The Jane Austen Festival Australia starts in just over a week. If this is your first time attending, and you’re last-minuting your wardrobe, here’s a quick guide with some hacks and suggestions.
Unlike some events overseas which aim for a high standard of historical accuracy, there aren’t any costume police at JAFA. The emphasis of the Festival is on enjoyment, not re-enactment. Costume is encouraged, not required, although people are asked to aim for at least an empire-style dress for the Saturday ball, or formal dress for the menfolk. However, it does add to the enjoyment to be dressed up, and those who’ve been coming for a few years have usually developed a wardrobe of garments and spend all weekend in costume. Don’t let a lack of wardrobe put you off – you’ll still enjoy yourself! – but if you have some time in the next week, here’s some ideas to help.
It is dashed hard to find a decent Regency tailor in Canberra. So for gentlemen who have yet to ascend to the family fortune and have a strict time and monetary budget, a pair of moleskins can approximate the spirit of Regency trousers or breeches. Add a white shirt and a waistcoat for day wear. For evening, particularly the Napoleonic Ball, formal dress is encouraged. Neat trousers, white shirt, and nice waistcoat are recommended as a minimum. A waistcoat with lapels is ideal, and can be accessorised with a long strip of fine cotton wrapped and tied as a cravat over a turned-up collar. If you can find a Mr. Darcy style gathered shirt, even better. It is not necessary to plunge into the lake nor wear it wet.
If you are handy with a needle and thread, and can find a knee-length, double-breasted woolen coat in an op shop, you could transform it to a Regency style by cutting and shaping the front panels to waist high, and cutting a slit in the back skirts. The fabric cut off from the front can be added to sleeves for cuffs, and to make pocket flaps. See this blog post at Fresh Frippery by Vivien Lee for more details about how she did this.
For those whose tailors are booked out for the Season, modern tail coats are a little later than our period, but may be easier to hire or borrow and are in the spirit of the evening. Alternatively, a dress kilt, jacket and jabot will be dashing and not out of place, and should also be easy to hire in Canberra. Or find a handy Scottish friend about your size.
(And in a side note, I can assure gentleman, as a former theatrical wardrobe mistress, that the two outfits that look splendid on any man, regardless of shape or size, are tailcoats and kilts. They are designed to accentuate your manly bearing.)
Should your wardrobe not be able to furnish any of the above, do not despair. A shirt and trousers, with a courteous manner, a genuine smile, and a gallant bow to the ladies you invite to dance will suffice to transform you into a veritable Mr Bingley.
Ladies – Dresses
Ladies, this is your chance to let your inner Elizabeth Bennet (or Jane or Lydia!) sparkle and shine. Regency fashions are feminine, graceful, and have a simple, understated beauty that provide a perfect style for you to be you.
Minimum: An evening dress for the Ball on the Saturday night is a recommended minimum. There are a few dresses available for hire, but these are limited. You could make your own, or raid the op-shop or hippy aunt’s wardrobe for vaguely empire-line frocks. Look for high-waisted dresses with a lightly-gathered skirt (so your skirts will swish as you dance). If the bodice is strappy, see if you can mock-up a simple bolero jacket out of a scarf or some complementary fabric to cover your shoulders, or shorten a blouse or shirt into a high-waisted spencer jacket.
If you can’t find something suitable, wear the softest, loveliest dress that you have. Skirts that move while you dance are always graceful.
If you’re making your own dress:
- Fabric options: Spotlight premium muslin, 5 metres @ $8 metre (you’ll need a petticoat with this fabric!); or a light cotton lawn. White is good, and perfect for evening wear. Yes, even if you’re mature, short and fluffy – see mine!
- Pattern options: The big pattern companies have some regency-style patterns, but I also recommend the more historically-accurate Sense & Sensibility patterns, which can be bought as e-patterns and downloaded. You can print them on your home computer, although it does involve taping multiple A4 sheets of paper together. The web site is http://sensibility.com
(Yes, I know there’s only just over a week before JAFA. That includes a weekend. Keen costumers will blithely decide to make several outfits in that time. But if you’re a beginner seamstress, focus on one. Or two. And aim to have everything but finishing touches done by Thursday, because you will have no time after that.)
Desirable: At least one day and one evening dress. A white dress with an open robe, and maybe a spencer or sleeveless evening spencer, provides multiple options. Check the op shops for jackets (day or evening) that can be cut down into spencers, or empire-line dresses that approximate the Regency look.
Really fun: At least two evening and two day dresses, with other elements to mix and match, so you can be comfortably in costume the whole 3 days.
Ultimate: (Aim for this in a year or two’s time!) Three day dresses and three evening dresses (four of each if you’re going to the Thursday events) with outer layers such as spencers, pelisses, shawls, cloak.
If you’re planning on dressing in costume all three (or four) days and nights, several shifts might be a good idea – with a fresh chemise, you can wear the same dress several times. Cotton voile or batiste from Spotlight or Lincraft is fine. A fine linen is even better – but proper linen, not ramie which is sometimes sold as linen.
Check op-shops for cotton nighties or petticoats. Or find an old cotton sheet and make a quick sleeveless shift with a scoop neckline – if you make it long, it can serve as a petticoat.
A cotton camisole can also work, or a light cotton t-shirt with the neck cut down low will absorb underarm perspiration.
Minimum: A firm, uplifting bra. You’re really aiming to lift and define the girls, so that the skirts fall softly from the higher waist line. You may find that shortening bra straps assists to achieve a well-defined bosom.
Desirable: Preferably period stays to get the right silhouette, with the bust lifted up. The Sense and Sensibility Short Stays pattern is a good place to start, unless you have a large cup size. You can easily lengthen the pattern to waist length, which is recommended for those who are soft and cuddly.
Another alternative is an underbust corset, teamed with an uplifting bra. This will give some support for softer figures, and help lift the girls, especially for those of us of a certain age, whose attributes are challenged by gravity. An inexpensive white one like this one from an Australian Ebay seller is available in many sizes and might even be purchased in time for the event (if you hurry), or check lingerie shops.
Note: For ladies who have had surgery, and who may find uplifting bras or stays impossible or painful, you may prefer the slightly earlier dress styles of the late 1780s and 1790s, which have a softer silhouette for the bust. The Chemise a la Reine style, for example, is perfectly relevant as it would have been familiar to Jane Austen in her earlier years. Some firm support around the torso is still recommended for soft figures, but this style does not require the high defined bosom. The Sense and Sensibility Portrait Dress downloadable e-pattern includes a pattern (view 3) of this style of gown.
Ultimate: (aim for this in a year or two!) a couple of different pairs of Regency stays – e.g. a lower-cut pair for evening wear, a higher one for day wear. Or Georgian style for the Friday, a Regency style for Saturday, and a Victorian style for Sunday . . .yes, you can get carried away!
Depending on your dress/es, you may be able to get by without a petticoat, but the silhouette will be much better with one. They’re not hard to make. A fine cotton sheet from the op shop works fine for petticoats. You don’t need frills and flounces until you’re doing 1820s, post Regency.
Ballet flats are probably the easiest approximation to Regency shoes, and they can be dressed up with ribbons etc. Or flat/very low heel lace-up boots for promenading in autumnal Canberra. For dancing, well-fitting comfortable ballet flats with ribbons around the ankle like ballet shoes to keep them on would be fine.
Stockings and gloves
White for stockings. Ideally, Regency stockings fastened above the knee with a garter – but I’ve been wearing white cotton knee-length socks from Kmart, which were something like $5 for 2 pairs. However, plenty of ladies at JAFA don’t wear stockings. No-one will be inspecting under your skirts.
Gloves would have been worn outdoors and for evening functions – kid during the day, silk at night. Keep your eye out at the op shop, as nice quality gloves do come up reasonably often. The cheap option (which doesn’t look as great, but we have to start somewhere) is gloves from the costume section of Spotties or the bargain shops.
Reticule – the bag in which Regency ladies carried their hankies, fan, coins, iPhone, car keys, etc. Usually a drawstring bag, often embroidered or decorated, not necessarily matching outfit. Check for Chinese embroidered bags in bargain shops, and add a tassel or three it you have time. Ultimate aim: a reticule for each outfit, day and evening.
Shawls – Rectangular shawls are best, the bigger the better. They can dress up an evening dress and provide protection against evening breezes should you step outside with a gentlemen, or on your carriage ride home.
Evening head-dress – caps, turbans, lace – heaps of ways to decorate one’s hair and head – or you can just use combs and pins to make a lovely hair style. Soft curls on your forehead and around your neck with an up-do are perfect.
Caps – Only a few people wear them at JAFA, so you don’t need to! But if you want to be historically accurate, married ladies and ladies over about 27 always wore a cap; linen or cotton, decorated with lace, ribbons etc – and they do look lovely! Caps were also worn under bonnets by everyone.
Bonnet – always worn outdoors in historical times (your complexion will thank you!) You can get an inexpensive cap brim from an op-shop of Kmart, and add a baggy circular piece of fabric, gathered in and stitched to the brim. Decorate with ribbons, feathers, and/or flowers. You can also cut down a straw hat: cut off the back part of the brim, bind it with ribbon to stop it scratching or fraying, then add decorations and a wide ribbon to draw the brim in closer around your face, and tie under the chin.
Fan – handy for crowded ballrooms, cooling flushed cheeks, and whispering secrets behind.
Parasol – optional but handy – sunshade rather than rain proof. (Unless it’s threatening rain!)
I hope this quick guide is helpful and inspirational! If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments.