Style and Sensibility - Regency Fashion exhibition, Lancaster

22 July 2024, by Lynda Jackson

In this week's blog, Lynda Jackson, Museum Manager at Judges' Lodgings Museum, Lancaster, talks us through their current exhibition 'Style and Sensibility', displaying Regency dress and accessories. The exhibition opened in June and runs until November 17th.

'William must not forget my shawl if he goes to the East Indies.' Lady Bertram, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, 1814 

The new Style and Sensibility: Regency Fashion 1800 – 1830s exhibition in Lancaster uses the fiction of Jane Austen's novels to explore early nineteenth century fashion. Judges' Lodgings is Lancaster's oldest town house and home to Georgian furniture by the global cabinet-maker Gillows, alongside a large collection of fine art including works by George Romney and Jospeh Wright of Derby. Now the museum has opened its first costume exhibition, exploring regency design through dress, accessories and ephemera. 

The exhibition is a pop-up show with displays in the period rooms including day, evening and walking dress alongside shoes, bags, waistcoats, fashion plates, pattern books and even the odd poem. 

Jane Austen's famous novels were published during the Regency period between 1811-1820 when the Prince Regent ruled in place of his father King George III, then incapacitated by mental illness. Her novels give us a fictional England of polite drawing rooms and brilliant but understated social comedy. 

Jane Austen rarely mentioned clothes in her famous novels, though she often talked about them in her letters. Books like Pride and Prejudice suggest she disapproved of high fashion and preferred natural, classical elegance. In the words of one of her characters 'My natural taste is all for simplicity; a simple style of dress is so infinitely preferable to finery' (Emma, 1815). 

The exhibition at Judges' Lodgings reflects this contemporary taste for simplicity, starting with a beautifully embroidered muslin dress with silk underdress dating from around 1800-1810, on loan from the Harris, Preston. The dress has a floral design along the hem and up the central panel alongside delicate leaves around the short sleeves. When mounting the dress for display, the textile conservator was challenged by the complicated structure that held the underdress in place. The dress is displayed next to a young girl's typical white muslin dress from around 1810-1815, on loan from Tullie House Art Gallery and Museum in Carlisle. Further investigation of this sweet, embroidered dress showed evidence of tucks on the skirt which had been gradually dropped as the child grew – an example of the value of clothes and a simple way in which dress could be re-used and updated. 

Upstairs in the Senior Judges' Bedroom at the museum, Maria Hulton's white cotton dress from 1810-1820 is displayed opposite a portrait of her father-in-law as a young boy. White was a popular colour for both day and evening dress throughout much of the Regency period. In 1832 Mrs Hulton (c 1790 - 1866) wore the dress to the coming of age celebrations of her son, William Ford Hulton as he turned 21, although the dress appears to have been by then already ten years out of date. Maria's husband was High Sherif of Lancaster and his pink dandy suit (not on display) was recently the subject of a paper 'Pretty in Pink: A Dandy Suit' given by the Harris' costume and decorative arts curator Scott Schiavone at the recent conference on Beau Brummell & New Masculinities. Though the pink dandy suits suggests a snappy dresser, Maria's husband is perhaps now better known for ordering the infamous Peterloo Massacre of working class people in Manchester in 1819.  

Gentry and merchant women in Lancashire were less likely to follow the extreme fashions of London's stylish elite. Yet they did copy the taste for classically-inspired high waists, as this poem, on display from Lancashire Archives, makes clear: 

Shepherds I have lost my waist. Have you seen my body? 

Sacrificed to modern taste, I'm quite a Hoddy Doddy. 

Never shall I see it more, Till common sense returning 

My body to my legs restore, then I shall cease from mourning 

For fashion I that part forsook where Sages plac'd the belly 

Tis lost and I have not a nook for cheesecakes, tarts or jelly! 


Nor was Jane Austen the only one to write about contemporary fashion in her letters. On display in the exhibition is a letter from 1826 written by Marianne Kenyon to her Aunty Ally, demonstrating her love of clothes. The letter was written the same year that the Judges Lodgings building was bought as a residence by the County Magistrates to house the travelling Judges of the Assizes courts. Marianne wrote in detail about her outfit for a 'Grand Ball' including the fashionable 'Primrose coloured crepe dress trimmed at the knee and on the shoulders with bunches of sweet peas'. 

The new exhibition shows that, just like Jane Austen herself, the gentry women of Lancashire took a key interest in regency clothes and dress. 


You can view Style and Sensibility – Regency Costume 1800-1830s at Judges' Lodgings Museum Thursday 27 June – 17 November 2024, open Thursday to Sunday.

Judges' Lodges gives thanks to Lancashire Archives, The Whitworth, The Harris, Preston and Tullie House Art Gallery and Museum in Carlisle for the loan of materials and equipment. 

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