Mr Bingley! – Dressing Hubby for Jane Austen week

With Bath’s Jane Austen Grand Regency Promenade coming up in September, I recalled the difficulty I had sourcing a gentleman’s outfit for the first time – and thought I would share a few tips over the coming weeks for all budding Mr Bingleys out there (no, not Darcy – everyone does Darcy!).

The first year hubby and I went to Bath for Jane Austen week was the year of the Guinness Book of Records attempt for the Most People dressed in Regency Costume in One Place (I think that is what it was called, anyway!) and it was pretty much a spur of the moment thing, with only a couple of months to make two outfits!  And I didn’t know the first thing about Regency attire.  So here are some tips to avoid the obvious (and not so obvious) mistakes which end up giving a bad joke shop flavour to your outfit.  We also had a tiny budget, so all these tips will help if your income is a bit less than £5000 per year…

  1. Avoid zips!  Nothing ruins a JA outfit quicker than a zipper – because they weren’t even invented then.  Patents for ‘Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure’ and such delights did not appear until the 1850s; well into Victoria’s reign, and even then were not pursued commercially until much later.  With my anti-zip radar focussed, I went on a search for men’s long boots – and found the Bargain Of The Year on Ebay; 3 sets of riding boots, one long and two jodhpur, all caked in dust and hard as rock, for £6.00.  My friend had a fit when she saw them, thinking them only fit for the dustbin, but a good wash, and about 10 coats of leather conditioner later, the smartest pair of hunting boots I’d ever seen were gleaming at me so violently I could have put a frame around them and used them for a mirror.  Then we had a teeny setback – hubby couldn’t get in them as they had moulded to the original rider’s legs, and by the look of it, he had spent at least 12 hours a day in the saddle.  So out came the steam wallpaper stripper, furious steaming of boots to soften the leather, and in with hubby’s foot, quick.  Took a few goes, and admittedly it was several hours before we could get him out of them again (and there is more to that story…) as they shrunk to fit!  Any long riding boot sans zip will do the job – but if you can get a pair with an oxblood coloured leather strip at the top, so much the better, as that was the type most in use at the time (the tasselled ‘Hessian’ boot is another alternative – more on that later).

    boots close up
    Long riding boots with no zip
  2. Decide on your leg wear – trousers or breeches?  Without going into a history of the trouser (more on that elsewhere!) the basic types considered wearable for the period would be knee-breeches (my personal favourite for sheer elegance) or a long trouser/pantaloons.  Any legwear should be as close-fitting as possible to look right (you don’t want to look like a sailor!) – and there are ways and means of achieving this.  One is to get very complicated and cut things on the bias – and you really need some dressmaking/tailoring skills to do this well.  The easier, and arguably cheaper alternative is to use a stretchy material.  I managed hubby’s breeches by mutilating his only pair of show jodhpurs – and I defend my decision on the basis that he only wore them to one show, anyway – I cut the lower legs away and used the material to produce the wide waistband behind the fall-front, which is absolutely essential, because, of course, there were no flies as we know them.  The fall-front was a buttoned flap which covered the front join of the trouser, and the gentleman’s modesty… If you are converting existing garments, just cut either side of the front seam to form the flap, and join some fabric onto the cut edge behind it, with some fastenings to keep the trouser together.  Whatever you use will be hidden by the flap. For the most authentic result you want a trouser that has a big baggy seat- without stretch fabrics, the poor old Georgians could only sit down if they had plenty of cloth in reserve.  But for a starter Regency outfit, it won’t matter, as your seat will be covered by your tailcoat.  And a gentleman never, ever took off his coat in public!
breeches close up
Knee-breeches converted from jodhpurs
behind the fall-front
Behind the fall-front (bulge is watch pocket – no time to do it properly!)

Finish off your knee-breeches with two or three buttons at the knee and a channel along the lower hem, through which you can thread a tape or ribbon to adjust the fit of the legs.  (This is something I omitted due to lack of time, and I had to sew the bottom of the legs together as the buttons weren’t strong enough on their own!)

These breeches have seen two years service in re-enacting now, and are still holding up.  I really think I ought to make a new pair…This time with a proper watch pocket!

I hope you have found these tips useful.  Next week’s post will feature the waistcoat and tailcoat of ‘Mr Bingley’s’ get-up!