Elizabeth Bennet, La Belle Assemblée, and Early 19th Century Fashion

“Votaries and observers of fashion, but not her slaves, we follow her through her versatile path; catch her varied attractions, and present her changes to our readers as they pass before us in gay succession.” La Belle Assemblée, 1812.

Portrait of Elizabeth, Mrs Horsley Palmer, by Thomas Lawrence, early 19th century.
Portrait of Elizabeth, Mrs Horsley Palmer, by Thomas Lawrence, early 19th century.

Somehow, I cannot picture Elizabeth Bennet reclining on the drawing room sofa, idly flipping through the pages of the latest issue of La Belle Assemblée or The Lady’s Magazine.  And yet, if she had indulged in a bit of frivolous fashion magazine perusal, what advice might she have read there and what images might she have seen?

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813.  The story itself begins in the year 1811 and concludes at the close of 1812.  In June of 1812, Elizabeth Bennet is home at Longbourn, anxiously awaiting the July arrival of her aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, who are to take her travelling in Derbyshire.  Whenever Mrs. Gardiner visits Longbourn, she delivers to her country relatives “an account of the present fashions” in London.

London Fashionable Walking Dresses, The Lady's Magazine, 1812.
London Fashionable Walking Dresses, The Lady’s Magazine, 1812.

According to La Belle Assemblée, in June of 1812, winter garments such as the pelisse had given way to the spencer, the mantilla, and the scarf shawl.  Of these, it was the spencer jacket that was most in favor for walking.  The magazine states that:

“The most prevailing colour for spensers [sic] is pink shot with blue, and trimmed round the waist with a white gossamer kind of fringe.”

As for gowns, they were much the same as the previous months.  White was the general color for “both domestic and outdoor costume” and the fabrics consisted of:

“French cambrics or India muslins for half-dress; and coloured muslins, crapes, Opera nets, gossamer satins, and French sarsnets, for evening parties.”

Morning Dress, 1812.
Morning Dress, 1812.

A scarf or a shawl was a must have for dinner and dress parties.  Indeed, La Belle Assemblée declares it “indispensable.”  Such shawls were made of “black or white lace” or “fancifully worked in colors.”  They were worn “falling carelessly from the shoulders.”  An alternate style was the small white lace mantle, which was worn fastened to each shoulder “with a pearl brooch.”  The magazine advises that:

“…this kind of drapery hanging from the back of the shoulders is of peculiar advantage to a short figure, and looks graceful on any one.”

Shoes were an important consideration for any fashion conscious lady and La Belle Assemblée does not overlook them.  Addressing themselves to walking boots, half-boots, Grecian sandals, and Italian slippers, they include the following fashion advice:

“For walking, half-boots of nankeen, pale blue jersey, grey kid, fringed round the top, and laced behind, are much in favour, and for familiar visits, the Grecian sandal of black or very dark silk or satin, laced and bound with a very opposite light colour, has lately been much adopted, while, for full dress, the elegant Italian slipper, either of white satin, fringed with gold or silver; pale blue satin without fringe, and lilac, with white bugle roses, seems to retain an unrivalled pre-eminence.”

London Fashionable Full Dress, The Lady's Magazine, September 1812.
London Fashionable Full Dress, The Lady’s Magazine, September 1812.

The June style of bonnet did not require a great deal of alteration from the styles of previous months.  Bonnets were now worn “bent over the forehead” and the flower trimmings were transferred from “beneath to the front, or round the crown of the bonnet.”  The most popular ornament was, of course, a long white ostrich feather.  With so little required to trim out a bonnet in the latest mode, it is no wonder that even someone as silly as Lydia Bennet could easily pull an unsatisfactory bonnet to pieces and “make it up” new again.

Portrait of Henriette de Verninac by Jacques-Louis David, 1799. (Possibly the origin of 'Hair a la Henriette.')
Portrait of Henriette de Verninac
by Jacques-Louis David, 1799.
(Possible origin of hair ‘a-la-Henriette of France.’)

Amongst all the information about spencers, gowns, bonnets, and shoes, one might almost forget the importance of a lady’s coiffure.  Never fear!  La Belle Assemblée has words of wisdom on that topic as well, reporting that:

“The dressing and disposing the hair yet maintains its favour and preference in the style adopted by King Charles’s beauties, and seems peculiarly suited to the English countenance.  Flowers in half-dress and ostrich feathers in full dress, are now universally adopted.”

Morning Dress, 1812.
Morning Dress, 1812.

It is doubtful whether the Bennet girls had any fine jewelry to speak of, though various film and television adaptations do show them with simple jeweled crosses round their necks.  La Belle Assemblée does not address these sorts of ornaments, confining their remarks to the following:

“In jewellery, pearls, amethysts, sapphires, aquamarine, and agate, have taken place of gems of more ardent and refulgent appearance; large oval pieces of fine Macoa, or Egyptian pebbles, set at short distances, and relieved by spaces of gold chain, form a costly and elegant article for the neck.”

Those of you who are fond of Mary Bennet will be pleased to know that eyeglass wearers were not forgotten.  The magazine states that:

“Eye-glasses also, set round with pearl, are a very fashionable ornament.”

This broad advice for June of 1812 concludes by listing the favorite colors of the month, which are blue, jonquil, Pomona, and pale willow green.  A very pretty palette for any lady to work with when choosing her fabrics.  But how to put all of this advice together?  What type of gown with what type of bonnet?  And what color shoes?  And where to place your jewelry or your ostrich feather?  The early 19th century lady need not despair, for within the pages of La Belle Assemblée lie images and detailed descriptions of beautiful ensembles for day or evening.

Evening Dress, La Belle Assemblée, June 1812.
Evening Dress, La Belle Assemblée, June 1812.

The above color image of an evening dress is described as follows:

“A robe of Imperial blue sarsnet, shot with white, with a demi train, ornamented with fine French lace down each side the front and round the bottom, the trimming surmounted by a white satin ribband; the robe left open a small space down the front, and fastened with clasps of sapphire and pearl or a white satin slip petticoat: short fancy sleeves to correspond with the ornaments of the robe.  Parisian cap made open, formed of rows of fine lace and strings of pearl, the hair dressed a-la-Henriette of France, appearing between, and much separated  on the forehead.  Pearl necklace, and hoop earrings of the same.  Scarf shawl in twisted drapery of fine white lace.  White kid gloves and fan of ivory, ornamented with gold.  Slippers the same colour as the robe, with white rosettes.”

Fashion articles and magazines of the past can tell us a great deal about an era.  Whether you are a reader trying to better picture the setting of one of your favorite novels or you are a writer attempting to accurately describe the trimmings on a pelisse or the flounces on a gown, I encourage you to have a look through The Lady’s Magazine or La Belle Assemblée.  Elizabeth Bennet might never have looked through their pages herself, but the influence of London fashion was felt everywhere – even in the smallest corners of the 19th century English countryside.  And yes, even at Longbourn.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Donald Gray.  Norton Critical Editions.  3rd ed.  New York: Norton, 2002.

La Belle Assemblée. Vol. 5. London: J. Bell, 1812.

The Lady’s Magazine. 1812. Public domain images from The Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


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33 Comments on "Elizabeth Bennet, La Belle Assemblée, and Early 19th Century Fashion"

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nmayer2015
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That evening dress is ugly with what looks like a ladder going up the front.
I wonder about a fabric that is pink shot with blue– a taffeta?
Will have to start collecting more descriptions of clothes, and not just the illustrations.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I think it must be taffeta, Nancy. Or perhaps sarsnet? And yes. The evening dress is certainly very busy!

Sarah Waldock
Guest
It was at the end of 1812 that hems rose slightly and skirts widened so it was easier to walk – and dance – without going head over tip over your own hem. 1810-1813 seems to have been a period of quite a lot of experimentation in fashion, heavily influenced too by the discoveries in Egypt and the introduction of such colours as ‘egyptian brown’ [1809]. Celestial Blue, a light bright blue, and Marie Louise, a blueish light turquoise, were new colours in 1812 and were popular fashion colours. Primrose and Evening Primrose, a slightly darker colour of primrose from… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

I love the names of some of the colors. And they really did seem to be experimenting a lot with fashion in this span of years. There are some images of gowns that are so busy it is hard to imagine anyone wearing them. But then, if you look at a fashion magazine today, the images of something off the runway are very different from the watered down version that the general public eventually wears. I suspect it was the same back then.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

and to some extent it also depends on the magazine; on the whole, Belle Assemblee is busier and fussier than Ackermann’s.

Vickie
Guest

Mimi – thank you for opening the door for us on these beautiful pieces – I love to see the fashions from this era.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for commenting, Vickie! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article.

Cornelis
Guest
Your opening remarks about Elizabeth Bennet are incisive. With her father’s aversion for Town and her mother’s ineptitude Elizabeth will not only not have had a coming out, but her exposure to prevailing fashions were tenuous at best. Her marriage to a man of Darcy’s stature in wealth and connections in London is fraught with difficulties – for several years, at least. Dress, adornment and deportment must have been traumatic elements for a girl such as she suddenly exposed to London society. And it is no good saying she is resourceful and clever, or has sufficient wit to hold her… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Very good points, Cornelis! And I think that London ladies the likes of Mr. Bingley’s sisters would not be so forgiving of fashion mistakes. It is really too bad for Elizabeth since she has no saavy relative to guide her in this area. Perhaps Mrs. Gardiner might, but then Mrs. Gardiner is not exactly a member of The Beau Monde!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

The subsequent thawing of Catherine de Bourgh implied by Austen might have smoothed her way somewhat in society, but I can’t see Elizabeth liking town much either.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I shudder to think what shopping for clothes with Lady Catherine would be like.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

Lud, I feel a palpitation coming on at the very thought. I need to collapse on a Recamier and fan myself vigorously

Mimi Matthews
Guest

No doubt exactly how Lady Catherine’s own daughter feels from having to live with such a dragon!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I’ve always felt sorry for Anne. I made some deductions about her when I wrote ‘Vanities and Vexations’ and decided that she probably had had rheumatic fever leaving her with a heart murmur and bad teeth [it leaches the calcium]. Junketting around the country in her mad mama’s wake can’t have been fun.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’ve felt sorry for Anne, too. She seems a drab little person imprisoned in her mother’s shadow. And there’s no release in sight. Lady Catherine seems like one of those people who will outlive everyone.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I gave her a boyfriend and a wild and slightly smutty charades competition [when charades were a kind of riddle cum acrostic]. Oh it was such a scene when she defied her mother for the first time!

Angelyn
Guest

Oh, for a bit of puce.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

A vastly underrated color!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

But a bit passé at the time…

karma2015
Guest
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for the reblog :)

monicadescalzi
Guest
I’m quite in awe of your knowledge, ladies – couldn’t possibly comment on any gowns, accessories, or colours… I agree that Lizzy Bennet doesn’t seem the kind who would avidly peruse these magazines: a fashion-conscious girl wouldn’t show up at Netherfield in a petticoat “six inches deep in mud.” :) The Bingley sisters might, though, as Mrs Bennet, who tried as best she could to keep abreast of the latest trends, has “never seen anything more elegant than their dresses.” She would probably have given us a full report on Mrs Hurst’s gown if Mr Bennet hadn’t “protested against any… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for commenting, Monica. I totally agree with you. I think that Elizabeth Bennet, more than almost any other character in classic English literature, would have appreciated the element of the ridiculous in fashion magazine descriptions of the latest trends. Now, Lydia, on the other hand… :)

monicadescalzi
Guest
Lydia takes after her mother, is portrayed as “vain”, and seems quite interested in clothes. On her wedding day she’s anxious to know whether the groom will turn up in a blue coat. In the note she writes to Mrs Forster to communicate her elopement, she doesn’t forget “a great slit in my worked muslin gown” that needs mending. She even takes part in a cross-dressing prank. She patronises the Meryton milliners and might be a bit of a shopaholic, as she buys the bonnet you mention in the post only to pull it to pieces as soon as she… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Very good points about Lydia, Monica. I think you are right. Fashion in some respects may be frivolous, but there is still a degree of knowledge and skill involved in executing it. Knowledge and skill which Lydia likely does not have.

Sarah Waldock
Guest
Something that occurs to me with regards to Lydia’s impatience about the fashion descriptions Lizzie reads out – the wording was repeated in the ‘morning post’ an ordinary London newspaper which would not have been anything like as expensive as the ‘Belle Assemblee’ ‘Ackermann’s Repository’ or ‘The Mirror of Fashion’; but of course it had no pictures! and the fashion news is jammed into the body of the text, closely printed and for someone who might even be too lazy to have learned to read terribly fluently, not easy to extract. [I kept coming across it when doing my wedding… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

The pictures do make a huge difference. And if the wording in the descriptions was not as attractive as in the popular fashion magazines of the day, I can see how Lydia might fail to be interested in it.

monicadescalzi
Guest
Of all the Austen characters I can remember, I think Mrs Allen is perhaps the one who would have browsed most gladly through La Belle Assemblée or The Lady’s Magazine. “Dress was her passion. She had a most harmless delight in being fine; and our heroine’s [Catherine Morland’s] entrée into life could not take place till after three or four days had been spent in learning what was mostly worn, and her chaperone [Mrs Allen] was provided with a dress of the newest fashion.” She may have had no “genius” or “accomplishment”, and possessed “a trifling turn of mind,” but… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Absolutely! It brings to mind Henry Tilney the first time he meets Mrs. Allen and Catherine in Bath. He talks about the price of muslin, which is of particular interest to Mrs. Allen. “Men commonly take so little notice of those things,” said she; “I can never get Mr. Allen to know one of my gowns from another. You must be a great comfort to your sister, sir.”

suzanlauder
Guest

This is a lovely complement to my series, “The Thrift Shop Regency Costume Experiment.” http://suzanlauder.merytonpress.com/category/the-thrift-shop-regency-costume-experiment/ I’m going to add this page to a few overview sites in a post from June. The main series ended in June, but I’m continuing with bonus material all summer. I think that final gown would look much prettier in real life: the description says the “ladder” is sapphires (the squares on the sides) and pearls (the strings between them). Can you imagine how that looked as she walked through the ballroom in candlelight? Stunning!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Suzan! Thanks for including it in your links :) I think you’re right about the final gown. The fact that these gowns would have been seen in candlelight is an important fact to remember. The plain, unembellished gown – which might seem more elegant to us today – wouldn’t have fared as well in a ballroom lit by candlelight.

Sarah Waldock
Guest
Suzan, I was going to make a comment on your blog, but alas, I was forbidden! I love the reticules, what a clever idea! As to a basic frock, I’ve been looking at ‘The 1 for U’ nightdresses on Amazon, dearer than a thrift shop but close to perfect with only a few tweaks needed – an added flounce on the shorter ones, ribbons on the plain short sleeve to ruck it [or some sewing to ruche it instead] or a ribbon drawstring to make a small puff. The longsleeved one is almost ready to walk out in as a… Read more »
suzanlauder
Guest

Darn! I was having problems with replies not working in the past, but I thought we had it fixed. I’ll let the wonderwoman of the MP web site know!

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