Dressmaking and Fashion and What Jane Austen Said of Both, by Regina Jeffers

Dressmaking and Fashion and What Jane Austen Said of Both, by Regina Jeffers

A woman’s dressmaker, or “mantua maker,” as they were often known during the late Georgian era, were essentially paid to know what was the latest fashion trends. Most of us who are obsessed with the era, know something of fashion plates and La Belle Assemblée, but did you know many dressmakers had “fashion dolls” in their shop to allow customers to view the latest fashion in miniature. According to The Hidden Wardrobe, “Before Vogue and before The Sartorialist how on earth did Georgian ladies keep up with the fashions across the Channel?? Meet the Pandoras…the miniature dolls that were sent over from France in the eighteenth century to keep the Georgian fashion pack in the know about the latest trends, in every detail. These dolls were considered to be more accurate than word of mouth. They were invented as a means of conveying costume detail long before the technology of the woodcut and copperplate were available to create the fashion plate….”

Pandora from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Many fashionable women actually owned a pair of these dolls, one dressed grandly, which was known as the Grande Pandore, and one in en dèshabille, known as Petit Pandore. French fashions dolls could be found throughout Europe. Meanwhile, English fashion dolls were shipped to America. Paper dolls were also used to preview one’s choice of wardrobe or coiffure.

Before a new gown was commissioned or sewn, ladies were required to make decisions regarding the type of sleeve, flounces, a train, etc. Ladies sewing a garment at home did not have pattern books available to them. One might find full sized patterns of children’s garments, however. Most women took apart a gown they already owned and used it as the pattern. A dressmaker who hold a piece of paper or fabric up the lady and would shape and cut it. If the dressmaker used fabric in this process, that fabric would become the lining for the dress. A person could also purchase an item/dress to use as the pattern.

White gowns were elegant, but difficult to keep clean. Even colored fabrics could be problematic if not handled properly. The dye would wash away. Informal day wear could customarily be calico, chintz, etc. Evening wear was made from fine muslins, sarsenet, and satin.

A few dressmakers kept a stock of fabric in their shops, but as this was costly for them, this practice was rare. Customers, generally, provided their own fabric, which could be purchased at shop or from door-to-door peddlers, who sold fabric and drapery goods.


Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Jane Austen speaks often of fashion, dressmaking, and the like in her stories and in her letters. Check out these comments from her letters regarding fashion:

“We are busy making Edward’s shirts, and I proud to say I am the neatest worker of the party.” (1 September 1796)

“I have made myself two or three caps to wear of the evenings since I came home, and they save me a world of torment as to hair-dressing.” (1 December 1798)

“I believe I shall make my new gown like my robe, but the back of the latter is all in a piece with a tail, & will 7 yards enable me to copy it in that respect?” (18 December 1798)

“I cannot determine what to do about my new Gown; I wish such things were to be bought ready made.” (25 December 1798)

“But I will not be much longer libelled by the possession of my coarse spot, I shall turn it into a petticoat very soon.” (25 December 1798)

“It is to be a round gown, with a jacket and a frock front, to open at the side. The jacket is all in one with the body, and comes as far as the pocket holes –about half a quarter of a yard deep, I suppose, all the way round, cut off straight at the corners with a broad hem. No fulness appears either in the body or the flap, the back is quite plain–and the side equally so. The front is sloped round to the bosom and drawn in, and there is to be a frill of the same to put on occasionally when all ones handkerchiefs are dirty, which frill must fall back. She is to put two breadths and a half in the tail, and no gores–gores not being so much worn as they were. There is nothing new in the sleeves; they are to be plain, with a fulness of the same falling down and gathered up underneath. Low in the back behind, and a belt of the same.” (January 1799)

My cloak is come home, I like it very much, and can now exclaim with delight, like J. Bond at hay harvest, ‘This is what I have been looking for these three years.’ I saw some gauzes in a shop in Bath Street yesterday at only fourpence a yard, but they were not so good or so pretty as mine. Flowers are very much worn, and fruit is still more the thing. Elizabeth has a bunch of strawberries, and I have seen grapes, cherries, plums, and apricots. There are likewise almonds and raisins, French plums, and tamarinds at the grocers’, but I have never seen any of them in hats. A plum or areengage would cost three shillings; cherries and grapes about five, I believe, but this is at some of the dearest shops.” (2 June 1799)

“I am quite pleased with Martha and Mrs Lefroy for wanting the pattern of our Caps, but I am not well pleased with Your giving it to them.” (2 June 1799)

“Though you have given me unlimited powers concerning Your Sprig, I cannot determine what to do about it, & shall therefore in this & in every future letter continue to ask you for further directions.” (11 June 1799)

“Mary has likewise a message—. She will be much obliged to you if you can bring her the pattern of the Jacket & Trowsers, or whatever it is, that Eliz[abe]th’s boys wear when they are first put into breeches—; or if you could bring her an old suit itself, she would be very glad.” (22 January 1801)

“I shall want two new coloured gowns for the summer, for my pink one will not do more than clear me from Steventon. I shall not trouble you, however, to get more than one of them, and that is to be a plain brown cambric muslin, for morning wear; the other, which is to be a very pretty yellow and white cloud, I mean to buy in Bath. Buy two brown ones, if you please, and both of a length, but one longer than the other–it is for a tall woman. Seven yards for my mother, seven yards and a half for me; a dark brown, but the kind of brown is left to your own choice, and I had rather they were different as it will be always something to say, to dispute about, which is the prettiest. They must be cambric muslin.” (25 January 1801)

“Gores not being so much worn as they were…” (6 May 1801)

“I find my straw bonnet looking very much like other people’s, and quite as smart. Bonnets of cambric muslin on the plan of Lady Bridges’ are a good deal worn.” (6 May 1801)

“Mrs. Tilson’s remembrance gratifies me, & I will use her patterns if I can; but poor Woman! how can she be honestly breeding again! (1 October 1808)

“[H]ow is your blue gown?—Mine is all to pieces.—I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch.—There was four shillings thrown away.” (7 October 1808)

I am to be in Bombazeen & Crape, according to what we are told is universal here [Southampton]; & which agrees with Martha previous observation.” (15 October 1808)

“I can easily suppose that your [Cassandra’s] six weeks here will be fully occupied, were it only in lengthening the waist of your gowns.” (17 January 1809)

“Your letter came just in time to save my going to Remnants, & fit me for Christian’s where I bought Fanny’s dimity. I went the day before (Friday) to Laytons as I proposed, & got my Mother’s gown, 7 yds at 6/6.” (24 May 1813)

“I learnt from Mrs Tickar’s young Lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the Bosom up at all;—that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion. I was really glad to hear that they are not to be so much off the shoulders as they were.” (15 September 1813)

“I am glad you like our caps—but Fanny is out of conceit with hers already; she finds that she has been buying a new cap without having a new pattern, which is true enough.” (23 September 1813)

“Miss Chapman’s name is Laura & she had a double flounce to her gown. —You really must get some flounces. Are not some of your large stock of white morn[in]g gowns just in a happy state for a flounce, too short?” (14 October 1813)

“I have determined to trim my lilac sarsenet with black sattin ribbon just as my China Crape is.” (6 March 1814)

“I have been ruining myself in black sattin ribbon with a proper perl edge; & now I am trying to draw it up into kind of Roses, instead of putting it in plain double plaits.” (7 March 1814)

“I wear my gauze gown today, long sleeves & all; I shall see how they succeed, but as yet I have no reason to suppose long sleeves are allowable.” (9 March 1814)

“Mrs Tilson had long sleeves too, & she assured me that they are worn in the evening by many. I was glad to hear this.” (9 March 1814)

“I am amused by the present style of female dress; —the coloured petticoats with braces over the white Spencers & enormous Bonnets upon the full stretch, are quite entertaining. It seems to me a more marked change than one has lately seen. — Long sleeves appear universal, even as Dress, the Waists short, and as far as I have been able to judge, the Bosom covered. —I was at a little party last night at Mrs Latouche’s, where dress is a good deal attended to, & these are my observations from it. —Petticoats short & generally, tho’ not always, flounced. —The broad-straps belonging to the Gown or Boddice, which cross the front of the Waist, over white, have a pretty effect I think.” (2 September 1814)

Molland’s Circulating Library

Women in World History Review


For more of Austen’s wit and wisdom, I might suggest The Letters.

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Michelle H
Michelle H
January 31, 2022 12:50 PM

How highly prized those dolls are today, I imagine. That caught my interest immediately. What a lovely, lovely post, Regina. The Jane Austen quotes were a delight. The dressmaking information was fascinating. I knew some of these facts from watching period costume videos, but by far no knowledgeable expert. I can discern Georgian from Regency from Victorian, that’s about it. ??? I would love to make a Regency gown but I just don’t sew anymore. Between my eyes and my hands failing, I cannot do any of the needle crafts I loved so much. Sewing would be extremely handy though as all my pants need to be shortened. $$ But I miss embroidery and crocheting the most. I knitted too but never practiced enough to become proficient. However, the entire wide-encompassing fabric world, historical or contemporary gets my heart racing.

I took Home Ec too, but frustrating for me because I had already been sewing at home out of necessity for years before I got to Junior High. What I learned there was basically how to press and press and press every time I sewed one line of stitching. Quite boring, but I knew the value of pressing! It was eye-rolling at the time but now funny that we made aprons, the cute pleated at the waist kind that party hostesses would wear. I do and have worn aprons for years, but the very serviceable kind. The next year was sheath dresses. Which nobody wore because everyone at school recognized the pattern, ha! I am pretty sure once they got home they were either left in the closet or shortened to wear outside of school.

I found it interesting from the JA quotes that she and her sister had so many conversations about clothing. Not that surprising in that they sewed their own clothes at times, of course. When those quotes are pulled from the whole it does make it sound as if they were quite occupied with the subject…maybe that’s my unrealistic observation. My sister and I are eager to share some great find of ours. In her novels the characters that spend much of their time discussing fashions and whatever goes with that territory, are usually depicted as being shallow or snobbish, or perhaps in need of funds to look well. A joke on herself? Or an observation of excess? Thanks, Regina.

Mirta Ines Trupp
January 30, 2022 3:10 PM

Loved the insight shared in this post! I took Home Ec. too! I was terrible at it. The only useable item I managed to create was a “gym bag” with a draw string closure. It was a soft denim with a strawberry print (very 70s). I embroidered my initials with red thread…very sloppily indeed. LOL!

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
January 28, 2022 6:35 AM

Jane was quite engaging in her letters regarding fashion. I loved reading her thoughts and descriptions. But my favorite was her clever scold regarding the sharing of her pattern for the cloak with Martha and Mrs. Lefroy. That one had me laughing out loud! Thanks, as always, for the amazing post!

January 27, 2022 7:29 PM

How did I never hear about these dolls before. Thanks for sharing!

January 27, 2022 11:51 AM

I have found it quite surprising how much of a fabric they require. Seven yards is a lot! I wonder if all of it was intended to be used on a garment, or if the amount was intended as insurance to make sure there was enough.

Riana Everly
January 26, 2022 9:07 AM

Those excerpts from her letters are marvellous.
I cannot imagine sewing without a pattern, but I know many experienced seamstresses do just that. I’d love to see it being done.

Eliza Shearer
January 25, 2022 12:01 PM

Wonderful article and very useful compilation of Austen quotes on fashion – thanks for sharing, Regina!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
January 24, 2022 8:49 PM

I am in no way shape or form a seamstress!lol The fashions look beautiful and I bet the dolls did come in handy! I wish I could see better but I can only do small jobs.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
January 31, 2022 6:36 AM
Reply to  cindie snyder

That word was to be sew not see. Darn spell check!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
January 24, 2022 9:03 AM

My grandmother was an excellent seamstress. She could make anything. She also used newspapers to make her own patterns. Back in the day I took 4-years of Home Ec [that’s what we called it] and made my own clothes. When I couldn’t find a pattern design that I liked… I took several different patterns and created what I wanted. From one pattern I took a sleeve design and from another the dress, or the neckline… etc. That’s what you did when you couldn’t find ready-made clothing that fit. You made your own. It’s fun seeing how Jane wished for ready-made clothing. Oh, how she would marvel at the department stores of today. Or, she might say… nothing interests me… I’ll just make my own. LOL!!! Thanks for sharing this post with us. Blessings.

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