What the Hell Do You Wear to a Jane Austen Festival? 

In Depth

It’s quite clear that, for many attendees, a highlight of the Jane Austen Festival is the opportunity to wear any number of dazzling Regency-era costumes.

The showcase events bookending the week—the Promenade and the Masquerade Ball—both require Regency costume to participate. There’s been at least one person wearing a costume at every event I’ve attended thus far, and the only place period attire has been explicitly unwelcome is the archery workshop, for obvious reasons. Every so often you’ll see someone cross a street, casually decked out in muslin, spencer and bonnet.

If you came unprepared, the Festival offers some assistance. The Jane Austen Centre gift shop stocks reticules and fans. After the promenade, there was a “fayre,” where you could purchase dresses and a truly impressive array of accessories. Kid gloves, fans, trim, reticules, cameo broaches, bonnets, button hooks, feather plumes, shoes and even a £220 Georgian wig—you name it, they had it. If you’re more the D.I.Y type, there was a workshop on bonnet “cheats,” in which we were walked through the process of turning a modern straw hat into a fetching Regency bonnet (or at least, close enough). I put mine on my head and instantly felt like a Jane Austen character—unfortunately, I felt like Mrs. Jennings or another very silly person.

To really do it up right requires some prior planning, however. The festival’s website recommends a local costume rental shop. Or you might turn to somebody like Katy, the proprietor of the Etsy store Regency Regalia, which offers an absolutely astounding array of dresses and beautiful accessories in a wide variety of colors.

Katy is a lifelong vintage clothing enthusiast, rather than a Janeite. She attended theater school and worked on various film and TV projects, before attending the festival one year and thinking there might be an opportunity. She set out to offer a wide range of options—“not the fancy-dress level, not the entirely hand-sewn, but that middle ground that people can actually afford to buy something but at a level that’s hopefully quite historically accurate and looks right.” She tries to keep all of her machine sewing invisible, for instance. “I try and keep it so you can pull a full outfit. There’s a dress, there’s a bonnet—and get everything together. That’s the goal of the shop, is to make sure that people have got everything that they want in one place.”

Please note that her wares, while they are pitched to that middle-of-the-road buyer, still aren’t cheap. A blue cotton dress runs $135.33; purple silk will cost you $310.46. If you want that proper foundation, a set of short stays costs $156.03.

It’s her full-time job, and her customers fall into three basic categories: Austen enthusiasts, who are mostly concerned with getting the look; English country dancers, who want something breathable; and museum reenactment work, the most historically particularly. She also does custom work, including a couple of weddings a year. (The hardest part, she says, is explaining to the brides that “you will have to wear loads and loads of ugly underwear.”) The vast majority of her customers are American. Her most popular items tend to be her vintage shawls, which she buys directly from India, but she wishes it were bonnets, her favorite item. She makes them from scratch, buying shapeless woven straw and molding it on a hand-carved wooden block before trimming the result. Which makes $111.45 for one of her creations sound like a deal, frankly.

Alternatively, you can turn to someone like Amy Nichole, who was giving two talks at the festival—”Whatever Shall I Wear” and “The Language of the Fan.” She sells accessories through her store, the Period Costume Shop, and she hopes to launch a line of “Regency ready-to-wear” for first-timers next year. But a custom period costume design is a big part of her business. The word “period” is important—“A period costume designer has learned how to tailor the modern body using historical techniques,” Nichole explained, as opposed to merely replicating the look.

When a customer comes to Nichole, she draws on her own research—looking at fashion plates, pouring over original pieces places like Bath’s own Fashion Museum to see how they’re put together—as well as her client’s tastes, body shape, and where they’re going to wear the piece. “It’s really a collaboration,” she said. “There’s no one style that’s going to flatter absolutely everybody.”

A custom Regency evening gown could set you back £300 or more (or a lot more). But Nichole points out that it’s an investment piece for a dedicated enthusiast: “When we have them made, we’re seriously committed because we wear them so many times. If you consider what you pay for your normal clothes and how long those last—it actually works out to be less expensive.” And it turns out there’s an entire historical reenactment scene in the United Kingdom, as well as a dedicated core of historic dance groups, all of whom come calling for attire appropriate to events in gorgeous Georgian homes and public assembly rooms around the country.

Nichole was quick to point out that it’s not merely a matter of spending the most money, either. The most elaborate gowns tend to belong to those with the most experience and the most knowledge—and part of what makes the difference is knowing how to move in your outfit. “It alters how you sit, it alters how you move, it alters how you do absolutely everything,” Nichole explained, and she considers it part of her job to help clients learn that.

But for all the rental options, the ready-mades and the custom jobs, a goodly percentage of costumes Austenites make their attire. And luckily for my wallet, I had an ace in the hole: A mom who can sew.

We opted for Sense & Sensibility Patterns, which looked rather more historically committed than McCall’s, and we decided on two outfits: First, for the promenade, a simple white crossover-style gown, with a little lace around the neck and at the sleeves. (“Here’s what I want to know,” my mom asked after wrestling with several yards of bleached fabric. “How did they keep all this shit white?” The answer probably involved cured urine or something similarly ghastly.) I paired it with the best-looking sun hat that surfaced when I searched “bonnet” on Amazon, which I trimmed with blue grosgrain ribbon. Maybe the ensemble was a little roomy, because it’s hard to do alterations from several states away, but when a fellow promenader gave me the once-over I felt (relatively) confident in my ensemble.

We went a little crazier with the gown for the Masquerade, obviously. Picture the stereotypical Regency gown, but in green silk. Because it turns out, after a few weeks of pouring over fashion plates and pictures from the Costume Institute at the Met, it’s very easy to upsell yourself while you’re wandering around Mood Fabrics. No matter how my jaw had dropped at the prices on Etsy, I still forked over more than $100 for fabric. Because that’s what historical costumes do to your brain.

Despite all the admonitions that you really need the proper undergarments if you want your historical clothing to look quite correct, I drew the line at ordering historically accurate stays, especially after discovering this lovely plus-size offering that cost well north of $300. Not a chance. A push-up bra will have to do.

It’s a lot of work, and no small amount of money. So why? What drives attendees to go to the trouble to get properly decked out in Austen-era clothing? “Why not?” says Katy. “Everybody has hobbies. Some people go trainspotting, some people collect stamps. Some people like to make pretty dresses and waft around for a few hours feeling nice. I don’t think it’s any crazier than any other hobby.” Certainly not compared to stamp collecting.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Illustration: Getty/Shutterstock.

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