Saturday, November 05, 2011
A Regency Moment
The shift was the basic item of female underwear; made of hard-wearing linen and easily washable. We know that, in 1789, Jane Austen bought enough Irish linen to make six shifts and four pairs of stockings. It was also surprisingly warm, which was just as well because it was a chilly autumn day.
Then I was handed what looked like an outside pillow-case with sleeves. This was my muslin gown and, at first, I just couldn’t see how one wore it. Jane explained that the drawstrings around the neck, wrists and under the bust allowed it to be gathered in and assured me that ‘one size fits all’. Sceptically, I put it on. Jane adjusted the drawstrings, arranged the gathers and, instantly, it was transformed into a charming gown. I looked at myself in the mirror and began to feel Regency. Together with the shift, it felt both light and warm. Suddenly, all those Regency heroines wearing the flimsiest of muslins in cold weather began to be credible.
I realized that turning a length of muslin into a wearable garment would be quick work for experienced needlewomen like Jane and her sister, Cassandra. Jane Austen’s letters to Cassandra are full of shopping for muslins. When staying with her brother Henry in London in 1811, for example, she went to Grafton House, and bought ten yards of a ‘pretty coloured muslin’ as well as some ‘bugle trimming’, silk stockings (extravagant!), a ‘very pretty little bonnet’ and a pelisse – but the buttons were expensive.
It was time for my spencer, a cropped jacket in a red, thick velvet-like kerseymere (I’d always wondered what kerseymere looked like) with some distinctly military silver frogging. It was close fitting, boned and it made you stand up straight.
Then came the poke bonnet. Oh dear, it looked as though I was going to be blinkered like a horse. But no, in spite of appearances to the contrary, the brim started quite far back on the head and I could see perfectly easily. Jane tied the ribbons in a de rigeur bow at the side.
So there I was and it all felt surprisingly warm, comfortable and natural – see photo. Shame about the watch, though.