An Audience with Jane Austen


Mrs. Powlett was at once expensively and nakedly dress’d.

Jane Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817, but just like today’s women, she adored clothes. FBI Magazine decided to send their reporter out in the time machine to see how shopping and fashion have changed since those days.

As befits the intrepid female writer from the beginning of the 21st century, my time machine changed into a carriage as I was driven along the lanes to Miss Austen’s Hampshire home. The daughter of a country parson, a gentleman of aristocratic connections, she never married, wrote eight of the biggest selling novels of all time and tragically died of a now – treatable liver disease. During her life, Jane wrote some interesting fashion descriptions and criticism in letters to her sister, Cassandra. She was witty, funny, cuttingly sarcastic and well placed in society to be an observer of the fashionable classes.

Let’s get the crinoline thing out of the way first – she never saw or wore one. Jane was born at the time of the French Revolution, which changed women’s fashion throughout Europe into what would be thought to be indecent only fifty years later. Forget the bra, it wasn’t invented yet, and corsets were, for the first time, discarded to achieve a ’natural’ look.

Women’s dress was filmy, gauzy and virtually transparent. The waistline was positioned just underneath the breasts, with buttoning down the back. Underneath they wore a chemise of cotton or silk. The more daring girls ‘damped down’ their chemises to capture a more natural look. They wore short jackets known as spencers, or wrapped shawls around themselves for warmth, and it is pretty clear that many died of the cold or worse.

Anna is nursing a cold caught in the Arbour at Farringdon.

My employer had provided me with a vintage Laura Ashley cotton print dress, a small bonnet and a flesh-coloured thermal bodysuit – so I guess they wanted me back after the assignment. I sat wrapped in my pashmina, some garments are timeless, and when the carriage stopped, a servant opened the door. I presented my card. I was shown into the parlour and was formally greeted by Jane Austen herself.

She was a clear brunette with rich colour; she had full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well formed, bright hazel eyes and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face. She looked unremarkable, but she was so much, much more extraordinary. She looked admiringly at my small Spencer and Rutherford bag or ‘reticule’ as she called it. Accordingly I admired her simple muslin dress.

I gave but five shillings a yard for it and true Indian muslin. It is very pretty- but I do not think it will wash well. I’m afraid it will fray.

I looked understandingly sympathetic.

Tea was brought, and I asked my first real question, ‘What was to be her next fashion purchase ?’ Her reply was surprising.

I cannot determine what to do about my new gown; I wish such things were to be bought ready made.

Lucky Jane, her dress was made for her, no strange sizing and smelly fitting rooms for her. I asked about her visit to Bath for the season and what the new fashions might be.

Black gauze cloaks are worn as much as anything. Long sleeves appear universal, even as evening dress; the waists short and as far as I have been able to judge, the Bosom covered. Petticoats are short and generally flounced.

I was curious to know if she enjoyed the freedom of the current chemise dress, which revealed far more of the female form than any previous fashion. Jane insisted that it was her duty to wear English muslin as the present war with France made the import of silk from Lyons impossible. As it was far too cold in the country for the thin layers of material, she wore several layers and a cotton chemise for modesty. She was the proud owner of a cashmere shawl brought by a cousin from Kashmir in India. Her eyes glanced to my pashmina. She wore gloves indoors and out. She had several short, tailored coats made from velvet or wool, which had long tight sleeves covering her hands. Some had fur trimmings. She was especially fond of the military style with brass buttons and braid, not unlike a Hussar’s uniform. I thought of my recent purchase of a military style jacket.

So how did she stay in fashion? Most of her ideas came from printed fashion sheets published by the shops that sold laces and ribbons, lengths of fabric and new bonnets. The rest of the ideas came from friends and from her dressmaker, Mrs. Mussell, who was presently making her a new outfit.

It is to be a gown, with a jacket and a frock front. The jacket is all in one with the body and comes as far as the pocket holes. The back is quite plain and the sides equally so. The front is looped round to the bosom and drawn in.

After tea, she walked with me along the drive to my carriage. She commented politely on my ‘paisley print dress’ and she was delighted with my gift of a small leather quilted bag on a long gold chain. She declared it to be the prettiest ‘reticule’ she had ever seen.

As my carriage jolted through the country lanes, I concluded that fashion is simply timeless.