I had no idea that I had a hidden love of Georgian and Regency dresses but it turns out I have a little bit of Jane Austen's characters in me!
I discovered this when I visited the Fashion Museum, Bath this week, something I've wanted to do for ages. I had planned to go over the Christmas holidays. Then I got the lurgy and could barely get IN the bath, never mind getting TO Bath! So, on a gorgeous sunny Monday morning in March I took the train from Exeter to Bath, meandered through the beautiful honey-stoned streets and spent 2 hours in the museum.
The museum is in the magnificent Assembly Rooms, which were opened in 1771. Known as the New or Upper Rooms, they were purpose-built for an 18th-century form of entertainment called an 'assembly'. A large number of guests met together to dance, drink tea, play cards and listen to music - or just walk about. As I walked through the rooms to the café, I could just imagine 18th-century ladies (why are they always called ladies in that era?) demurely promenading through the rooms.
The museum holds a world-class collection of historic fashionable dress all showing different aspects of the history of fashion. They are currently showing A History of Fashion in 100 Items, a major exhibition celebrating fashion from the 1600s to the present day. The exhibition showcases 100 star objects drawn from the Fashion Museum’s collection and references moments in history, as well as more personal stories. There’s also a fabulous temporary exhibition called Royal Women which looks at 4 generations of royal women, none of whom were a monarch, exploring how their fashion choices created powerful visual messages. And then there’s the dress up room!!!
I audio-guided my way through the exhibitions (have I just created a new verb?) and I'll admit it - I loved my Audioguide way more than I ought to. I also found it way more straightforward to use than the group of older ladies who reminded me of my Gran’s Thursday Circle she attended at the church with her scone ladies! I always find listening to commentary more entertaining than reading exhibit labels in a museum and seem to take in so much more. It's always a bit disconcerting though when you’re smiling broadly at things that nobody else can hear at that same moment. I’m glad I visited the museum on my own too – any companion would have been ignored for the majority of the visit – they couldn’t possibly have known as much as Miss Audioguide and quite frankly – I was there for the facts!
One of the highlights for me were the fabrics. So sumptuous. The detail and embellishments on the garments are things we just don’t see so much of today. They must have turned heads when paraded in the Bath social scene of the early 1800s though. A duck egg blue quilted petticoat, yes quilted, and embroidered with thistles. Now that’s how to transition your summer wardrobe into winter! The stays, the corsets, the boning, the crinolines, the hoops, the bustles: the departure from these restrictive undergarments mirrored the emancipation of women in the early 1800s. The Regency period with its empire line and softer garments is known to us all through Jane Austen TV adaptations.
Colours changed through time from vibrant to muted and back to vibrant again. Shapes changed from structured to diaphanous to form-fitting again. Waistlines moved up and down. But in all cases, they mirrored society and told a story.
The Royal dresses, as you’d expect, were magnificent – I’m definitely a gown kind of girl! From Princess Alexandra, Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret. This exhibition examines how the roles these royal figures played influenced their choice of dress. Such gorgeous, and once again, sumptuous frocks, on display. Miss Audioguide was so interesting here. What did allegiance to an individual designer mean - pick a French designer and what does that say of one’s patriotism? A British designer and one is supporting the realm?
Fascinating. And how the dresses were altered over time to suit the individual and keep up with changing fashions. My favourites were Princess Margaret’s dresses – now those are dresses I’d like to try on. Sophie, Countess of Wessex’s – less so! What am I saying - I’d try them all on if I could!!!
And then I found the dress up room and this is really where I had my fun! Regency, Georgian and Victorian fashions! There are coats and hats, dresses and bonnets for all ages just crying out to be tried on! They’ve even used a backdrop of Bath's Royal Crescent so you can really feel part of the era.
What struck me most was this - these dresses are heavy! So heavy! The weight definitely helps them to hang really well and you can see just how much fabric there is to this one. But oh my goodness, I’m not surprised that (a) they didn’t need central heating – it’s so hot under there! And (b) they fainted at the drop of a bonnet – it’s so hot under there!
But did I hold myself differently in a Georgian or Regency outfit? Did a straw bonnet make me tilt my head in a Miss Bennett stylee? Did I wish I hadn’t misplaced my kidskin gloves this very morn? You betcha I did! And the shoes – so small and narrow! Things of design beauty I’m sure but obviously designed for ladies who did a lot of standing still!
I know that clothes can alter our mood, how we feel and how we behave. However, until now I’d only worn modern day clothes and responded to them with my modern day manners, attitudes, airs and graces. I put on these historic dresses and bonnets and was immediately transported back 200 years. I would stroll gaily (not run, nor do Body Pump or Pilates). I would speak when spoken to (although my clothes are talking even when I am silent). I would flutter my eyelashes at handsome young bachelors (no change there!). I felt I was accomplished in the pianoforte and charades. I was immediately inferior – I was the lesser sex and could expect men, or until then my parents, to provide everything for me. The dress said I have fewer choices, less independence. Let’s face it - I couldn’t even get dressed on my own!
But still, there are the romantic notions of taking the waters and spending the season in Bath. Stepping out into society in the latest fashions. Because fashion and adornment allowed women (they’ve become women now) to express themselves and display their personality. And it still does. A Honiton lace trim on a sleeve. A virginal white flowing muslin gown. A cloak with azure embroidery. A nod to the latest hemline, shape or fabric. That was about as far as women could get at that time towards “This is me”. I wonder though…I’ll bet they felt the same thrill that we feel today when we put on something new, giving us pure joy and making us smile.
If you’re in Bath and have a couple of hours to spare I highly recommend visiting the Fashion Museum. But then I love fashion, I love a museum and I love Bath. Nonetheless, even if you go for nothing more than the unadulterated childish pleasure of playing dress up – pay them a visit!
Now, Mr Darcy, why yes. We may take a turn around the lake if you please…..
Click here to find out more about Fashion Museum, Bath and plan your own fashion fun!
And if you want to have fun shopping for some frocks of your own then contact me through my Contact page to find out more about Personal Shopping Sessions.