Leisure and fashion in the Regency period


Regency Dress from ‘Jane Austen In Style’ by Susan Watkins

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Triborough Reference Librarian, Debby Wale has found some Austen connections with Chelsea as well as some amazing Regency fashion images.

Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 at Steventon, Hampshire. Her father was the Rector of Steventon and Deane. At the age of thirty-six she emerged from relatively sequestered existence to becoming a published novelist. In 1801 the family moved to Bath. In 1809 the Austen sisters and their mother settled in Chawton and Jane Austen’s career as a published author began.

In Chelsea Past, Barbara Denny describes Jane Austen’s association with Chelsea as transitory, but letters to her sister Cassandra describes a musical evening. She lived with her brother Henry and his wife at 654 Sloane Street from Spring 1811 for two years. Between 1813 – 1815 she visited him when he moved to 23 Hans Place.

Chelsea by Thea Holme describes from Jane’s letters a party at Sloane Street with 66 guests and musicians arriving in two Hackney coaches.

Regency fashion was governed by a strict social etiquette. For women, there were outfits for every activity. Ladies might change several times a day to suit the hour or the occasion. Magazines such as Belle Assemble (La Belle Assemblée or, Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies) had fashion plates which were a guide to suitable attire for every circumstance.

Jane Austen was a prolific letter-writer and these letters give an interesting insight into her life. One activity suitable for a lady was walking. More promenade than serious hiking, there is a reference in one of her letters.

Your lilacs are in leaf, ours are in bloom. The horse-chestnuts are quite out, and the elms almost. I had a pleasant walk in Kensington Gardens on Sunday with Henry, Mr. Smith, and Mr.Tilson; everything was fresh and beautiful.

Jane Austen to Cassandra 25 April, 1811

These pictures from Chelsea Library’s costume collection give an idea of the style Jane or her characters, might have worn, or aspired to wear. They are from the magazine La Belle Assembléwhich Chelsea Library has more or less a complete archive.

Kensington Gardens Fashionable Promenade Dress, July 1811
Kensington Gardens Fashionable Promenade Dress, July 1811

Kensington Garden Fashionable Promenade Dress, July 1811
A round robe of jacconot muslin, with a bodice of violet sarsnet, trimmed with rich silk Brandeburgs of Austrian green, a half pelisse of fine transparent muslin, with Bishop’s sleeves, fancifully tied with green riband. A Hyman hat of purple brocaded ribband and lace, ornamented with a green military plume; a Chinese parasol of purple sarsnet, shot with green; gloves and shoes of York tan.

Walking Dress, 1811
Walking Dress, 1811

Walking Dress,  June 1811
A pelisse of pink sarsnet, lined with white, and ornamented with rich silk Brandenburg trimmings of correspondent pink, or pale brown; a high standing ruff round the throat,; a Persian mantle of pale blue, or white, thrown over the dress. A basket hat of straw, ornamented with a demi-wreath of half blown roses. Shoes of blue kid; gloves of York tan.

Promenade or Carriage Walking Costume, November 1811
Promenade or Carriage Walking Costume, November 1811

Promenade, or Carriage Walking Costume, November 1811
A fawn colour of amber velvet three quarters pelisse; faced and ornamented around the bottom and sleeves with Regency purple velvet and faced down the waist, shoulders and half way down the side of the skirt, with rich cordons of purple, terminating with a tassel; a purple velvet collar stands up, is rounded behind, and comes down to a point below the throat; the cuffs are of purple velvet, trimmed with fine blue lace. Over the sleeve is a demi-sleeve divided; between which division small purple ornaments, in the form of  aiguillettes, but without tags, are sometimes introduce when this dress is made of twilled sarsnet instead of velvet.

Promenade Dress, August 1811
Promenade Dress, August 1811

Promenade Dress, August 1811
A round robe of India jaconot, trimmed around the bottom with ribband; a mantle of fine India muslin, or white crape, with ficher front, ornamented with drawn ribband and tassel, and confined to the waist on the same side. A village hat of white chip, with a crown of blended crape and sarsnet, bound and tied under the chin with ribband, over a lace cawl, and raised form the face by a short wreath of French roses. Parasol and ridicule of purple and green shot silk; gloves of York tan; Roman boots of white morocco.

Regency Walking Dress, February 1811
Regency Walking Dress, February 1811

Regency Walking Dress, February 1811
A pelisse of scarlet Merino cloth, buttoned down the front and up the arm with small gold buttons; the collar and cuffs of purple velvet; but during the mourning, of black, striped with scarlet; an ermine tippet pointed in the back, and muffet of the same. A bonnet of scarlet cloth, turned up with velvet, and formed to come over the face; the veil passed through the front and brought round the neck. Boots of scarlet cloth trimmed with velvet.

Debby Wale
Debby Wale

Debby Wale, Triborough Reference Librarian

Chelsea Reference Library


Additional information

Resources held in Chelsea Reference library:

  • Jane Austen In Style by Susan Watkins
  • Chelsea by Thea Holme
  • Chelsea Past by Barbara Denny
  • La Belle Assemblee magazine archive

Online resources:
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – for more information about Jane Austen (you’ll need a library membership to access this database outside of the library) 

Glossary – fabrics

  • Jaconot: light weight cotton fabric
  • Sarsnet: noun a soft thin silk used for dresses, veilings, or trimmings.

Pride and Prejudice – 200th Anniversary

Jane Austen
Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

This must be one of the most familiar opening lines in English literature.  28 January 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of  Jane’ Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice title page
Pride and Prejudice title page

Regularly voted in the top ten of the nations’ favourite books and topping the poll on World Book Day 2007, it is probably the most read novel in English. Our special anniversary blog posts this week celebrate the book and the Regency world in which it is set as well as highlighting all the amazing resources we have.

Jane Austen (1775- 1817) began writing the novel in August 1796 and finished the first three volume version within a year. It was called First Impressions and she was just 21 years of age.

In 1797 her father, George Austen offered the manuscript for publication but it was  rejected without even being seen. Over the next few years  family and friends read the novel and during this time Jane began to  rewrite it or as she put it she ‘ lopt and cropt’  the text making it much tauter.  The most significant changes occurred  in 1811-12. Jane herself  commented that she intended the book to be ‘ light , bright and sparkling’. She was forced to change the name of the novel  following the publication of another work with the same title in 1801. Jane chose a new title Pride and Prejudice a phrase she took from a work by Fanny Burney.

Unlike her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility,  which was published on a  commission basis and for which she received profits for each copy sold, for this, her second novel she sold the copyright outright to Thomas Egerton for £110. Priced at 18 shillings the first edition published in three hardback volumes quickly sold out and a second edition was published in November 1813. This meant that Jane did not receive any profits and it is estimated that she lost about £450 as a result of selling the copyright. It was re-published again in 1817.

Her work was much admired by contemporaries including Sir Walter Scott and the Prince Regent but she remained relatively unknown in her lifetime. Her literary  reputation has  grown over the years and to date it has been estimated that over 20 million copies of the book have been printed.

That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.

Walter Scott, Journal, 14 March 1826

As you will see from a future blog post, versions of the story have been done in the theatre, television and film. There are also and contemporary authors that have  used the work  as the basis for their own novels, most recently  P.D. James has used Pemberley as a setting for one her mysteries and there is also a zombie version, called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies  by Seth Grahame- Smith.

Jane Austen: 'Offended two or three young ladies', illustration from Pride and Prejudice, 1894 edition
Jane Austen: ‘Offended two or three young ladies’, illustration from Pride and Prejudice, 1894 edition

If you have never read this book  I strongly recommend it,  or why not re-read it  to celebrate  the 200th anniversary of this wonderful book.

Karen Ullesperger, Triborough Reference Manager
Karen Ullesperger

Karen Ullersperger

Triborough Reference Manager

Source materials:

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (you’ll need a library membership to access this database outside of the library)
  • Cambridge  introduction to Jane Austen by Janet Todd (Cambridge University Press) 2009
  • Chambers Biographical Dictionary available via Credo Reference (you’ll need a library membership to access this database outside of the library)