Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

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.


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.

About Mimi Matthews

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper historical romances, including Fair as a Star, a Library Journal Best Romance of 2020; Gentleman Jim, a Kirkus Best Indie Romance of 2020; and The Work of Art, winner of the 2020 HOLT Medallion.

Mimi’s novels have received starred reviews in Library JournalPublishers Weekly, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats. 

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