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Austen Chat: Episode 3

September 7, 2023

Jane Austen & Her Wardrobe: A Visit with Hilary Davidson

JAW 2.21 Pelisse Web

Replica of Jane Austen’s pelisse, 2007. Courtesy of Hilary Davidson.

What did Jane Austen wear? Was she a stylish dresser? A dowdy spinster? In this episode, noted fashion and textile historian Hilary Davidson sets the record straight, revealing that Austen was much more fashion conscious and on-trend than many suppose. Join us as we discuss what would have been in Austen’s personal wardrobe, from headwear and gowns to everything in between, and Davidson shares fascinating insights gained while researching her new book, Jane Austen’s Wardrobe.

JAW 3.07 Gallery of Fashion January 1798 web

Nicholas Heideloff, (left) ‘casque bonnet of black velvet, trimmed across the crown with a black curled feather, and round it with a band of rose coloured velvet’, (right) ‘Bonnet à la Turque of black velvet’, Gallery of Fashion, January 1798. Courtesy of Hilary Davidson.

Hilary Davidson is a dress, textile, and fashion historian and curator. She is associate professor and chair of the MA Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice in the School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She is also an honorary associate in the department of medieval and early modern studies at the University of Sydney. Davidson has curated, lectured, broadcast, and published extensively, and is the author of Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion (Yale University Press, 2019) and Jane Austen's Wardrobe. (Yale University Press, 2023).

Show Notes and Links

Many thanks to Hilary Davidson for appearing as a guest on Austen Chat and sharing the images above.

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You can listen to Austen Chat here or in your favorite podcast app: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and other streaming platforms

Credits: From JASNA's Austen Chat podcast. Published September 7, 2023. © Jane Austen Society of North America. All rights reserved. Images: Courtesy of Hilary Davidson. Music: Country Dance by Humans Win.


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

[Theme music]

Breckyn Wood: Hello, Janeites, and welcome to Austen Chat, a podcast coming to you from the Jane Austen Society of North America. I'm your host, Breckyn Wood. Okay, people, get out your bonnets and brush off your top hats, because my guest today is Hilary Davidson, and she knows a lot about Regency-Era fashion. She's a dress, textiles and fashion historian and curator, plus a seamstress extraordinaire, writer, lecturer, and designer. Hilary has even created replica clothing projects for a number of museums, including a replica of Jane Austen's famous pelisse. 

Hilary is currently associate professor and chair of the graduate program in fashion and textile studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She is also an honorary associate in the department of medieval and early modern studies at the University of Sydney. Among her many publications are two of particular interest to us. In 2019, she published Dress in the Age of Jane Austen, and forthcoming in September 2023, very soon, is her latest book, Jane Austen's Wardrobe. I may be a yoga pants and t-shirt kind of girl, but I cannot wait to dive into Jane Austen's closet and get up to my eyeballs in lace and muslin with Hilary.

Breckyn: Welcome to the show, Hilary.

Hilary Davidson: Hi, Breckyn. Thank you for having me.

Breckyn: Okay, so before we start talking lace and silk and all that, I want to start with a segment called “Desert Island.” You're stranded on a desert island, and you can only bring one Austen work with you. Which are you going to choose and why?

Hilary: Well, this is quite a tricky one, because my favorite Austen, like many people, is Persuasion. But I'm on a desert island, right? So, I'm going to bring the juvenilia.

Breckyn: Oooh, bold choice.

Hilary: Including Lady Susan, and that's because it's ripsnortingly funny, and I'm going to need something to amuse myself. Lady Susan is slightly scandalous.

Breckyn: It really is.

Hilary: And I'm not sure I want to be stuck on a desert island with Anne Elliot when she's mopey. I want someone who's kind of fun.

Breckyn: You want someone feisty.

Hilary: Yeah, exactly. The juvenilia—there are so many little short stories there that I think I can amuse myself by thinking about what Jane Austen might have made of those stories as an adult. So, I'm taking the juvenilia just for stimulation, really. It's going to give me a lot more to work with than maybe the finished novels.

Breckyn: I've only recently gotten into the juvenilia, and I think that's true of most people. It was kind of ignored for a long time, and now it's becoming a subject of serious academic study as well as just regular fans are reading it. And you're right. First of all, it's hilarious. It's so ridiculous and funny. And second of all, it's really fun to see the echoes of her mature novels in it. I was just reading a story this morning, and I was like, this speech sounds almost exactly like what Caroline Bingley says, and I looked it up, and [it was] almost word for word. It was like she had copied and pasted. And I was like, oh, that's so fun to see these characters, kind of in embryo, who show up later.

Hilary: And, you know, I like that Lady Susan's kind of naughty as well. She's amoral in a way that—she's more like Becky Sharp, perhaps. And I think it would have been really interesting to see what Austen might have made of a heroine like that, and her moral dimensions, in the full power of her work.

Breckyn: It really challenges the image that we had of Austen for a long time, which we got from her nephew, right? It was kind of this more Victorian like, "Oh, she's just this dowdy old aunt and she never went anywhere or ever did anything." Well, she was reading some scandalous novels then, because I don't know where she got all these ideas from.

Hilary: Well, as she says in the letters, she went to a girls’ school and there was—what is it—a frieze of cherubs over the mantelpiece. And as she says, "That's a fine study for girls," because the cherubs were completely naked. So, she knows how many beans make five. And there's all sorts of fabulous things like that in the letters, too.

Breckyn: Yes. It's a lot of fun. It gives you whole new dimensions to her. Okay, so, Hilary, how did you first come up with the idea to explore Jane Austen's closet?

Hilary: Well, it was one of those kinds of ideas that hit me like lightning, really. I was stuck in a cottage in Wales during the pandemic.

Breckyn: I'm just going to say that sounds idyllic, actually. Maybe it was terrible for you, but ...

Hilary: No, I was with a friend, and every time people would say, "So, how is it? Are you okay?" we'd be like, "It's tough, but we're getting through." And then just kind of look at each other and giggle because it was great. So, I was teaching online and doing all sorts of things, and I think I was writing something to do with Regency. And this thought just popped into my head, and it said, "I wonder why nobody's ever done anything just looking at what Jane Austen wore." Because it would be really easy. All you'd have to do is go through the letters and just really look at, with a fine-tooth comb, all the references in the letters and then the things that survived, which was closely followed by a thought that went, "Um, Hilary, you'd probably be a really good person to do this." "Oh, yeah." "Because you have just written a whole book on Regency dress." "Oh, yeah. Huh. All right." So, I sort of thought about it for a bit, and I came up with a format of having a quote with kind of explanation and text on one page and then an image on the other to explain, and just literally going through what we can know that Jane Austen wore.

Hilary: So, I kind of did a couple of mock up pages for it, just because I had this idea in my head. And the next year, my publisher was asking me if I had any new book ideas, and I went, "Well, I've got this one idea," and they went, "Yes, please. Thanks. We'll have it." I had a book contract six months later.

Breckyn: Boom.

Hilary: And the book was delivered a year later. It just emerged. It was like it was waiting to be written.

Breckyn: Well, we're very excited; we definitely want to go through Jane Austen's underwear and whatever else is in there. So, we were talking about this a bit before, about how she's got this perception of being dowdy. She's a spinster, right? She wasn't wealthy. She didn't have a fashionable tailor; therefore, she must have looked frumpy, right? But you kind of challenged that assumption in your book. So, tell us what you discovered about her fashion choices in your research.

Hilary: Well, one of the really interesting things for me about this book was I could have a really tight focus. So, with the previous book, I was trying to sort of look at the whole of Regency dress, conceptually and materially through the lens of Jane Austen's life and writings. But for this one, I could get really, really specific. So, what started to emerge for me was that when I was looking for—because most of the references I'm using come from the letters, so they're dated very specifically. So, I wasn't just looking for an example of, say, a cloak, a Regency cloak. I was looking for an example of a black lace cloak in sort of 1798. So very, very specific things. And so, what I started to see was, especially in Austen's younger years—sort of, say, up to her mid 30s—there's a strong parallel between the clothing that she's buying and what is appearing in fashion plates. And so, when I started looking for a black lace cloak, which she spends quite a lot of time discussing with Cassandra, I was like, this is a really fashionable item, and I hadn't quite noticed that before.

And not only that, they're fashionable because there's new developments in lace making technology. So, this is like a new fabric being made more available, more cheaply and super in fashion. And I found that in a number of places, that Austen is buying exactly what's in fashion for the time. When you go to the plates or start looking around, you're like, "Whoa, I can get something of the same month that's in fashion for her."

And I mean, really, what I discovered with the first book is how much of the sort of the middle classes' or the gentry's clothing lives were spent being fashionable enough, but not too fashionable. And that's really what kind of comes out of the book, is that Austen knew what was in fashion, and she made her own choices about responding to that, usually in tandem with Cassandra. And she kept up with things. She had some quirks about what she liked to wear, but she was pretty much on top of fashion in the records that we have for her.

Breckyn: Wow, yeah. I don't think most people know that about her. And do you think that her proximity to London had anything to do with that? I mean, relatively, she was pretty close.

Hilary: Absolutely. I mean, we get the best shopping letters from her, from London. During the Regency period, people made great use of proxy consumption, so that if you knew anyone who was going to London or Bath, you'd say, oh, can you get me some of this and some of that? So, she and Cassandra shopped for each other. But it was an advantage, and she could go to London herself and see things. And there's lots of letters where she talks about, oh, I've been shopping for this, or, I've seen these pretty caps in Cranbourne Alley, but I'm going to wait till you come, till we decide which ones we like. So, she was an informed and savvy shopper who had at her disposal many of the same resources as the best dressers in London. I mean, how much you want to spend is always an issue. But she was there; she knew the retail landscape of the metropolis and took full advantage of it . . . in Bath as well.

Breckyn: Yeah, I think it's funny and unexpected because a lot of the characters in her novels who pay attention to dress pay too much attention to dress. There's, like, Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey talking about her muslin and, "Oh, my, muslin's going to tear!" And, so, I think some people would be surprised to find out that, actually, Austen liked to look nice and she cared about the quality of her clothes. She would poke fun at anything, right? It doesn't mean that she doesn't care about it.

Hilary: Exactly. It's the beautiful irony of the narrator's commentary in Northanger Abbey that dress is at all times a frivolous distinction. And she goes on to talk about dress in the guise of talking about frivolity. You know, the sheer mastery of Austen's irony is that you never quite know what she thinks. She can simultaneously be on both sides of a question. So, yeah, she can make fun of people who are interested in dress, while at the same time she's interested in dress.

Breckyn: But then Henry Tilney jumps in and starts talking about muslin, and suddenly it's really charming that like, oh, a man is paying attention to fashion and fabric.

Hilary: Although he's probably—yeah, he could well be pulling everyone's legs there. But they're still talking about it. They're talking about muslin. And the thing is, it was important. Like, the quality of clothing was very important because we have problems with, say, over-choice now. But for consumers in Austen's day, they had to choose everything from the ground up. So, if you were getting a new dress—a lot of the conversation in letters between Austen and Cassandra, although it's one sided, we don't have Cassandra's letters to match it—is about the technicalities and the qualities of, “Is this good enough? What's a quality muslin? How can I allocate my funds so that they get me, like, the best range of clothing that is going to last? How can I alter my clothing so that things that are a little bit shabby I can make go a bit further?" It's concerned with practicalities because people had fewer clothes and could replace them less often. So, the quality of the fabric really mattered. And to be a savvy consumer was about knowing how things would wear—would wash and wear, as Henry Tilney says. Yeah, because that determined how long your clothes could be usable and presentable for—respectable.

Breckyn: And it's an investment, right? So, you can either buy something cheap and you can throw it away in six months, or you can invest a little more on the front end and then you get to enjoy it a lot longer.

Hilary: Exactly.

Breckyn: Let's talk accessories. A woman of Jane's social class—she's not covered in bling, right? But she did have a few key jewelry items. So, what are those things that you found in her wardrobe?

Hilary: Well, one of the joys of jewelry is that it survives much more easily than dress items do. One of the problems with clothing is that nice fabrics get reused and recycled and chopped up or eaten by moths or exposed to light or water damage. But jewelry is very durable, which is one of the reasons that make it valuable. And the jewelry pieces that we know that have a provenance of belonging to Jane Austen are kept in Jane Austen's House in Chawton. And they were very kindly—The house has just been an amazing support during the writing of this book, and they very kindly let me have access to the record files. So, I kind of had a complete history of how these pieces had come into the collection. There's a turquoise ring, which I think is the most famous piece because it was attempted to be sold at auction. And Kelly Clarkson, the American singer—she bought it and she wanted to take it out. And they suddenly had to pull together an export ban to keep it in Britain.

Breckyn: "You can't have it, you Americans!"

Hilary: Exactly. Her fiancé then made her a copy with diamonds in it, too, and she was very, very gracious about the whole thing.

There's also a turquoise bracelet, a quite—sort of cheap—turquoise bracelet. And of course, I think the most famous pieces of jewelry are the pair of topaz crosses which belonged to Jane and Cassandra and which she immortalized in Mansfield Park under the guise of Fanny Price's brother William's gift to Fanny of a topaz cross, and the issue about how she's going to hang it on a chain or on a necklace. And the differences between Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram are kind of played out through the materiality of the jewelry.

Breckyn: Yeah, I love that. I think when you find out that little biographical information that Jane Austen also had a sailor brother who also gave her a topaz cross, it's like a little Easter egg in there. That's a lot of fun. So, what about other extras, like gloves and fans?

Hilary: Well, she mentions gloves sort of all the way through. I've kind of lumped gloves together in the book. I should say, as well, that the book is called Jane Austen's Wardrobe, and I thought a lot about how to organize it, so I've organized it by the way that clothes are stored. So, we have her closet first of all, and we have her clothes pressed in drawers, and shelves, and a jewelry box, and a dressing table, and everything's put together according to the places that it would have been stored as part of her wardrobe. So, accessories like gloves and fans, I think they come under her dressing table. There's a fabulous reference to a white fan that she says she wears to a ball in the late 1790s. And she's got this one reference that I'm so intrigued by that says, "I am very glad he never dropped it in the river." And I'm desperate to know who was going to drop Jane Austen's white fan in the river.

Breckyn: On purpose? Is this some tease or a beau?

Hilary: Exactly. So, we've got sort of references to her gloves and a couple of fans, but then also little things like headdresses she wears or—what else have they got—her handkerchiefs, silk handkerchiefs, linen handkerchiefs.

Breckyn: So, the gloves, would they have been wrist length? Elbow length?

Hilary: Depends on the time of day. And people tended to buy them in multiple pairs, which is very sensible because, you know, gloves get easily lost, as Captain Wentworth uses leaving his gloves behind as a pretext to come and give Anne the letter in Persuasion. But also, one might get stained, so you often sort of buy them in, say, three pairs. So, you'd always have—if you messed up the left hand, you could take the left hand of another pair for that. I think by far the accessory that we get the most references to throughout the letters is headwear, which get their own—they've got their own section in a band box. So, caps and bonnets and other kinds of hats are definitely a feature of Jane Austen's wardrobe. Or what we can know of the wardrobe—what survives to us in these small references in the 161 surviving letters.

Breckyn: So, would she have worn feathered turbans or anything like that? I mean, in the one portrait we have of her, she's wearing that cap—that cap that everyone has seen. And she mentions making and trimming caps in her letters. Would those caps have just been for around the house? And then would she have had something a little more fancy for a ball?

Hilary: She absolutely did. She was very fond of caps, and she took to caps earlier than was usual. So did Cassandra—about sort of 25. She just sort of wore them all the time. And as she says, "It saves me a great deal of trouble in hairdressing." So, I quite respect that. It's like the equivalent of a messy bun, right? Just put a cap on.

Breckyn: That speaks to me deeply. Yes, that's my whole life. If I could cover it with a shower cap and that would be socially acceptable, I would totally do that.

Hilary: Well, it absolutely was in Austen's day, and that's pretty much what she was doing. But then the references to her headwear—actually, one of the references that gets sort of pulled up the most is to her Mameluke cap, which Constance Hill, who wrote one of the first biographies—I think it's Jane Austen: Her Life and Friends? Your readers will know instantly which book I'm talking about. She says, "Oh, we must know that a Mameluke cap is sort of a type of fez." But I found a fashion plate of someone actually wearing a Mameluke cap, and it is indeed a feathered turban. And I compare that as well in the book with drawings from life of Mamelukes in Egypt from about 1807, and we can see that it is kind of like a round turban. And turbans, as female headwear, were very popular during sort of the late 1790s and into the Regency period. So, yeah, absolutely. Jane Austen did wear feathered turbans, and that's something we can specifically say that she wore. And I've got a picture of it in the book.

Breckyn: That's awesome. I feel like in movie adaptations, at least, the feathered turban is always for the older, ridiculous mother, right? It's for the Lady Bertrams and for the Mrs. Bennets. And then if they ever get into a tizzy, the feather starts quivering. So, it's kind of funny to picture Jane Austen in one of those as well.

Hilary: Absolutely.

Breckyn: They never put the heroine—the heroines are never wearing them. Or like Caroline Bingley is wearing one.

Hilary: Caroline Bingley always gets a feathered turban. I think it's sort of to signify her “fashionability.” But they were more generally worn than that. I mean, they did—in the 1800s and 10s, they became a bit more of an older woman thing, but also often for literary women, sort of bluestockings or writers. There was a kind of an air of that as well. But, yeah, when they first become popular in the late 1790s, Jane Austen is right on it.

Breckyn: Boom. She's so fashion forward. I'm so glad that you figured this out.

Hilary: She's just keeping an eye on things, and she's like adding things into her wardrobe that are of the moment.

Breckyn: Okay, so how would these like—we kind of mentioned age differences. How would these clothes and accessories have changed as Austen aged? Were older women expected to wear darker colors or different materials or anything like that?

Hilary: They sort of were. I mean, the general idea was that the older you got, the less skin you showed. So obviously, the Regency period and the changes of dress, it's a very skin-showing period if one chooses—a lot of arm . . .

Breckyn: Okay, can we talk about cleavage? Because you mentioned in another interview I heard—you mentioned that you are a Regency-era cleavage expert, and I want to talk about that.

Hilary: That's fine. I never thought that so much of my life would have been talking about Regency breasts, but I'm happy to have that expertise.

Breckyn: They feature prominently in the adaptations. We can all see them. They're just right there.

Hilary: Self on a shelf, as a friend of mine calls them.

Breckyn: Self on a shelf?

Hilary: Self on a shelf.

Breckyn: So how is that? You said that the cleavage, or the shape historically changes over time?

Hilary: The thing is that we underestimate the ways in which the new shape of the Regency breast is completely crucial to the high-waisted gown. You don't get those high-waisted gowns without a fundamental rethink about how the cleavage is shaped. So, in the 18th century, stays, as they were called—corset is not a thing yet, not a word yet—they're a mono bosom. You've got like a smooth, straight front that kind of presses the breasts together with that, you know, what we think of as that line of cleavage, that's kind of cleavage now. And what happens in the 1790s is, as stays get lighter, they become less boned, they become more shaped to the natural body. This is actually what the French were first calling a corset: "corset," a little body. And for the first time, really since the late Middle Ages, women's bust support—which is one of the main purposes of stays or corsets—it gives them two breasts—what I frequently describe as two oranges on a plate. So instead of being squished together like bread dough, they kind of lift and separate. And once you have two perky bosoms to work with, that is also changing how you're cutting the gowns around them. That becomes the focal point of the gown, and you start to get gowns that kind of dip in between the breasts. So, Regency cleavage is not like we think of it today, with the kind of squished boobs together and the line down the center. The cleavage—there's quite a gap in the middle there. One of the new corsets that came in was called the divorce corset because it separated them.

Breckyn: Do any of the movies get it right? Do any of the adaptations? Or do they squish together?

Hilary: No, they're usually right. You can tell when someone hasn't been paying attention to Regency corsets properly, because they just assume that it's, like, all squished together and that basically sexy cleavage has to be, you know, squishy bread dough. But when you look at, like, even pictures of Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s—have a look at what her cleavage is doing, because it's far more Regency. There's quite a big gap down the middle. Even though this is voluptuous sex goddess Marilyn Monroe, she's not, like, squished together cleavage. I hope the listeners are all, like, envisaging this at home. So, it's central to Regency dress—how that prominence of the bosoms and the fact that they're sort of vaguely naturally shaped—like our modern bras have two separate cups—that really changes how gowns are cut and then decorated. And it's fundamental and pivotal to Regency fashion.

Breckyn: And, so, for the older women, are those necklines starting to rise as they get older?

Hilary: Exactly. You'd still be wearing the same sort of shaped corset or stays underneath, but the necklines become higher, your arms become more covered, your decolletage becomes covered more and more up to the neck. Your caps become more elaborate, so less skin shows. But there's a bit of a discrepancy between ideas about what older women should wear and what older women actually wear, which I really love. So, the idea was that women should become more modest and retiring and not flaunt their, "Ew, oldness!" in public—and wear darker clothes and be all sober and matronly and appropriate.

Breckyn: Just hide in the corner over there.

Hilary: Pretty much, which Amanda Vickery has written quite beautifully about in an article called "Mutton Dressed as Lamb." But when you look at the record books of older women—and I've looked at the account books of a couple—they're spending on the same kinds of fabrics and kinds of colors that a lot of younger women are doing. So, I really think that, like, in so many periods, the social ideal of how women should behave at a certain point was always tempered by women's individual taste and wealth to a certain point.

We all know that rich people get away with a lot more. So, it's not necessarily women conforming to what should be done. There is always a slight sense, though, that as women get older, often they just can't be bothered anymore. They've spent a lot of time on dress, and they're like, "This is what I like, this is what I'm going to wear," and sort of fall into habits of clothing. And that seems to happen in the Regency as well. And as I've already said, Jane Austen went, "I'm done with hair styling."

Breckyn: Slap that cap on. Right. So, I want to talk about sewing, because you have that incredible skill. She makes quite a few references in her letters to sewing for herself, for her family members, and especially for the poor. Would she have made all of her own clothing, or would some of it have been made by a local seamstress? Was there anything ready-made yet during her time? Or is that not until later in the 1800s?

Hilary: There are lots of answers to those questions. The first—I'll take sort of the last to first. There are some ready-made things. She talks about, at one point, buying a ready-made cloak at Alton. She can buy ready-made shoes. There are some things that are ready-made, but the sewing on them—the sewing quality is usually not very good. Jane Austen would have had a lot of things made by a professional. And in fact, the letters are frequently referencing the professional women who are making her clothes. The pelisse was absolutely made by a professional and many of her gowns were as well. She's got Mrs. Mussel, Miss Summers—a few named makers throughout the letters.
How many of her clothes she made herself and how many—or Cassandra—is actually very hard to quantify, or to tell what she did. She certainly altered clothing. There are references to her saying, "Oh, look, the dressmaker didn't do so well with this gown. I had to alter it a great deal before I could wear it." There are some references to kind of Cassandra making—she finished a muslin cloak for their friend Martha Lloyd. But how much of their own clothing she made, it's very, very hard to find out, and I only sort of get the vaguest sense of it. Things like linens and underwear tended to be made by women themselves, so I can assume that a lot of those were done. But she definitely used professionals.

Breckyn: Or like, men's shirts as well, right? Men are not doing any of their own sewing?

Hilary: No, no. I mean, men can buy ready-made linen shirts if they want to, but generally the women in their family are making them, which Austen did for her brothers. And I mean, she was a very, very good seamstress. As she herself says of her work, "My work was the neatest of the party," in making Edward's shirts. And, in the book, I've included the handkerchief that she embroidered for Cassandra in satin stitch, which is really hard. And she is immaculate. She wrote like she sewed: perfectly, with precision and control, and knew exactly what she was doing. And I love that kind of—how you do one thing is how you do everything.

Breckyn: I was reading some accounts from her nieces and nephews, and they were talking about how her manual dexterity was very good. So, when she would make edits to her own work, she used these editing pins, because there's no whiteout or anything like that, and paper is precious. So, if she had to insert a whole—sometimes she would just do inline insertions—but sometimes she's got a little piece of paper and she pins it on perfectly. And the precision in that just really shows the care that she took with it.

Hilary: Exactly. Yeah, she had the same kind of precision, observation, and control, it seems, in everything that she did.

Breckyn: You've done a lot of hand sewing, right? Most people today don't even sew buttons back on their own clothes. I personally cannot do that. But you've made entire pieces of clothing by hand, so tell us a little bit about that—maybe about what it was like to recreate Austen's pelisse. Did you do all of that by hand? Did you have to make the—what's it called—the pattern yourself?

Hilary: Oh yeah, I did everything.

Breckyn: That's amazing. Tell us about it.

Hilary: Yeah, I did a reconstruction project on Jane Austen's pelisse that actually started in 2007. I spent a day- and-a-half with the original garment, and I measured it and took lots and lots of photos and worked out its construction order. And then did quite a lot of versions of it. First of all, a toile to test the pattern, and then one in a scrap fabric to see how it worked. And then I've done two in properly reconstructed fabric as well. So, I've spent a lot of time, and I've done other Regency sewing projects, one for a documentary in 2013 and then for private things. So, I've spent a lot of time in sort of the space of a Regency seamstress, and I'm a pretty good sewer.
Also, I think it really helps to see what people did historically, and then when you're trying to match people's historical sewing, it makes you improve rapidly, very, very quickly. But that was really where I came to—resewing the pelisse made me come to the realization that I had sort of many years ago. And I think I started talking about it in about 2017, but I put in the book, my first book as well—sewing gives you space to think.

And there's been some great work done on sewing as a more positive activity in the past, recently. So, people like Anna Larpent—she talks about sewing as a form of meditation, and she would read texts and mull on them while she worked. And it really gives you a chance to just sort of sit and think. And I think in the modern day—there's certainly a trope in things written now about the past that are like, "Oh, yeah, sewing is all drudgery, and I'm a modern heroine, and I'm just going to throw my embroidery out the window and go and ride a horse and be all cool and empowered." And it neglects the sheer amount of skill involved to just sew, but also that you've got time to think. And we see this with Austen—that her niece recalls her, like, sitting, working—and anytime you see a reference to work, it always means needlework—in the corner. And then she'd laugh to herself, jump up, write something down, and then go back to working. So that sort of sense of—I'd find myself thinking over things I'd read on Twitter or just sort of mulling over thoughts, and it's actually this incredible creative and generative space.

And I'm sure there are people who sew or knit nodding along at home about this. It really helped me to—being a sewer helped me to understand the skill of the people who made the clothes I was seeing in museum collections. So, when I see a shirt with 50 stitches per inch, I'm just in awe because I know what that takes and how much time that takes. And to think about the role of sewing in women's lives as a community-positive thing and start to sort of move away from our preconceptions about what sewing does and its so-called drudgery. But also think about it as creativity and ways of kind of materializing love and care. There's all these presents that people make for each other, all these women making gifts for each other that move around their social circles, and then they are also spending a lot of their free time making clothing for the less fortunate because you can't buy ready-made. So, what do you do if you're a widow with five children who has to clothe those children and be vaguely respectable? You can't possibly spend all that whole time sewing for your children.

And so, acts of charity were also kind of acts of love and care that middle class women are extending using their material and also temporal resources to do good and help others in getting this quite difficult-to-achieve material resource of clothing. I think sewing is a complex and wonderful subject.

Breckyn: I think the handicrafts are definitely coming back. They're making a big resurgence, especially because of the pandemic and the shutdown. Everyone's like, "Well, now what do I do? Maybe I'll take up embroidery or maybe I'll start crocheting." I definitely crocheted a lot during the pandemic. And yeah, I think one of the most valuable—or one of the most rewarding things about a skill like that is giving it away to someone. Because I've crocheted blankets, and I'm like, "Here's 30 hours of my time. And most of it was in front of Netflix, but still, here you go." It's a huge act of labor and love when everything is ready-made now. There's something especially beautiful and meaningful about things that are handmade. I'm totally on board with you. I think throwing all the old feminine arts out because they were in some way oppressive is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Hilary: Exactly. It's like saying all corsets were oppressive, and you're like, "Well, how would you support your breasts then?" It's sheer functionality. There's a spectrum of practices.

Breckyn: Definitely, yeah. And we don't want to take away their autonomy, right? A lot of them were choosing to make these things and use these things and wear these things. Yeah, that's wonderful.

This has been such a fun conversation. Hilary, thank you so much for talking with me today. Again, your book is coming out, and that's September 12th?

Hilary: September 12th. It's available for preorder and through all the usual—however you choose to buy your books.

Breckyn: And then where can people find you online? To learn more about all this historical fashion?

Hilary: My personal Twitter and Instagram accounts are @FourRedShoes. And because people ask, that's a pair and a spare. And then I also have a Twitter account for both my books at @AustenDress.

Breckyn: Okay, that's great. And then also, if anyone's looking up Hilary Davidson: Hilary with one L.

Hilary: Very much so with one L. And since moving to America, I have to defend that single L fiercely because double L is the default spelling here.

Breckyn: Yeah, but definitely go online, look, on our show notes. We'll have pictures of some of these things that Hilary's been talking with us about today. Thank you so much, Hilary.

Hilary: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

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Breckyn: Okay, friends, it's time for another dollop of JASNA news. As you may know by now, the JASNA Annual General Meeting is coming up. It's going to be in Denver, Colorado, November 2nd to the 5th, and the theme is "Pride and Prejudice: A Rocky Romance." Some of you may be forced to forego the pleasures of the AGM due to schedule conflicts or personal reasons, but unlike poor Kitty Bennet, weeping with "vexation and envy" as her sister Lydia prepares to go off to Brighton, we have a happy alternative. The core AGM conference session will be available online in real time as a live stream virtual package.

JASNA members who register for the live stream option can watch from anywhere in the world. They can watch all three plenary lectures, including Dr. Janet Todd's "To Dream of Pemberley," Dr. Claudia L. Johnson's "Austen Escape," and Francine Mathews's "Solving the Male Mystery: The Bennet Sisters as Detective Heroines"; five breakout sessions preselected by JASNA looking at Pride and Prejudice from fascinating angles; and three special interest sessions focusing on Austen relics, Austen podcasts, and Austen-related programming in libraries. The package also includes informal mini-chats with selected speakers and opportunities to interact with other live stream participants around the world.

If the timing of the live stream isn't right for you, you'll also have 30 days to watch recordings of all these sessions, along with a recording of the performance of The Jane Austen Playlist: Pride and Prejudice. This program, which includes guest musicians and costumed performers, is being premiered at the AGM.

Information about the live stream virtual package will be available in the show notes for this episode. The cost for both live stream and virtual access is $175, and there's a special discounted price of $125 for JASNA student members. The deadline for signing up for the live stream is October 16. Of course, there's nothing like the full, in-person JASNA AGM experience, and there are still some spaces available, and we will provide the link to program and registration information in our show notes as well. Or you can go to jasna.org/agmsdenver2023/home.php. Either way, we hope you can join us live, in person, virtual—whichever way you can get your AGM, please do, and please join us.

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Breckyn: Now it's time for "In Her Own Words," a segment where listeners share a favorite Austen quote or two.

Betty Parker Ellis: Hi. My name is Betty Parker Ellis, and I enjoy saying that I am a member of the North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina regions of JASNA. One of my favorite Austen quotes comes from Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet tells Lady Catherine de Bourgh during the "shades of Pemberley" encounter, "I am only resolved to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness without reference to you or to any person so wholly unconnected with me." I thought this just demonstrated so well a claim that Elizabeth had made earlier to Mr. Darcy while they were at Rosings Park, when she said, "There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me." This just makes me want to stand up and cheer her on, both Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Austen, as wonderful role models for how to navigate our way through intimidating situations in life. Now that is my kind of conduct book. 

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Breckyn: Well, that's it for this episode. Thanks for listening, Janeites. If you're interested in joining the Jane Austen Society of North America or learning more about its programs, publications, and events, you can find them online at jasna.org. That's J-A-S-N-A dot org. Join us again next time, and in the meantime, I remain yours affectionately, Breckyn Wood.

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“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”