Costume Guide for the Jane Austen Festival
You’re going to the festival, so now you just need a costume – what’s a lady (or gentleman) to do?
Well, firstly, don’t panic. This guide will tell you a bit about the elements that make a Regency Jane Austen costume, as well as some suggestions on how to acquire a costume, how to put one together yourself and how to alter it for day, evening and different weather conditions.
Be aware that this is not meant as a thorough walkthrough of Regency fashion, but only as a guide to suitable things to wear if you’re visiting the Jane Austen Festival and want to dress up.
In this guide:
Elements of a lady’s look
The Regency lady’s look was dominated by a long dress with a high, empire waist, white gloves and a bonnet or other hat. Furthermore, the women wore an assortment of shawls, spencers and pelisses to cover up all visible skin from the neck down.
A shawl, spencer or pelisse
Ankle boots or ballet pumps
A bonnet, turban or other kind of Regency hat
Chemisette (small garment to fill the space between neckline and neck)
One of the most important things to get right in a Regency costume is the hair. A lady’s hair would always be up, never hanging loose. Curls were in fashion, as were a slightly dishevelled look. A good idea would be a mid-height bun with a few strands of hair pulled out. Hair embellishments were popular for balls etc., things like little fabric flowers, pins, braids and twists were popular. The hair (or at least the front of the hair) was usually parted in the middle and short, curly wisps of hair in front were part of most hairstyles.
The empire dress is the hallmark of Regency fashion. The silhouette evokes old Greek goddesses and sculptures. The most fashionable colour for dresses was white, but other pastel colours were popular as well. Accessories such as pelisses, shawls and spencers (see below) could be in bright colours or exotic patterns inspired by India and the East. Dresses were more elaborate and richly decorated for night and often in brighter colours and heavier fabrics than the day dresses.
Especially to balls, ladies wore lots of jewellery. Necklaces, bracelets, hair pins, brooches and rings were worn. Necklaces were either simple with crosses, made of gem stones or pearls. Bracelets could be worn on the wrist or above the glove. Brooches could be used to pin up trains, sleeves and overdresses. A lot of appropriate jewellery can be bought in the Jane Austen Centre’s online gift shop.
The usual regency shoes would be flats, for example ballerina shoes or flat leather boots with laces. Or kitten heels in satin or lookalike fabrics. Ballet shoes work well for dancing as well. Be aware that even though you might be accustomed to dancing in heels this is hard when you dance regency dances you’re not familiar with, so if you’re planning to dance, maybe go for the flat shoes. Shoes were worn with light stockings; you can choose light pink or white tights or stockings.
Essential accessories: Gloves, bonnets, spencers, shawls and pelisses
A lady would never go outside without gloves. The gloves were there to cover whatever skin was not covered by the sleeves: if one wore short sleeves, long gloves were required. Of course, you can take them off if you want to use your smart phone! White gloves were all-important for the Regency evening outfit. They would have been long and matte and it was fashionable for them to bunch at the top. Gloves would only be removed when inside and when eating.
Outside, a lady would always wear a shawl, pelisse (a long coat), or a spencer (short jacket) over her dress. The neckline needed to be completely covered up against the sun and she would always wear something on her head, for example a bonnet. A bonnet could be done in fabric or straw and adorned in almost any thinkable way. On a sunny day, a lady could also choose to carry a parasol as extra protection.
Other accessories: fans, reticules, hair ornaments, stays and petticoats
A fan is a very essential thing to bring to a ball, where it will probably be hot. It can be made of fabric or wood and in mostly any colour, though usually not black or very dark colours. Fans can also be made of lace and they come in many different sizes.
A reticule is a small, sachet-like bag that is carried in one hand from a piece of ribbon. It can be bejewelled, embroidered or in a fabric that matches your dress. It is not very big and only meant to carry the essentials. If you need to carry more stuff around with you, maybe try a straw or wicker basket. Otherwise, you can always go with a tote.
To get the most authentic look, you can choose to wear regency stays and petticoats. This is the only way to get the authentic silhouette in the clothes, but can be both time-consuming and costly. If you do want to, you can buy stays and petticoats online or sew them yourself with a Sense & Sensibility pattern.
Elements of a gentleman’s look
Men’s fashions were less subject to change in the eighteenth century than women’s fashion. The Regency look for men was characterised by a very tailored silhouette and a more natural “English” look than the “French” fashions of the mid-eighteenth century. England was also at war for much of the Regency and consequently Militia, Navy and Army uniforms were a common sight. By the Regency Period long, silk waistcoats in various bright colours, lace trimmings and powdered hair were decidedly unfashionable.
Breeches or pantaloons
Boots (for the Ballroom soft shoes similar to modern Ballet pumps)
Shirt (and collar)
High waisted waistcoat
Breeches or pantaloons
Full-length trousers were the most fashionable and during the Regency period the knee-length knickers went out of fashion. The trousers usually had a flap panel opening, fastened with buttons.
Men usually wore boots or soft leather shoes with laces in everyday life, but a gentleman would never wear boots in a ballroom unless he was on duty. At balls, men would wear soft shoes similar to modern ballet shoes.
A fitted tailcoat was the preferred style, usually in a solid colour with contrasting lapels. The tailcoat sometimes included shoulder pads to exaggerate the desired shape with broad shoulders and a small waist.
Shirt and collar
Shirts were almost exclusively white and had a chin-high, starched neck to accommodate a cravat. Partial front plackets buttoned half way down and sometimes the shirts had ruffles down the front.
High waisted waistcoat
The usual waistcoat was fitted and had a straight bottom edge. It often stopped a few inches under the tailcoat that was worn over it.
The cravat or cloth is the Regency version of a tie. It is a white piece of fabric that was starched and ironed and tied around the neck on top of the shirt. It could be tied in many ways. You can get some help to tie your cravat at the blog Tea in a Teacup, who has written an excellent article based on the 1818 book “Necklcothitania” https://teainateacup.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/my-mr-knightley-tying-a-cravat/
The well-dressed gentleman would wear a top hat made from silk, wool, felt or beaver pelt. These could be made with springs for folding when going the theatre and opera.
A gentleman would have worn gloves anytime he left the home. Like ladies, gentlemen would remove their gloves for eating but not much else. Men’s gloves were usually short and colours ranged from pure white to yellow or ochre. A gentleman should remove his gloves when paying longer visits, especially to a superior.
Extras: Greatcoat, handkerchief, cane or pocket watch.
If you want to be an extra fashionable gentleman, you can acquire a greatcoat (great for colder weather), a handkerchief, a walking cane or pocket watch. These are nice touches to a gentleman’s outfit but by no means necessary.
Getting your costume
Before you decide what kind of costume you want to get, you have to decide how much time and money you want to spend.
Do you want to:
Sew a costume yourself?
Hire a costume?
Buy a ready-made costume?
Put together a costume from thrift store finds or pieces you already own?
Sew a costume yourself
If you want to sew for yourself, there are a few options. The easiest way is probably to buy a pattern to sew by and then take the pattern to a fabric store to get help finding the right fabric.
You can for example use these patterns:
- Patterns from Sense & Sensibility patterns – sensibility.com
- Simplicity pattern 4055
- There are instructions for many different costume pieces at the Jane Austen Centre’s Website – https://www.janeausten.co.uk/online-magazine/hands-on-regency/fashion-to-make/
Places to buy fabric:
- The Guildhall Market, High Street, Bath – situated between Victoria Art Gallery and the Guildhall and close to Bath Abbey – bathguildhallmarket.co.uk
- Fashion Fabrics, Green Street, Bath – fashionfabricsbath.co.uk
- Husqvarna Studio, Charles Street, Bath – husqvarnastudiobath.co.uk
- Fabric Land- various locations and online fabricland.co.uk
Hire a costume
If you want to hire a costume, there are some different places to do so.
- Bath Theatrical Costume Hire (In Frome)
We use this hire company all the time, they are very helpful and their warehouse store is full of all sorts of costumes. Even though it is not in Bath, they are only 14 miles away by car and very close to Frome Railway Station for those without a car.
8 Wallbridge, Frome Somerset BA11 5JZ
Telephone: 01373 472786
- Complete Costumes (In Worcestershire)
Complete Costumes offer a vast range of quality costumes available for hire and is quite unique in the fact that measurements are given for each one and booking a hire could not be easier through their secure website. They can also take bookings over the phone.
5 Chaddesley Road, Kidderminster, Worcestershire DY10 3AD
Telephone: 07505 212102
Buy a ready-made costume
This is probably the most expensive, but easiest way to go. There are quite a lot of places that do sell regency costumes, however, make sure the costume is accurate for the time period as not all sellers have a precise knowledge of the regency style.
You can buy Regency costumes from:
- Allana Marsh
Historical Costume Maker
Offering a unique experience to create your perfect outfit. Bespoke costumes made to measure for both men and women.
T: 0789 630 5165
- Antique Textiles and Lighting
(closed Monday and Thursday)
34 Belvedere, Lansdown Road, Bath BA1 5HR
Fine 17th to 20th Century textiles, probably the largest collection in the UK. Includes, lace and embroidery from the 16th Century onwards. 18th Century clothing, waistcoats and shoes. Fans, paisley shawls, beadwork and beaded bags. Silks, ribbons, quilts, tapestries and samplers.
- Jane Austen Centre online gift shop
Lots of patterns, also parasols, fans and short gloves, etc.
- Niamh White
Super quick and great selection
- Regency Regalia
Shown in dollars but is in the UK
Put together a costume from what you already own or things you can easily find in a charity shop or contemporary shop
If you want to put together a look from things you might already have at home or can easily find in thrift shops or on the high street, you might have to be a bit patient in your search.
Pieces you can probably find or already own include:
Long dresses, preferably with puffy or slim sleeves that are at least t-shirt length (not sleeveless) and falling to the ground without any width in the skirt. Even better: a dress with an empire waist and some gathering in the waist.
Alternatively, if you find a sleeveless dress you can sew on some sleeves, short or long.
Some ribbon or fabric to tie around the empire waist. This can match the dress or not, though highly contrasting colours were not much used. Preferably the ribbon should be long enough for you to tie a medium-sized bow at the back and let the ends hang loose.
A short jacket, preferably in cotton. This can maybe be found in the children’s department. Alternatively, you can buy a waist-length cotton coat and then tuck in the bottom part to an empire waistline. Cropped military style jackets for ladies have been in fashion recently (as well as in Regency times!) which is good news because it means that you can find them in charity shops now!
Shawls in the form of large scarves, preferably light and in a not too bright paisley pattern or in neutral or soft colours.
Old brooches, necklaces or hair things can often be found in charity shops. Contemporary shops also sometimes have older-looking accessories. Fans can be harder to find and reticules can be almost impossible. However, you can use an old souvenir fan and it is very easy to sew your own reticule.
Gloves can sometimes be found in thrift shops but it is usually easier to buy these from a fancy dress store or online. Just make sure to buy matte gloves rather than shiny ones.
Light pink or white tights can be bought from dance shops or online.
Shoes could be ballerina shoes in a neutral colour, flat shoes with laces or open kitten heels.