Friday, 9 December 2016


Jane Austen's personal letters offer something to anyone interested in the efforts ladies such as Jane went to in obtaining gowns, caps, bonnets and stockings. There is scarcely a letter to her sister Cassandra that does not contain references to clothes they were buying, borrowing, commissioning, adapting or altering. We could be forgiven for thinking the writer of these letters more expert in millinery and dressmaking than in novel-writing. My Cap is come home & I like it very much, Fanny has one also; hers is white Sarsanet & Lace, of a different shape from mine, more fit for morning, Carriage wear – which is what it is intended for – & is in shape exceedingly like our own Sattin & Lace of last winter – shaped round the face exactly like it, with pipes & more fullness, & a round crown inserted behind. My Cap has a peak in front. Large, full Bows of very narrow ribbon (old twopenny) are the thing. One over the right temple perhaps, & another at the left ear (Letter 88).

In Guildford Jane was happy to pick up a pair of gloves: .. got them at the first shop I went to, though I went into it rather because it was near than because it looked at all like a glove shop, & gave only four Shillings for them; – upon hearing which every body at Chawton will be hoping & predicting that they cannot be good for anything (Letter 84).

In London a few days later she collected a gown for her mother from Laytons (Layton and Shears, Henrietta Street) – 7 yds at 6/6 (Letter 85).

Typically, in Letter 35, sent from Bath in May 1801, we find: Mrs Mussell has got my Gown, & I will endeavour to explain what her intentions are. – It is to be a round Gown, with a Jacket, & a Frock front, like Cath: Bigg's to open at the side. – The Jacket is all in one with the body, & comes as far as the pocketholes; – about half a quarter of yard deep I suppose all the way round, cut off straight at the corners, with a broad hem. – No fullness appears either in the Body or the flap; – the back is quite plain, in this form – [here she draws a little shape like a tumbler] – and the sides equally so. – The front is sloped round to the bosom and drawn in – & there is to be a frill of the same to put on occasionally when all one's handkercheifs are dirty – which frill must fall back. – She is to put two breadths & a half in the tail, & no Gores; – Gores not being so much worn as they were ....

Letter 27 includes the following information: Miss Summers has made my gown very well indeed, & I grow more and more pleased with it. – Charles does not like it, but my father and Mary do; my Mother is very much reconciled to it, & as for James, he gives it the preference over everything of the kind he ever saw; but a few lines later she adds Charles likes my gown now.

In Letter 57, we read, how is your blue gown? – Mine is all to peices. – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch. – There was four shillings thrown away.

We hear about the commissioning of headgear and pelisses in Southampton: Miss Burton has made me a very pretty little Bonnet – & now nothing can satisfy me but I must have a straw hat, of the riding hat shape, like Mrs Tilson's; & a young woman in this Neighbourhood is actually making me one. I am really very shocking; but it will not be dear at a Guinea. – Our Pelisses are 17/S. each – she charges only 8/ for the making, but the Buttons seem expensive; – are expensive, I might have said – for the fact is plain enough (Letter 70).

On a visit to London in 1811, she wrote to Cassandra, I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money; & what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too; for in a Linendraper's shop to which I went for check'd Muslin, & for which I was obliged to give seven shillings a yard, I was tempted by a pretty coloured muslin, & bought 10 yds of it, on the chance of your liking it; – but at the same time if it shd not suit you, you must not think yourself at all obliged to take it; it is only 3/6 pr yd, & I shd not in the least mind keeping the whole. – In texture, it is just what we prefer, but its' resemblance to green cruels I must own is not great, for the pattern is a small red spot (Letter 70).

Jane was skilful with the needle. With little to do at Southampton, she tells Cassandra: I wish I could help you in your Needlework, I have two hands and a new Thimble that lead a very easy life (Letter 63).

Other domestic and culinary activities are occasionally mentioned: we are brewing Spruce Beer again (Letter 62); a Hamper of Port & Brandy from Southampton, is now in the Kitchen. ... We began Pease on Sunday, but our gatherings are very small ... Yesterday I had the agreable surprise of finding several scarlet strawberries quite ripe ... There are more Gooseberries & fewer Currants than I thought at first. – We must buy currants for our Wine (Letter 75).

[My references are to Deirdre Le Faye's edition of the Letters.]