Accessing Austen Part 2: What the Heck is a Pelisse?

One of the reasons Jane Austen is a favorite in Hollywood, in my opinion, is the clothes. Costume drama is always much more expensive than drama that requires no period clothing or sets, but cost hasn’t discouraged adaptations of Jane Austen’s works.

It is probably important for students to remember that until the advent of the sewing machine, all clothing had to be made by hand. In Emma references are made to a clothing shop, so doubtless many items could be bought from various clothiers; however, some items were often made at home, sewn by hand. Women were expected to know how to sew, and due to expense, they needed to be very good at repairing, refurbishing, or recycling clothing. I found two excellent articles, “Understanding Jane Austen’s Society” and “Regency England: Money Makes the World Go ‘Round,” that detail exactly how expensive clothing was in Jane Austen’s day, and with some detective work¹ (because the first article is aimed at an Australian audience), I discovered some interesting details:

  • Silk stockings — 12 shillings (£20.38 or $40.24 in today’s currency!)
  • Woolen stockings — 2 shillings 6 pence (£4.25 or $8.39)
  • A white silk handkerchief² — 6 shillings (£10.19 or $20.12)
  • A pair of gloves² — 4 shillings (£6.79 or $13.41)
  • A simple white dress — 5 shillings (£8.49 or $16.77)
  • A fan — 5 shillings (£8.49 or $16.77)
  • Simple shoes 6-11 shillings (£10.19-18.68 or $20.12-36.89)
  • Walking boots 2 pounds (£67.92 or $134.12)
  • Cotton fabric — 1 shilling per yard (£1.70 or $3.36)
  • Enough cotton fabric for a dress — 6 shillings ($20.12)
  • Velveteen fabric — 2 shillings 10 pence (£4.81 or $9.50)
  • Enough silk fabric for a dress — 1 pound 6 shillings (£44.15 or $87.18)

Depending on the fabric, making a dress would be very expensive, and according to Pamela Whalan (author of the first article), purchasing a dress made by a dressmaker would be about twice as much as making one’s own. One would probably have to purchase items like hats, gloves, shoes, and stockings because they required more specialized knowledge to make. In an interesting article about silk stockings, I learned that stockings were created either by “hand knitters or those using a stocking frame. Frame knitters were the ‘professionals’ in the business and could turn out 10 pair a week. Hand knitters averaged only 6 pair of stockings per week.” The article includes an illustration of a stocking weaver using a frame to make stockings. Perhaps these statistics explain why they were so expensive.

There is no doubt that Austen refers to items of clothing with which students might not be familiar. Consider this a handy glossary for some of the clothing items to which Ms. Austen refers:

Bonnet: A cloth or straw hat tied under the chin worn by women or children (Merriam-Webster Online). See Bonnets: High Style in the Regency for different types.

Breeches: In the early Regency, breeches were pants worn at the knee (similar to Revolutionary War pictures of Washington, Franklin, and their fellows); later, the breeches became longer, eventually giving way to trousers similar to modern pants (see picture on bottom of post). Note: in England, “pants” are underwear and what Americans call “pants” are called trousers.

Chemise: Short-sleeved undergarment for women.³

Corset (also known as Stays): Female undergarments used for support and slimming purposes; unlike their future counterparts, Regency corsets were not overly constricting and were similar to modern brassieres. Worn over a chemise or shift.³

Cravat: A man’s band or scarf worn around the neck or a necktie; see picture on bottom of post (Merriam-Webster Online).

Drawers: In the late Regency period, women wore long pant-like undergarments called drawers (later on, bloomers). Drawers were cinched with a drawstring.

Dressing Gown: A kimono or robe-like garment worn over a nightgown or nightdress, usually in the morning before dressing.

Empire waist: This is the term we use to describe the high-waisted dresses and gowns worn by women during the Regency period. The waistline was sometimes as high as just under the bustline.

Full Dress: Women’s evening wear (i.e. what one might wear to a ball).³

Half Dress: Women’s afternoon wear.³

Mantle: A loose, sleeveless cloak-like garment worn as outerwear (Merriam-Webster Online).

Muslin: A sheer cotton material that became popular because it was easy to care for.

Nightshirt: Over-large shirt worn to bed by both men and women.

Parasol: Small umbrella-like shade carried by women to ward off sunlight and preserve the complexion; parasols would have been inappropriate for rain as their decoration would most likely be ruined and the materials would not have repelled water.

Pelerine: A woman’s narrow cape made of fabric or fur and usually with long ends hanging down in front (Merriam-Webster Online).

Jane Austen's pelisse

Pelisse: A dress-like overcoat that hung nearly to the hem of the skirt. The sleeves were close-fitting and long, and the collar was high. Pelisses were often trimmed with fur and lined with silk. Austen refers to pelisses in her novels Persuasion and Mansfield Park in addition to her personal letters. Left is a picture of Jane Austen’s own pelisse [via Hantsweb].

Petticoat: An underskirt worn much like a modern slip.

Reticule (also called a Ridicule): A small, handmade purse or bag, sometimes ornamented with tassels or beads. Reticules were fashioned from a variety of materials and sometimes had drawstrings. Austen mentions a reticule in her novel Emma.

Riding habit: Clothing worn for riding horses; see Riding Habits throughout History

Sarsenet (also Sarsnet or Sarcenet): A soft silk in plain or twill weaves or a garment made of such (Merriam-Webster Online). Austen mentions sarsenet in Northanger Abbey.

Shift: A slip-like undergarment that fell to the knee; sleeves were elbow-length.³

Jennifer Ehle wears a Spencer jacket in Pride and PrejudiceSpencer: A short jacket that fell to the raised waistline. Worn by both men and women, this jacket was a warmer weather jacket than the pelisse. To the right, Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet wears a Spencer jacket in a movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice [via The Jane Austen Centre].

Tailcoat: A man’s coat with tails similar to some types of tuxedo coats worn today. Tails on tailcoats are long and taper to a point. Tailcoats often fell to the waist in the front (see picture on bottom of post).

Train: Trailing fabric at the hem of a dress most often seen today in bridal gowns.

Undress (also known as Dishabille or Deshabille): Women’s day clothing.³

Waistcoat: A men’s vest, sometimes double-breasted, worn under the coat (see picture on bottom of post).

Walking Dress: Clothing worn for walking, also called Promenade Dress. Walking dress included a bonnet or head covering of some kind, gloves, and some type of wrap or outer garment (a pelisse or spencer, for example).³

Here is an example of typical men’s dress in the Regency period (Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice):

Footnotes:

  1. Tools I used to figure out cost equivalents are a currency converter set at 1810 (UK National Archives) and a Google currency converter from British pounds to American dollars.
  2. According to the article, Jane Austen herself actually paid 6 shillings for a handkerchief and 4 shillings for gloves and mentions it in letters dated from 1813.
  3. Regency Fashion” at the Jane Austen Centre.

This post is the second in a series on teaching Jane Austen’s novels.

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One thought on “Accessing Austen Part 2: What the Heck is a Pelisse?

  1. Wow, $40.00 for silk stocking. No wonder why they are mentioned with reverence in many novels! I wonder what a new pair would cost today if they were available retail? $100.00?

    Thanks, Laurel Ann

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