Costume drama: Madame Eliza goes to Bath

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to join the very talented author, Cassandra Grafton, at the Jane Austen festival in Bath.  What with my love of Bath (even though it’s been a few years since I last visited) and the fact that Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite of books (as is the BBC adaptation with the wet-shirted Mr Firth), and the fact that a fictional Madame Eliza the dressmaker appears in Cassandra’s book, it was too good an opportunity for the real Madame Eliza to miss.

The focus of this year’s festival (it’s been going several years) celebrated the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and the opening weekend of the week-long festival commenced with a costumed parade through the streets of Bath.

Cassandra and I (and a few of Cassandra’s friends) decided to mark the occasion by joining the parade… in costume!

Now I love a good costume drama along with the next designer, but I’ve never tackled anything remotely period (my designs are all contemporary), so it was with nervous excitement that I embarked on the task of making myself a Regency dress.   As with all my dresses, it ended up being a last minute affair.  As is true with most of my designs, I kept the style simple and concentrated on the fabric.  As this was a Saturday morning parade, it called for a “day dress” so I hit the cotton rails at Remnant House, Harrogate hunting for something light and airy and landed on a delicate Regency stripe (what else) in cream and blue, and a contrasting cotton blue-bow printed cotton.

Simple (and I like to think elegant) the gathered bodice, with an a'line skirt, piping and ruffled hem
Simple (and I like to think elegant) the gathered bodice, with an a’line skirt, piping and ruffled hem

I didn’t really have time to draft a formal pattern, so I used my basic block for the bodice, cutting it higher for the empire line.  For the skirt I used an old Mary Quant pattern from the 1970s (which is essentially an A’line maxi dress).

Hand gathered bodice was a cropped version of my bodice block, with an A'line maxi skirt attached
Hand gathered bodice was a cropped version of my bodice block, with an A’line maxi skirt attached
I'm not sure if they had piping in the Regency period but I used the contrasting fabric to hold my gathers in place
I’m not sure if they had piping in the Regency period but I used the contrasting fabric to hold my gathers in place
The skirt looked a little plain, so I added more hand gathered (being machined stitched to skirt here) trim to the bottom of the skirt, again using the contrasting fabric
The skirt looked a little plain, so I added more hand gathered (being machined stitched to skirt here) trim to the bottom of the skirt, again using the contrasting fabric

As the rain lashed down and the wind whipped the night before, I was terrified that I’d end up a drowned rat (or as the taxi driver who kindly whisked three regency clad costumed ladies back to the apartment after the parade commented we’d have been the “equivalent of a Regency wet-t-shirt competition!” – quite!). Thankfully after a hideous drive in the pouring rain on Friday night, Saturday dawned bright and sunny and so we strolled from our apartment to the Royal Crescent to join the parade.

Here we are (Eliza, Cassandra and fellow author Johana) ready for our close up and also to parade
Here we are (Eliza, Cassandra and fellow author Johana) ready for our close up and also to parade

My experience on the lawn of the Royal Crescent, and stroll through the town subsequently during the parade, is the nearest thing I can imagine to the red carpet experience.  Wherever we turned photographers and public alike were lined up to take our pictures.

21st century was never too far away, with the paraders posing and photographing, and of course, lots of Facebook action
21st century was never too far away, with the paraders posing and photographing, and of course, lots of Facebook action
Paraders ready for their close up
Paraders ready for their close up
Keeping in touch 21st century style
Keeping in touch 21st century style

I spent the next couple of hours enthralled by the sights; the array of costumes, the authentic and the not so authentic (I spotted 3 different dresses with zips… which isn’t so Regency).

One of my favourite details of Regency fashion is the detail at the back of the dress.  Here I love this panel on the back of the dress in front of me.  On closer inspection I see it's covering a zip!
One of my favourite details of Regency fashion is the detail at the back of the dress. Here I love this panel on the back of the dress in front of me. On closer inspection I see it’s covering a zip!
My eyes were doing overtime gazing at the beautiful costumes as we fall in line to parade
My eyes were doing overtime gazing at the beautiful costumes as we fall in line to parade
The walk through historical bath was a beautiful experience
The walk through historical bath was a beautiful experience

..and on we paraded

After a couple of hours channelling my inner Lizzy Bennett (although with hindsight I’m probably a little long in tooth to be channelling my inner Lizzy these days), it was time to rejoin the 21st century.  

Think it's time to head back to the future.
Having had fun channeling my inner Lizzy, think it’s about time to head back to the future.
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