath walks.
The gorgeous lilac walking dress is now preserved in the V&A Museum in London. It is in the height of mid-Regency fashion with its clean A-line skirt, intricate embellishments on the hem and bodice, and slightly lower waistline. It is also made of silk, which would have been warm in winter weather. This is just the sort of style Emma Woodhouse would choose!
This copper-colored spencer jacket has the heavier details popular during the mid-Regency, as well as the roomier puffed long sleeves. The gown underneath has a hem that would not have been seen in the early Regency, as the gowns were worn with hems touching the ground. But as hemlines rose higher, more decorative edges became possible. It is easy to see one of the Miss Musgroves trapsing gaily around the Somerset countryside in such an ensemble.
For a promenade gown, such as the festive red one in this Ackerman’s print, a fashionable style that would catch the eye was essential because it would have been bought to wear while a young lady might be promenading in a public place, such as the Pump Room or Royal Crescent in Bath. It is sporting the loose sleeves that are cinched at the wrists so popular during the mid-Regency, as well as piping and intricate decoration along the opening and around the hemline, which is just high enough to reveal a stylish pair of walking shoes! Such an eye-catching coat would be the perfect choice for Miss Elliot.
One garment that can be traced back to Jane herself with reasonable confidence is this pelisse, made of a pale brown silk sarcenet with a tiny oak leaf pattern woven into the fabric and lined with persian. It is believed to have been made between 1812-14, which explains the slightly straighter skirt and sleeves, but if it belonged to Jane it can be assumed that, as she was not so extravagant as to throw out a garment after a couple of years because it wasn’t at the height of fashion, she would still have been wearing it in the winter of 1816.
Bonnets & Hats
Every gown, coat or jacket would have been worn with gloves and a hat. The style of bonnets in 1816 had more angles, with squarer crowns and sharper slants on the brims than earlier fashions.
Shoes were vitally important in cold weather, of course. The did not undergo as drastic a change of style as dress did from early to mid-Regency. The toes of boots varied between a rounded and a softly squared toe, and dancing shoes moved toward a square toe, but the common and fashionable materials were still most often kid leather, nankeen cotton and silk.
Jane Austen watched fashion pass through some of its most interesting phases. The stiff Georgian style underwent a gentle revolution to the looser, more flowing gowns of the 1790s, then slimmed down into column-like classical style of the 1800s, and finally moved toward the more structured style of the early Victorians. And with Jane’s elegant taste and eye for fashion, she and her characters were sure to have been attired in the most tasteful pelisses and ball gowns that were all the rage in the winter of 1816-17.