Posts Tagged ‘The Mirror of Graces’

I’ve owned Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades and Horrible Blunders by Josephine Ross for a number of years. It is a small book (133 pages), very pretty, and filled with charming illustrations like the one below painted by Henrietta Webb. The language is slightly old-fashioned, as if the book was written in the 19th century. The rules of etiquette and manners are lifted from Jane Austen’s novels, and thus we know they are authentic. The eight chapters are divided logically: Manners; Forms of Introduction; Calling and Conversation; Dancing and Dining; Dress and Taste; Matrimony; Family; and Servants.

Each chapter is divided into “rules”, which serve as guides to the rule of etiquette that will be discussed. For example, Rule 1. Do not be presumptuous in offering introduction. The example comes from the scene in Pride and Prejudice in which Lady Catherine de Bourgh charges angrily into the Bennet home and does not ask for an introduction to Mrs. Bennet, who, awkwardly, has not been granted permission to speak to that grand lady in her own house. Lady Catherine’s rudeness towards Elizabeth and her mother is exacerbated by her pointed cut and lack of manners!

The book would make a wonderful gift for a Jane Austen fan who would like more background into the Regency era. Someone like me, who owns several books of etiquette of the period, would find the lack of index irritating. It is hard to find the precise rules of etiquette quickly. If I must hunt and peck, I infinitely prefer consulting original sources: The Mirror of Graces (1811) by A Lady of Distinction and Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son, for instance.

But for clarifying exactly what Jane intended in terms of behavior, this book is a tiny gem. Josephine Ross, the author of Jane Austen: A Companion, knows whereof she speaks.  I give Jane Austen Guide to Good Manners four correct rules out of five.

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Cathleen Myers wrote this fascinating insight about A Lady of Distinction on the PEERS website. A Lady is the author of The Mirror of Graces, my favorite source for regency etiquette.

Who is the author? Possibly a governess or companion in a diplomat’s family. She has seen a number of foreign courts and discourses intelligently on Continental manners, but is too clearly impressed by foreign titles to be real English Society herself and her table of Precedence contains several glaring errors that reveal the gentlewoman on the edge of Society as opposed to the Real Lady. Still, this is valuable First Hand source material from an author who has actually observed and recorded a great deal about the manners and customs of two generations.

Unfortunately, there is no footnote or source material to this comment, which must be taken at face value. Ms. Meyers seems to know her stuff. According to a 2007 article in SF Gate, she is a board member of PEERS (Period Events and Entertainments Re-Creation Society), a San Francisco Bay area nonprofit that “throws a formal ball every first Saturday re-creating the dress, dances and entertainment of a specific time period, film or piece of literature.” Many of the members of this group are “expert or professional costumers and seamstresses who delight in studying the period details of suits and gowns. Others know an exceptional amount about where to purchase the wigs and find the corset that will give you the best silhouette.”

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Les modes anglais, 1810

Les Modes Anglais, 1810

A woman of principle and prudence must be consistent in the style and quality of her attire; she must be careful that her expenditure does not exceed the limits of her allowance. She must be aware, that it is not the girl who lavishes the most money on her apparel, that is the best arrayed. Frequent instances have I known, where young women with a little good taste, ingenuity, and economy, have maintained a much better appearance than ladies of three times their fortune. No treasury is large enough to supply indiscriminate profusion; and scarcely any purse is too scanty for the uses of life; when managed by a careful hand. – by a Lady of Distinction, The Mirror of Graces, 1811, p 69 -70

Some things never change. A little further on the Lady writes:

Hence, we see, that hardly any woman, however related, can have a right to independent, uncontroled expenditure; and that, to do her duty in every sense of the word, she must learn to understand and exercise the graces of economy. This quality will be a gem in her husband’s eyes; for, though most of the money-getting sex like to see their wives well-dressed, yet, trust me, my fair friends, they would rather owe that pleasure to your taste than to their pockets! (p 70-71)

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Invariably, when we think of Regency fashion, we think of the empire style and a white muslin gown, such as this lovely, modern example from A Fashionable Past. Please click on the link to learn the details about the creation of this gown and spencer jacket.

Muslin today is a much coarser cloth than it was two hundred years ago. The following quotes are from several sources, some from the web and one from A Frivolous Distinction by Penelope Byrde.

… muslin was a somewhat sheer, very soft, drapey cotton fabric, sometimes with a rather loose weave, and almost invariably white – closer to cambric, or a slightly softer, looser version of what is now sold as voile or fine batiste. Think of a cross between a fine handkerchief and cheesecloth, if you can! (Jessamyn’s Regency Page)

However well muslin might wash it was, nevertheless, not very practical to wear light-coloured gowns, as Mrs. Allen complained in Northanger Abbey: ‘open carriages are nasty things. A clean gown is not five minutes wear in them. You are splashed getting in and getting out.’ White gowns could only really be indulged in by those with means and leisure; they were certainly a mark of gentility but might also be considered unsuitable in certain circumstances. In May 1801 Jane Austen wrote from Bath of a Mrs and Miss Holder: ‘it is the fashion to think them both very detestable, but they are so civil, & their gowns looks so white and so nice (which by the bye my Aunt thinks an absurd pretension in this place) that I cannot utterly abhor them’. In Mansfield Park Mrs Norris commends a housekeeper who ‘turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns’. (Byrde, p 16-17)

A renewed interest in the styles of classical Greece and Rome began in the last half of the 18th century. This revival of classicism had a tremendous influence, transforming not only fashion but also architecture and the decorative arts in Europe and North America. The simpler clothing of ancient Greece and Rome inspired women’s fashions. For example, a dress called a chemise was adopted to give women a supposedly natural look and to replace the ostentatious and ornate styles that preceded the French Revolution. Fashion, Valerie Steele

The chemise—named after an undergarment it resembled—was made of white muslin, had a high waist just under the bosom, and hung fairly straight to resemble a classical column. No petticoats or hoops were worn underneath it, and many fashionable women stopped wearing corsets as well. Over time, the chemise revealed more and more of a woman’s body. Today this style of dress is commonly known as the Empire style because it was especially popular during the Consulate and empire of Napoleon I of France, which began in 1799.Encarta Encyclopedia

La Belle Assemblee, 1807

Where doubt may be about this or that hue being becoming or genteel (as it is very possible it may neither be the one nor the other), let the puzzled beauty leave both, and securely array herself in simple white. That primeval hue never offends, and frequently is the most graceful robe that youth and loveliness can wear. (The Mirror of Graces, 1811, p22)

Click here for more links about white gowns:

Click here for my other posts on fashion

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The Mirror of Graces, written by a Lady of Distinction in 1811, is a first-hand source that describes the dress and manners of ladies during the Regency Period. Some speculate that the book was written by a governess or lady’s companion who was a close observer of the upper classes, but not a member of it.

Here is her observation on “the detail of dress.”

The mantle, or cottage-cloak, should never be worn by females exceeding a moderate en bon point; and we should recommend their winter garbs, such as Russian pelisses and Turkish wraps, to be formed of double sarsenet, or fine Merina cloth, rather than velvets, which (except black) give an appearance of increased size to the wearer. In the adoption of furs, flat-ermine or fringe fur is better suited to the full-formed woman than swan’s down, fox, chinchilli, or sable; these are graceful for the more slender. Women of spare habit, and of a tall and elegant height, will derive considerable advantage from the full-flowing robe, mantle, and Roman tunic. The fur trimming, too, gives to them an appearance of roundness, which nature has denied;and to this description of person we can scarcely recommend an evending-dress more chaste, elegant and advantageous, than robes of white satin trimmed with swan’s-down, with draperies of silver or gossamer net.”

Find a listing of fabric and cloth on the Phrontistery site:

This is a rather odd category, listing 269 names of kinds of fabric and cloth. There is an enormous variety in fabrics, with many different national, historical and regional varieties. It is interesting to note, however, that almost all of the types of fabric listed below are variants or blends of just five basic fabric types (silk, cotton, linen, wool and worsted).”

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