The Age of Elegance: Jane Austens Hats

One of my favorite scenes from the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is when Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele are dressing their hats as Lucy tells Fanny that the gentleman she's secretly engaged to is, in fact, Fanny's brother Edward. After her confession, Fanny throws Lucy out of the house and she lands outside on her, shall we say, fanny. She's not good enough for Edward, obviously!


Miss Bingley's Feathered Head Wrap by Julie Turjoman, from Jane Austen Knits

Miss Jane's Hat by Heide Petroski, from Jane Austen Knits
Modified Mobcap by Elizabeth Cherry, from Jane Austen Knits

I love this scene for so many reasons, not the least of which is the millinery going on. The women are sitting at a table surrounded by feathers, ribbons, jewels, and all sorts of other materials. It looks like so much fun!

Here's an excerpt from Joanna Johnson's article, "Contemporary Regency-Era Millinery: An Interview with New York City-based Milliner Elizabeth Cherry" from the Summer 2012 issue of Jane Austen Knits, about the importance of hats to Jane and her characters:

Jane on Hats, Caps, Bonnets, and Veils

"I have changed my mind & changed the trimmings of my Cap this morning; they are now such as you suggested;—I felt as if I should not prosper if I strayed from your directions."

—Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra in a letter, 1798

In Regency England, it was proper for both married women and single women of advancing years to wear a cap indoors at all times. Jane donned her cap at the young age of twenty-three and found that the practice saved her much time in tending to her hairstyling. In the same year, she wrote in another letter to her sister, "I have made myself two or three caps to wear of evenings since I came home, and they save me a world of torment as to hair-dressing."

Women of all ages wouldn't consider venturing out-of-doors without a proper hat or bonnet, the subject of which is also found in Jane's letters. Current styles, prices, embellishments, and people-watching were common topics of her conversational pen. In a 1799 letter, she wrote, "Flowers are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing . . . Cherries & grapes about 5, I believe—but this is at some of the dearest shops;—My aunt has told me of a very cheap one near Walcot Church. . . ." As veils came into vogue, they were also speculated upon from Jane's carriage travels; "I watched for veils as we drove through the streets, and had the pleasure of seeing several upon vulgar heads."

Fondness for hats, trimmings, ribands (or ribbons), and window-shopping is a topic found throughout Jane's novels. A memorable quote from Pride and Prejudice pertains to Lydia's hat purchase just prior to meeting Elizabeth following her visit to the Collinses: "Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better." In Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe says to Catherine Morland, "Do you know, I saw the prettiest hat you can imagine, in a shop-window in Milsom Street just now,—very like yours, only with coquelicot ribands instead of green?" And then, a bit more urgently, "I am dying to show you my hat."

Jane Austen Knits, Summer 2012

I'm such a craft collector, I know I'd be knee deep in ribbons of every color and the most beautiful feathers I could find as I crafted my hats. I would probably do some lace knitting to make bands for the hats, too. Come to think of it, there's lots of knitting techniques that could be incorporated into millinery! Such fun to think about.

Learn more about millinery in Regency-era England, plus a bunch of other neat information (and patterns!) in Jane Austen Knits!


P.S. What's your favorite Jane Austen book to listen to or movie to watch while you're knitting? Leave a comment and let me know! Mine is the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice—with six-plus hours to knit to, what could be better?

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