The most frequent item mentioned by Jane Austen when she writes home to Cassandra about her London shopping expeditions is fabric for her own use and for Cassandra and their mother. Ready made gowns were unusual and ladies in modest circumstances, such as the Austens, would buy dress lengths of fabric and either make them up at home or use a local dressmaker.
Mostly ladies would browse at the drapers’ shops and make their choices there, but Ackerman’s Repository of Arts, Science etc, was innovative enough to give samples of real fabrics in the magazine and a page for February 1810 is shown here.
Top left: A royal embossed satin: a splendid and elegant article for robes or pelisses. Sold by Harris, Moody & Co., silk-weavers, Pall-Mall.
Top right: A superfine imperial orange bombazeen, particularly calculated for Ladies’ dresses. It is sold, of every colour, by Messrs. Waithman and Everington, No,104, Fleet-street.
Bottom left: An imitative Angola shawl dress of blended green and amber. Sold by Messrs. Brisco & Powley, No.103, New Bond-street, from 38s to 50s per dress.
Bottom right: An India rib permanent green print. A patent has lately been obtained by Hewson, Higgins & Hett, for printing green on cotton goods. Sundry cotton goods for waistcoats are printed exclusively for Kestevens, York-street, Covent-garden.
On 24th May 1813 Jane wrote, “I went the day before (Friday) to Layton’s as I proposed, & got my Mother’s gown, 7 yds at 6/6.” [ie six shillings and six pence a yard]. Layton’s drapery shop, Bedford House, was at 9, Henrietta Street in Covent Garden, right next door to Henry Austen’s bank at number 10. Henry was on the point of moving to live in he apartments over the bank and Jane reports going next door to inspect the work, “which is all dirt & confusion, but in a very promising way…”
She does not say what kind of fabric she had purchased, presumably the ladies had agreed about that in advance, but in mid-September she was staying with Henry at number 10 and reports, “We did go to Layton & Shear’s before Breakfast. Very pretty English poplins at 4 [shillings and] 3 [pence]. Irish ditto at 6 [shillings] – more pretty certainly – beautiful.” Later in the same letter she writes to Cassandra, “…I am going to treat myself with spending [my superfluous wealth myself. I hope at least I shall find some poplin at Layton & Shears that will tempt me to buy it. If I do, it shall be sent to Chawton, as half will be for you … I shall send 20 yards.”
The invaluable English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century by C.Willet Cunnington describes poplin as being “made of a silk warp and wool or worsted weft, having a fine cord on the surface, and produced in several varieties, brocaded, watered and plain.”
Jane also patronised Christian & Sons at 11, Wigmore Street where she bought dimity (“A stout cotton fabric, plain or twilled, with a raised pattern on one side.”) and Newton’s, just of Leicester Square, for Irish linen.
One of the most up-market fabric shops were Wilding & Kent at Grafton house on the corner of New Bond Street and Grafton Street. On 17 April 1811 Jane and Manon, Eliza Austen’s maidservant, ‘…took our walk to Grafton House, & I have a good deal to say on that subject. I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money; & what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too…’ she told Cassandra. It was a very busy shop and in November 1815 Jane complains of ‘the miseries’ of shopping there and most of her references to it mention an early start and long waits to be served – not that this stopped her going there frequently.
One fashionable drapers, Harding, Howell and Co., is not mentioned by Jane, although she must have known it, for it was located in Pall Mall in the seventeenth century red brick Schomberg House which still stands out in this street of stone and stucco.
According to Ackermann’s Repository, which is where the illustration below appeared, ‘It is fitted up with great taste, and divided by glazed partitions into four departments.’ These were: furs and fans; ‘haberdashery of every description, silks, muslins, lace, gloves etc.’; jewellery and ornamental items including perfumery and finally, ‘millinery and dresses; so that there is no article of female attire or decoration, but what may here procured in the first style of elegance and fashion.’