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Archive for the ‘Lady’s work’ Category

Tight Lacing, or Fashion Before Ease, John Collet, 1770-1775

Tight Lacing, or Fashion Before Ease, John Collet, 1770-1775

In this article, Erin McCafferty asked: What was life like for a lady living in the 18th century? Unwilling to speculate, Erin decided to follow the schedule of a rich Dublin socialite named Mary Granville Pendarvis (1700-1788), who married Patrick Delany in 1743 and who was known for throwing glamorous parties. Later in life, she became a particular friend of King George III and Queen Charlotte. The article is full of insights that remind me a wee bit of Bridget Jones’s Diary:

Venturing out in the city centre proves problematic. Narrow doorways were not made for these types of dresses and getting on the bus is a nightmare; I get stuck in the doorway and I can’t sit down so I have to stand up taking up far too much space at rush hour. Mental note to self: Don’t walk to work when wearing 18th-century gown.

Mary is famous today for her botanical collages, which she began to make at the age of 72, and for her autobiography and correspondence. This is her description of  Lord Hillsborough’s house party at his landed estate:

Lord Hillsborough is very well bred, sensible and entertaining, and nothing could be more polite that he was to all his company. Sally and I being the only women, we had the principal share of his address; he is handsome and genteel … we were twelve in company … Lord Hillsborough was very merry and said a great many lively and comical things … After the ladies had given their toasts they were desired to `command the house’; the hint was taken and I said I would upon that liberty go and prepare the tea-table for the gentlemen. Sally and I took a little step out into the garden to look at the prospect, but the weather soon drove us back. Candles lighted, tea-table and gentlemen soon came together. I made the tea. Cribbage was proposed, and I consented to be of the party, thinking it would be some relief to Lord Hillsborough; at ten we went to supper, at eleven to bed; met at nine the next morning at breakfast.

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Illustration from Modes et Manieres Du Jour, 1798 – 1808

I have changed my mind, & changed the trimmings on my Cap this morning, they are now much as you suggested, – I felt as if I should not prosper if I strayed from your directions, & I think it makes me look more like Lady Conyngham now than it did before, which is all that one lives for now. Jane Austen to Cassandra, December 18-19, 1798

Women during the Regency period wore headdresses outdoors as a matter of course. When a woman married, or if she was a spinster in her late twenties, she would also take to wearing a cap indoors. This image from Wikipedia shows Mme. Seriziat wearing a bergere, or shepherdess-style straw bonnet over a cap, as was the custom back then. When her child was a baby, he might have worn a simple bonnet, as infants still do today.

Aside from sheltering delicate skin from the sun or hair from the elements, or protecting one’s head in drafty rooms, headdresses took on many other functions. They denoted class and economic status, as well as fashion sense and one’s marital state. Hats were also worn as a sign of respect, inside a church, for instance, and this custom remained widely popular until well into the 20th-century.

Lace caps, mob caps, or draped caps, were made of lace, white linen or delicate muslin, and trimmed with ribbon. They could be ruffled, embroidered, or plain, depending on who wore them and their status. A housekeeper, for example, would wear a more elaborate cap than a scullery maid, whose mob cap was simple by comparison. In Pride and Prejudice 1995, Mrs. Bennet wore such frilly caps with so many ruffles and trimmings that they complimented her image as a silly woman. One can imagine how much fancier her caps were than her maid’s!

Trimming and redecorating old bonnets provided a topic of conversation for women of all ages and social strata. In her novels and letters, Jane Austen frequently mentioned trimming new hats and making over old bonnets as a female activity. According to Penelope Byrde in A Frivolous Distinction, it was quite the fad during the last decade of the 18th century to adorn hats and bonnets with artificial fruits and flowers. As Jane Austen wrote Cassandra in June, 1799 (tongue in cheek we suspect):

Flowers are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing – Eliz: has a bunch of Strawberries, & I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs & Apricots – There are likewise Almonds& raisins, french plums & Tamarinds at the Grocers, but I have never seen any of them in hats.

In addition to professional milliners and modistes, there was quite a large cottage industry for making caps, hats, and turbans from home, which provided a meager salary for women who needed the income. The materials used in making headdresses were as varied as their styles: straw (chip or strip), beaver, velvet, silk, crape, satin, muslin or cloth (Byrde, p 6). Trims included ribbons, the above mentioned artificial fruits and flowers, veils, net, lace, or feathers, and even beads, pins, and brooches.

For a more detailed explanation of the headdresses worn during this era and to view additional illustrations, please click on the following links.

  • Hats and Bonnets, Victoriana: Scroll to the bottom of this page to see illustrations from 1811 and 1812.
  • Fileblogs, Regency Caps, Linore Rose Burkhart: Linore describes the various hat styles in this link, along with materials and trims.

For people interested in ordering their own Regency caps, or in trying their hand at making a bonnet, the following links will lead you to patterns, suppliers, and resources:

  • Louise MacDonald Millinery (link suggested by Laurel Ann, see above image). Louise created the caps for Pride & Prejudice 1995, and describes making them for the movie.

Byrde, Penelope, A Frivolous Distinction: Fashion and Needlework in the works of Jane Austen, Bath City Council, 1979.

Four Hundred Years of Fashion, Victoria and Albert Museum, edited by Natalie Rothstein, V&A Publications, 1984.

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For centuries, every lady was skilled in the fine art of sewing, mending, and embroidery, and beautiful examples of their fragile handiwork still exist. During Jane Austen’s time, embroidery patterns were created sometimes by experts, as for Lady Middleton, and sometimes by amateurs. They were tacked onto the cloth on an embroidery frame, as in the image above from the Republic of Pemberley. The embroidery pattern below was most likely made by an expert because of its elegant, expert lines. It would have been used for a dress or apron.

Lady Middleton was the daughter of the first Earl of Chichester. She married in 1778 and died in childbirth five years later. View a sampling of her embroidery patterns in the following site: Whitework embroidery patterns

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