Said to have been worn by Jane Austen
'Pelisse' was the fashionable contemporary term for this garment, which was half-way between a dress and a coat, and typically calf-length. It has sometimes been referred to as an overdress, a coat, a redingote, and incorrectly misinterpreted as a dressing gown more recently. The garment is of good quality silk in a twill weave, woven with a small repeat pattern of oak leaves in a golden straw colour on a warm brown ground. On the stylistic evidence of the shape of the bodice and skirt and the size of the sleeve heads, and the ruched decorative trim, it can be accurately dated to c1813-15.
It has close-fitting long sleeves, a high standing collar, and is open at centre front with no fastenings, but edged on either side with gold cord. It would have been worn over a cotton gown which would have shown several inches below the pelisse hem, as well as at centre front and at the cuffs (hence no accurate assessment of the height of the wearer can be offered). It is lined throughout with white silk.
Why do we think the Pelisse Dress Coat was worn by Jane Austen?
The pelisse was given to Hampshire Museums Service in 1993. The donors' great, great, great grandfather was Jane Austen's elder brother James (1765-1819), who got it from their grandmother, who had received it from Eleanor Steele (nee Glubbe, b1857). She had visited the Knight family as a young lady of eighteen, and was given the dress by Miss Marianne Knight, sister of Captain John Knight, around 1875. At the age of seventy three she eventually felt that the pelisse should return to the Austen family, and sent it to James's great granddaughter Mrs Winifred Jenkyns. Her note accompanying the parcel reads: "I missed the little coat for a long time but lately it turned up. I cannot remember if it was 'Jane's' but it seems probable"
The family has linked the pelisse with a letter written by Jane on 14 October 1813 "I produced my brown bombasin yesterday and it was very much admired indeed - and I like it better than ever". Bombazine was a fabric with silk warp and woollen weft, an example in Barbara Johnson's Album of Fashions and Fabrics (in the Victoria and Albert Museum) dated 1814 has a worsted weft. The Jane Austen pelisse however is all silk, so this may not be the garment referred to in the diary entry. Oak leaves were an immensely popular design for the Waterloo period, and especially at the time of England's victory, as evidenced by many garments of this date figuring oak leaves, surviving in English Museums, so this is another consistency in terms of dating. Whether the silk could have been woven locally at Whitchurch Silk Mill has not been fully researched, but it is almost undoubtedly English.
There are two dark brown dresses in the Museum of Costume, Bath thought to have been worn to the Duchess of Richmond's Waterloo Ball in Brussels on 15 June 1815; brown goes in and out of fashion but again the colouring of the pelisse is consistent with the proferred dating. Jane mentioned having a 'brown cambric muslin for morning wear' in 1801 and the 'brown bombasin' for gowns for both Cassandra and herself in 1813.
By 1814 Jane was expressing a preference for long sleeved garments which is consistent with her wearing a pelisse at this date. For a long time long sleeves on gowns had usually indicated day wear, and day pelisses were generally made of robust cotton or wool. The silk of the pelisse suggests a special occasion garment, or evening wear. Jane wrote, after attending a dinner party in London on 9 March 1814: "Mrs Tilson [her hostess] had long sleeves too, and she assured me that they are worn in the evening by many. I was glad to hear this". In September 1814 she wrote to a friend from London that "Long sleeves appear universal, even as Dress". Jane and Cassandra's gowns and pelisses would have been made by professional dressmakers in Bath and London; it is fair to assume that any pelisse of Jane's would have been made in the most fashionable style, not in any sense provincial and lagging behind the fashions. The pelisse is lightweight, and could easily have been worn over a thin muslin gown at a dinner party in autumn or spring, or outdoors on a summer's evening.