Whatever shall I wear?!
It’s the question women have been asking themselves on a daily basis since Adam, Eve and the fig leaves. With my closet full of clothes, Rick is constantly flummoxed when I say, “I have nothing to wear!”
But this time, I really didn’t. When Rachel & I got the green light for our trip to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, we immediately had to scramble to find appropriate attire. Despite a dedicated costume closet and an undying affection for Jane, I didn’t have a single item that could pass for Regency era.
My hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., is known for many things, but costume shops with 1800s English lady attire isn’t one of them. I started researching online, watching Austen adaptations and digging around on Etsy, and came up rather more confused than when I started.
After much trial and error, here are some tips to help you figure out what to wear to the Jane Austen Festival!
Sew, Rent or Buy Ready-to-Wear
Determining what to wear to the Jane Austen Festival can be tricky puzzle.
You have a couple of options for sourcing your ensemble, and they’re all equally popular and equally acceptable. Mostly, it just depends on your budget and how much time you have to plan.
One way to ensure the exact color and style you like is to have a dress custom made. Of course you can whip one up yourself if you’re into that sort of thing, but I am not, so we hired a local seamstress and picked a popular pattern from Sense & Sensibility Patterns, the Elegant Lady’s Closet. Rachel went for a scoop neck empire waist and I opted for an empire wrap dress.
Price: ~$125 each. (If you do have a dress custom made, you still have to track down accessories, so keep that in mind when budgeting.)
My sister’s dress turned out perfectly, but when you’re a 10-foot-tall stunning model, everything looks good. When you’re short and dowdy to begin with, and just 10 days post abdominal surgery, it certainly feels like nothing fits right. (And anything that remotely resembles a hospital gown, which my wrap dress did, made me nauseous.) The back looked cute, but I just couldn’t make the front work.
Fortunately, I had my dress in hand a week before departure, which gave me just enough time to move on to Plan B: RENTAL COSTUME! I placed an order just a few days before our arrival. They only had one option left in my size, so I went with it.
My rental came with a Spencer jacket, a bonnet and a dress (~$70), and I added a pink parasol (~$20), too, just for fun.
If I were to do it all over again, I would probably choose the rental option and be sure to reserve my costume well in advance. For our adventures at the Jane Austen Festival and Highclere Castle, we used two companies in the UK – Costume Hire Direct & Complete Costumes – who not only have tons of options in tons of sizes from every imaginable era, but they’ll also ship directly to your hotel (and returns are just as easy).
Even though we ordered a few costumes and accessories, we also brought a lot with us, and our suitcases were cumbersome on trains and the Tube. Next time I’d like to be able to arrive with much less luggage and just get all my outfits upon arrival at the hotel.
For the no-frills Austenite, costume rental is definitely the easiest way to go. Just make sure to note the differences in UK sizes vs. US. That will make a big difference in how your costume fits!
Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.
— Jane Austen
I didn’t have time to do this myself, but lots of festival attendees order from Etsy. It’s not too early to start sourcing dresses and accessories right now if you’re thinking about attending in September. Check out The Tailorette Shop, The Timeless Closet and Regency Regalia for custom dresses, bonnets and reticules. Dresses can run anywhere from $100-$500 or more, depending on the level of historical accuracy, type of fabric and detail.
One man’s style must not be the rule of another’s.
Accessories are the most fun way to jazz up your photos at the Royal Crescent, Pump Room and Assembly Rooms. Much like they do today, accessories pull the whole thing together.
If you don’t have time to gather everything you need before arrival, you’re in luck! Immediately following the Promenade that kicks off the Festival, there’s a Fayre with everything a Regency gal could need, from dresses and gloves to feathers, shoes and bonnets. The Jane Austen Centre gift shop has reticules and fans, too, if you require more selection. It won’t help you if you want to participate in the Promenade (which you totally should – it’s fun!), but it’s certainly the best way to add to your Regency collection.
You know I’m a big fan of DIY, and since we couldn’t find decent bonnets on a limited time, we made our own with $7 clearance hats from JC Penney, a few spools of ribbon, a hot glue gun. Yes, we packed all that in addition to multiple costumes and accessories. No wonder we were so tired trekking from train station to train station!
There are several Jane Austen Festivals around the world, but the one in Bath is really the only one where you can dine, walk and dance in Jane’s footsteps.
I loved how it wasn’t just women taking part in the festivities. Men came out, perhaps not in droves, but in enthusiastic numbers nonetheless. And they looked so dapper!
Rachel and I had a good laugh trying to devise a plan to get Rick and our brother Alex to attend. I just know they’d rock some breeches and buckle shoes.
(Want to know more about things to do in Bath? Check out my latest article for Travelocity!)
To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain for the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.
— Jane Austen
A few tips on what to wear to the Jane Austen Festival:
- I loved having a Spencer jacket. It made my whole outfit & it was nice to have when it got windy during the Promenade around town.
- There’s such a variety of bonnets, really anything will do. Get creative!
- Don’t forget to think about what sort of bag you’ll carry around. Nothing spoils the effort you put into your look more than a clunky modern bag.
- Shoes were the easiest place to cut corners. Our dresses were so long, you couldn’t see our shoes anyhow, so we opted for comfy Tieks flats. Unfortunately the rain and mud just about destroyed them, but on a dry day they would’ve done the job well.
I also loved how there were all levels of commitment to the costume and time period. From rented top-to-bottom to hand-sewn without machines, every level of fan was present and beginners are just as welcome as the pros. We never felt underdressed or out of place, even with our Tieks, last-minute homemade reticule and gasp! Modern underpants. Rather than being cliquey or snooty, the vibe of the whole event was giddy excitement. Everyone complimented each another on costumes, purses, hats, gloves, etc.
It was like showing up and finding out you’ve been in this fun sorority all along.
Sadly we were only there one day, and that was just long enough for the Promenade and the Country Dance. We wore the same outfits morning and night, taking them off to hand wash the hems that were caked in mud from the day’s exertions.
Next year, we’ll definitely stay several days, and plan to stay for the fancy ball at the end of the week. Now… I must start shopping for a ball gown!
The wildest part for me was that no matter where we went in our Regency attire, we were followed, and even chased, by tourists asking, “What is this? What are you?”
I, a little jet-lagged and hangry, replied, “It’s an 1800s vampire convention.”
Rachel was much more obliging than I was and was happy to pose for photos. (I think it’s obvious by now that she’s the Jane and I’m the Lizzie.)
I can’t imagine how many Japanese travelers on tour buses have photos of Rae & I in our Regency attire – money well spent, I’d say!
So tell me, would you like to go to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath?
My trip was in partnership with Visit Britain. All #OMGB moments, opinions and wardrobe malfunctions are my own. Special thanks to Visit Bath and the Jane Austen Festival for making this Janeite’s dreams come true. Images on this page are copyrighted and may not be used without written permission.