A few years ago the dress historian Hilary Davidson set out to create an exact copy of a brown silk pelisse that once belonged to Jane Austen. She describes this coatdress as the “indisputable star” of the novelist’s surviving wardrobe. Patterned with oak leaves woven in pale gold, lined with white silk, and decorated with silk cord, it dates to around 1813, when for the first time Austen had some independent financial means following the publication of her first two novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. In July of that year the thirty-seven-year-old wrote with transparent glee to her banker brother, “I have…written myself into £250.”
In line with the Regency’s long and lean aesthetic, Austen’s pelisse was cut to follow her contours closely. This means that Davidson is reasonably confident in reading off the novelist’s measurements. It transpires that Austen was markedly slender, with a thirty-one- to thirty-three-inch bust, a twenty-four-inch waist, and thirty-three- to thirty-four-inch hips. In today’s terms this makes her a tiny size 2. All of which fits nicely with our ideas of a birdlike woman sitting unobtrusively in her family drawing room, composing her novels unobserved on her “two inches wide of ivory”—a reference to the small pocket diary in which she wrote her first drafts. But here comes the shock. Davidson reveals that the wearer of the pelisse could have been up to five foot eight, certainly no less than five foot six inches tall. At a time when the average woman stood at a smidge over five feet, Jane Austen wasn’t simply tall; she was gigantic.
It was a subject constantly on her mind. Twelve years before Austen owned that silk pelisse, on Sunday, January 25, 1801, she wrote to her sister reminding her that when next in London Cassandra was to buy seven and a half yards of brown cambric muslin. (Seven yards was the usual amount needed for a woman’s dress.) Austen planned to have the fabric made up by her local Hampshire seamstress into a “morning dress”—something practical to wear while doing light housework before luncheon. Austen reminded her sister, with mock severity, that “it is for a tall woman”: that extra half-yard was crucial if her gown was not to run out at mid-shin. One neighbor from this time describes Miss Austen—not especially kindly—as “a thin upright piece of wood and iron,” which puts her quite beyond human scale. Whether Austen enjoyed sticking out like this is unclear, but it’s worth bearing in mind that all those haughty lovers and puffed-up clergymen who stride through her novels were in real life about five feet, five inches tall. To put it another way, Miss Austen would have towered over Mr. Darcy.
In Jane Austen’s Wardrobe, a riveting and beautifully illustrated book, Davidson conducts the first systematic survey of the novelist’s rich haul of thirty-two gowns, eleven coats and wraps, thirteen pieces of headwear, and a lifetime of underwear. Not forgetting four pairs of shoes, all of which Austen insisted, unsurprisingly, should have “flat heels.” She was lucky here: the Regency’s neoclassical aesthetic required women to swap the tottering platforms of the previous century for slippers, a fashion she happily embraced. Not that there was anything fey or fanciful about Austen’s fashion sense: Davidson stresses that Austen’s wardrobe was a hardworking affair. It needed to be. As the younger daughter of a clergyman who supported eight children on £600 per annum, Miss Austen was not expected to be in the vanguard of fashion, with a stable of dedicated frocks for every conceivable occasion. Indeed, to be “dressy” would have been positively unbecoming, suggesting an inappropriate attachment to worldly show and a worrying disregard for material limits.
Those limits tightened even further in 1805 when the Reverend George Austen died, leaving his womenfolk—Jane, Cassandra, and their mother—living on their small personal incomes, supplemented by gifts from the remaining Austen men, at least one of whom was wealthy. Even so, Miss Austen was still expected to look as if there had been no change in her circumstances. Turning up to a supper party or a church service in conspicuously shabby or out-of-date clothing would have telegraphed her family’s declining resources, not to mention her own deficient “taste.” In an age of sensibility, she was expected to be au fait with the prevailing trends while avoiding any suggestion of what one contemporary source defined with a shudder as “particularity.” Davidson reports that nearly half of Jane Austen’s modest annual income went toward this delicate balancing act of being fashionable but not too fashionable.
While being tall was expensive—all those extra half-yards of fabric added up—there were distinct advantages to having what one more tactful witness described as Miss Austen’s “slight and elegant” frame. She was perfectly suited to the neoclassical silhouette that became fashionable during the first decade of the nineteenth century, which skimmed the natural contours of a body no longer scaffolded by the elaborate corsetry of the eighteenth. Muslin, the sheer cotton gauze material, had for centuries been imported from India but was now increasingly manufactured in Britain. It was hugely popular, especially when it was left entirely white, for the way it made women look like Greek statues. This effect may have been charming on the naturally slender Austen, but it was a challenge for heavier women, especially as they reached middle age. In James Gillray’s sniggering cartoon of 1810, The Graces in a High Wind, three plumpish women find their flimsy muslin gowns rucking up in their bodies’ cleavages, leaving them exposed (women in that era did not wear underpants).
Even with her natural advantages, Austen still needed to remain vigilant. On March 9, 1814, she wrote to Cassandra from London, “I wear my gauze gown today, long sleeves & all; I shall see how they succeed, but as yet I have no reason to suppose long sleeves are allowable.” This dilemma had clearly touched a nerve: Davidson deduces from her own recreation of the silk pelisse that Austen had proportionally long arms that she may well have preferred to keep covered. Luckily, on this occasion personal circumstances and prevailing fashions once again aligned. Austen resumed her letter after a dinner party, reporting with evident relief that “Mrs Tilson had long sleeves too, & she assured me that they are worn in the evening by many. I was glad to hear this.”
Such valuable information was too precious to hoard. Perhaps there was also a certain pleasure in being the one who knows. Soon Austen is writing from London to inform her friend Martha Lloyd that “long sleeves appear universal.” The previous year she had written equally confidently to Martha that, “having been at a little party at Mrs Latouche’s, where dress is a good deal attended to…these are my observations from it.—Petticoats short, & generally, tho not always, flounced.” Sometimes, to show what she meant about flounces, or necklines or the pattern of a particular piece of lace, Austen drew little sketches in her letters.
Given that the way one dressed was subject to constant scrutiny, Austen was resigned to the fact that every new piece of clothing she acquired would be picked over by a chorus of interested parties. In late November 1800 she had been delighted by a new day dress commissioned from a local dressmaker in Hampshire, only to find that opinion at home was divided: “Charles does not like it, but my father & Mary do; my Mother is very much reconciled to it, & as for James, he gives it the preference over every thing of the kind he ever saw.” Since this dress represented a collective investment in the Austen family’s social and economic status, each member felt entitled to have their say.
This requirement to triangulate personal preferences with the opinions of one’s intimates as well as the latest fashion news from London produced much second-guessing and many last-minute panics. Take the saga of the black cap, which first appeared in a letter Austen wrote in 1798. That Christmas she was invited to a small ball in Hampshire and was busy giving her black velvet cap a spruce-up by adding a feather in the new color of “coquelicot” (bright red) on the grounds that it was “to be all the fashion this winter.” Embracing the color of the season ran contrary to her elder sister’s earlier advice to stick with a black military feather and silver trimming. By the morning of the party, though, Austen has changed her mind and reverted to Cassandra’s chic if more austere suggestion. By way of explanation, she tells her sister that this monochrome effect makes her look rather like Lady Conyngham, a fashionable beauty and future mistress of the Prince Regent whose image was widely disseminated in the fashion magazines that occasionally found their way to the Steventon rectory. The final effect is a triumph. The following day, Christmas Eve, the twenty-three-year-old Austen happily sang, “My black Cap was openly admired by Mrs Lefroy, & secretly I imagine by every body else in the room.”
At the time of the black cap saga, the Reverend Austen was still alive and earning sufficiently to keep his younger daughter’s wardrobe up to date and even, on occasion, ahead of the curve. Corroboration comes in the so-called blue dress portrait, a seated back view of Austen painted by Cassandra in 1804, and one of only two uncontestable images of the novelist that survive. The watercolor was “taken” out of doors during a summer holiday and shows Austen in lightweight walking clothes. Significantly, she is wearing a gown whose bodice is fastened down her upper back by a shallow vertical row of buttons. Most dresses at this time still opened at the front, as they had done throughout the previous decade. On this occasion, then, Davidson designates Jane Austen an early adopter, a member of the sartorial avant-garde. When Miss Austen appeared at a tea party in this back-buttoned blue dress, she will have attracted approving glances from fashion-forward Mrs. Tilson and Mrs. Lefroy and even, in the unlikely event she had been present at such a provincial gathering, the glittering Lady Conyngham.
Austen was twenty-eight at the time of the blue dress painting, which confirms Davidson’s broader point that the requirement for a middle-class woman to look fashionable was not lifted once she passed the age at which she was assumed to have withdrawn from the marriage market. Not that being settled into spinsterhood was a license to continue dressing like an ingenue either: satirists were quick to scorn middle-aged women who flaunted flesh that should long since have been tucked away under a higher neckline, or the all-important longer sleeves. (Gillray’s three graces should have taken note.) Nonetheless, the obligation for a woman to continue advertising her family’s financial credentials endured. To appear like a stereotypical “old maid”—drab and shabby—was to let everyone down. Davidson points to the comprehensive dress diary compiled by Barbara Johnson, a contemporary of Austen’s and, like her, a provincial clergyman’s daughter. Miss Johnson kept an album of fabric scraps from her dresses throughout her long—and single—life. This remarkable document reveals that even in her fifties she was still uncommonly fond of the color pink.
The meticulousness of Barbara Johnson’s recordkeeping—she embeds her fabric samples in a rich network of contextual notes and cuttings from fashion magazines—speaks to the scores of decisions and trades that lay behind the acquisition of each new item of clothing. For the Austen sisters, choosing and buying the fabric from which garments were to be made involved months of research and planning, followed by exhaustingly intense shopping trips whenever they visited Bath or London. The stakes were raised even higher on those uncomfortable occasions when the sisters entrusted each other to make proxy purchases—as when Jane reminded Cassandra to buy an extra half-yard of fabric for her morning dress. On one occasion in June 1799, the younger Miss Austen wrote tartly to her sister from London, “Though you have given me unlimited powers concerning Your Sprig, I cannot determine what to do about it, & shall therefore in this & in every future letter continue to ask you for farther directions.” Sometimes there was no option but to go ahead and buy the fabric and then offer to keep it if it failed to please the commissioner. It was the least you could do.
The making of dresses and outer garments was entrusted to a local dressmaker; Davidson points out that the complex construction of the sleeves on Austen’s brown silk pelisse could be achieved only by an expert pattern cutter. This, though, remained a surprisingly inexpensive outlay. When Austen employed a London dressmaker in April 1811 to make pelisses for her and Cassandra, the tradeswoman charged only eight shillings, equivalent to perhaps $30 today. The mantua-maker—or dressmaker, as she was increasingly known—would have kept a pattern of each client on file that could be altered to take account of changes occurring through age, illness, and pregnancy. A brisk discussion followed, a perusal of the dressmaker’s stock of fashion magazines, including La Belle Assemblée, Le Beau Monde, and The Gallery of Fashion, until a final accommodation was reached between a customer’s taste, prevailing fashions, cost, and the realities of a particular human body.
Demanding clients and dressmakers with decided opinions cannot have made for an easy mix. But from Davidson’s book—which doesn’t tell us how such negotiations usually went—it looks as though Austen’s strategy was mostly to get through the process with as little bad feeling as possible. Even so, it is clear that she found the whole process draining. On January 8–9, 1799, she wrote to Cassandra to report that she “got over the dreadful epocha of Mantuamaking much better than I expected.” After a lot of back-and-forth she had decided to use her favorite gown as a template for a new dress, “with only these variations;—the sleeves are short, the wrap fuller, the apron comes over it, & a band of the same completes the whole.” Davidson reads this near copying of a well-loved dress as a strategy to overcome “decision fatigue.” In a previous letter a stressed Austen had wailed, “I cannot determine what to do about my new Gown; I wish such things were to be bought ready made.” It would be another hundred years before a woman could go into a shop, pick out a dress in the right size, and wear it that evening.
Dressmakers worked fast—a turnaround time of seven days was normal, and deliveries of finished garments could be made even on a Sunday. But when a commissioned piece of clothing arrived at the client’s door, that was only the beginning of its life cycle. From here it would be subject to a schedule of constant customization that lasted until the time came for it to be turned into something else entirely—a petticoat or even a duster. In May 1801 Austen was due to go to a ball at the Bath Assembly Rooms; her white dress made by a Mrs. Mussell was delivered with two days to spare. But Austen herself was “obliged to alter [it] a good deal”—presumably in order to make it fit properly—before it was ready to be seen in public.
Even if the new frock required no tinkering initially, the moment inevitably came when it needed to have things added or subtracted to halt the aging process. On March 8, 1814, Austen wrote to Cassandra:
I have determined to trim my lilac sarsenet with black sattin ribbon just as my China Crape is, 6d width at bottom, 3d or 4d at top.—Ribbon trimmings are all the fashion at Bath…. With this addition it will be a very useful gown, happy to go anywhere.
Here Austen emphasizes her need for items of clothing that were versatile. An expensive silk gown such as her lilac sarsenet had to be “happy to go anywhere,” able to blend in unobtrusively in any social gathering. Rather like a clergyman’s daughter.
Lest there be any doubt, Austen would be putting the black ribbon on the lilac sarsenet herself, just as she was the one who added flounces to underskirts to make them look modern, or reworked her bonnets so that paper flowers replaced wax fruits, on the grounds that “I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit.” In other words, while Austen’s clothes were professionally made, she was the one who maintained them at home. Her nephew James Austen-Leigh remembered that “her needlework both plain and ornamental was excellent,” while Davidson writes of one surviving handkerchief embroidered by Austen that the work was “as fine, precise and controlled as her writing and handwriting.”
Austen’s skills went far beyond stitching initials onto hankies. In a letter of 1814 she recounted how she has been “ruining” herself in “black sattin ribbon with a proper perl edge,” which she has been “trying to draw…up into kind of Roses”—a complicated business that involved creating her own trimming to update a tired dress. This was the kind of “work” that could be done when visitors, even gentlemen visitors, came to call. The more pedestrian repair work—mending a muslin dress that had been slashed by a dance partner’s spurs, a typical chore—would be done well away from the eyes of any Mr. Darcy who happened to present himself unexpectedly in the parlor.
Quite complicated structural alterations could also be attempted at home. In an 1809 letter Austen told Cassandra that she would do well to think about “lengthening the waists” of her dresses to make them look modern. By then the highest, most classically inspired “Empire” waistlines of the 1800s had started to drop. This meant moving the skirt a little farther down the bodice, a tricky procedure but nonetheless one that the Austen sisters felt able to tackle themselves. Davidson explains that any telltale stitching holes that remained visible could be hidden with a belt.
Austen heartily approved of this trend for lower waists. In 1813 she reported how delighted she was to learn from a dressmaker’s assistant that “the stays now are not made to force the Bosom up at all.” She hated the way women’s breasts had once been winched up artificially so that they were virtually hanging off each shoulder. The effect was not unlike that of the Wonderbra of the 1990s—a decade that incidentally saw a frenzy of Austen screen adaptations, whose costume designs continue to shape our sense of how the Regency world dressed (very tight trousers for the men, freakishly high bosoms for the women). A longer, leaner torso, with the breasts allowed to rest in their natural place, was much more to Austen’s taste.
In her 161 surviving letters, Austen writes constantly of disassembling her clothes in order to make new ones out of them. In 1798 she plans to turn a shabby dress made of a “coarse spot” material into a petticoat, while another time she intends to have a tired-looking white muslin gown dyed blue to cover the marks of wear and tear. (It didn’t work and the dress fell to pieces at the first touch.) In 1813 she writes of donating one of her worn-out shifts (cotton undergarments) to a woman in the village called “Dame Garnet,” who would presumably use it to make clothes for her children. In these acts of recycling, Jane Austen was following the example of her mother. Over the previous decades Mrs. Austen had cannibalized her own wedding gown to produce a day dress, a boy’s jacket, and a pair of breeches.
From a twenty-first-century perspective, this all sounds like an exemplary attempt to create a circular material economy with virtually no waste. But it would be quite wrong to conclude that this was what drove Jane Austen as she stitched and fretted. On those occasions in Davidson’s book when Austen sounds cross and bothered about her clothes, it is only because she is worn out by having to make her dresses, bonnets, and pelisses last longer and go further than she would really like. A lady can get very tired of being expected to lower a waist or add some lace or swap fruit for flowers in an attempt to keep in the middle lane of fashion. Davidson argues that the novelist remained passionately engaged with the pleasures of new clothes until a few months before her death in 1817 at the age of forty-one. (A visiting younger relative knew that something must be terribly wrong because Aunt Jane had taken to wearing her dressing gown all day long.)
Confirmation comes from the golden period in Austen’s life that lasted six years, between the publication of her first novel, in 1811, and her death six years later from—depending on which theory you adhere to—kidney failure, cancer, or arsenic poisoning. In this brief span she was both comparatively rich and slightly famous after a lifetime of being neither. In September 1813, while visiting London, Austen tells Cassandra that she intends to “treat myself” to some “very pretty” and even “beautiful” poplin from Layton & Shear’s. Half of it is to be for Cassandra. “Remember that it is a present,” says Austen. “Do not refuse me. I am very rich.” From now on, whenever she had what she termed “superfluous wealth”—and those times were coming more often—Jane Austen’s first instinct was to head for the shops.