"... the neatest needleworker of them all"
Jane Austen may have been making a private joke in a letter to her sister Cassandra, when she described a sewing party of Regency-era gentlewomen making shirts for a nephew bound for Oxford. Jane was a meticulous needlewoman, excelling at the demanding art of white-on-white embroidery, and making and re-making caps and bonnets and gowns for herself. All by hand, of course, since the sewing machine was yet to be invented.
Regency shirts made the news when Colin Firth, as Mr. Darcy, impulsively plunged into his lake at Pemberley, in a concocted scene that was never in Pride and Prejudice, but which shall never be forgotten by generations of Austen film fans. "The Shirt" drew thousands of fans while on display recently at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
We are fortunate in the San Francisco Bay Area to have our own Regency man's shirt, in the collection of The Lace Museum in Sunnyvale. It displays the characteristic neck frill, gussets, and meticulous hand-sewing described in reference books for the era. (Colin Firth's shirt lacked the neck frill, which would have been more appropriate for riding wear.)
The Lace Museum will have "the shirt" out for display one night only, Friday, March 17, from 7-9 at their third Friday open house. Visitors may also view the current exhibit of white-on-white work from many places and eras, including some stunning modern examples from Lucy Barter's San Francisco School of Needlework and Design. The exhibit is up through June 2017. This month's guest instructor, Sylvia Fellows, will demonstrate lacey paper cutting and perhaps a silhouette.
On Saturday, March 25, "the shirt" will travel in a plexiglass exhibit case to the San Mateo Main Library, as part of an AustenFest put on by the Library and the Jane Austen Society of North America's Northern California Region. The AustenFest will have prepared lectures on Jane Austen, informal talks about Regency era living, and instruction in Regency dancing, with live music and caller from the Bay Area English Regency Society. Three tracks of programming, with tea and scones for sale in the Library's third floor coffee shop.
The photographs show details of the hand-sewing involved in this shirt's construction. I like to think that Jane Austen would have smiled upon its workmanship.
And if you imagine Jane Austen as having been too refined to indulge in occasional snark, this sampling from one of her letters to her sister may open your eyes.