Jane Austen’s silk pelisse is the most well provenanced item of clothing believed to have been worn by Jane.
It was given to Hampshire County Museum Services and Archives by a descendant of Jane’s family, and is one of the most special items owned by Jane Austen.
It is a pleasure to see it in person and I am always struck at how slight Jane was. From the length of the coat we know that Jane was between 5 feet 6 and 5 feet 8. Compared to women of her time she was seen as tall and slim.
We have a good idea of what Jane looked like from her family, and you can imagine her soft brown curls and hazel eyes being complemented by the silk weave of the oak leaves.
The coat is in such good condition considering it is over 200 years old. The style reflects the change in fashion to a looser waist and high frill collar which was popular when she had it made, although it would have had a belt which has been lost along the way.
Jane mentions her coat in a letter to Cassandra dated 23-24 August 1814,
I must provide for the possibility, by troubling you send up my Silk Pelisse by Collier on Saturday. -I feel it would be necessary on such an occasion.
Jane was staying with Henry at his home in Henrietta Street in London at the time. Henry had mentioned that they could call in to see their friends the Birches and the Crutchleys on the way back to Chawton.
It seems they were families of importance for Jane to risk her coat being brought by Colliers, the pubic carriage that ran between Alton and London.
Jane did have another coat as she mentions another trimmed pelisse in her letter dated 30 April 1811, however, this one is made of silk so it was more of a luxury item worn on special occasions.
We like to think that Jane made this purchase from the money she received from sales of Pride and Prejudice published in 1813.
Jane’s pelisse dates to 1814 which is the same year she wrote Mansfield Park. She writes about the importance of owning a pelisse as an indication of ones social standing as the other ladies look down on Fanny for not owning one,
The young ladies who approached her at first with some respect, in consideration of her coming from a baronet’s family, were soon offended by what they termed “airs”; for, as she neither played on the pianoforte nor wore fine pelisses, they could, on farther observation, admit no right of superiority.
We know that Jane loved shopping and a pelisse was a fashionable item to wear in the early 18th century. This fashion plate from La Belle Assemblée dated September 1813 is a beautiful example of a coat worn outdoors.
Although pelisse coats had been worn from the 17th century, their style changed over time from being more of a cloak to a fitted garment worn with a high collar.
Fabric was important, and Jane probably purchased hers from one of the large warehouses in London. French imports of silk were banned at the time due to the war so the fabric would have been made in England. Jane would have paid a seamstress to make up the coat which would have cost more than the fabric, and the finished coat would have been an luxury item for her.
She liked wearing brown, and she chose a fabric decorated with an oak leaf pattern which represented the wooden ships in the fleet of the British Navy. It may have been a display of support for her Navy brothers Charles and Frank who were on active duty at the time.
Jane also mentions a pelisse in her military novel Persuasion where Captain Wentworth likens his old ship to a pelisse,
I had no more discoveries to make than you would have as to the fashion and strength of any old pelisse, which you had seen sent about among half your acquaintance ever since you could remember, and which at last, on some wet day, is lent to yourself.
How wonderful Captain Wentworth is to be concerned with Anne’s pelisse coat.. we love him even more!
See Jane Austen’s Pelisse Today
Jane’s pelisse is only shown at special events in order to preserve it so go and see it if you get the chance.
In the meantime, a replica can be found in Jane’s dressing room in her home, now the Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton.
Want to make your own pelisse?
The talented Hilary Davidson has created a pattern from Jane’s pelisse that you can use to sew your own. You can find it through a link on her website www.hilarydavidson.net.