Documenting Regency Fashion with La Belle Assemblée

Today, 18 July 2017, marks the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, author of classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Much of her work, and their subsequent adaptations, are set in the Regency era (broadly categorized as 1795-1820) and their fashions reflect that time. Jane herself was quite fond of fashionable dressing: letters from time spent living with her brother Henry in London mention visits to Grafton House for trimmings and hosiery, and to Bedford House for dress fabrics.

Fashion plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by John Bell), 1807. Hand-coloured etching. Los Angeles County Museum of Art: www.lacma.org. Accession number: M.86.266.84.

In order to keep abreast of the latest fashions, women of the Regency era consumed ladies’ magazines, among them the high quality La Belle Assemblée or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine addressed particularly to the Ladies. John Bell first published Le Belle Assemblée in 1806 as a monthly source of prose, poetry, biographies, and fashion advice for leisured women. There is even reason to suspect that Jane Austen would have read La Belle Assemblée as one of her favourite nieces, Fanny Austen Knight, had an 1814 issue of that periodical among her possessions.

‘Bourbon Hat and Mantle’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by John Bell), May 1814. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1025-1959.

La Belle Assemblée’s price established it as a thoroughly affluent periodical. Its rival, the Lady’s Museum, cost 1s. in 1806, while La Belle Assemblée cost 2s. 6d. for black-and-white etchings and 3s. 6d. for hand-coloured illustrations. Though only two fashion plates were included with each issue, they were prepared by highly skilled illustrators, engravers, and painters. The 25cm x 16cm dimensions of this periodical further added to its luxury. Whether coloured or not, the sizable fashion plates are works of art in their own right, as their inclusion in museum collections around the world confirms.

‘Walking Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée, September 1822. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.2818-1888.

John Bell’s wife Mrs. Bell was credited with the designs of many outfits seen in the plates of La Belle Assemblée. As a dressmaker in London known for extremely up-to-date fashion knowledge (she had foreign fashions imported for study twice each week), Mrs. Bell possessed a reputation for unbeatable fashion acumen. She was not just a dressmaker and designer however. Mrs. Bell, ever the visionary, invented the ‘Chapeau Bras,’ a foldable hood small enough to store in a bag, and a corset to reduce the appearance of pregnancy.

‘Dinner Party Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by Whittaker & Co.), February 1827. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1972-1888.

Plates from La Belle Assemblée reflect both minute and radical changes in fashion during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. From 1800-1820, differences in fabric, colour, and accessories set old and new fashions apart. The 1820s saw a gradual widening of sleeves and skirts as the decade progressed, morphing the columnar silhouette of the beginning of the century into the exaggerated hourglass shape of the early 1830s. In 1832, La Belle Assemblée merged with the Lady’s Magazine; the new Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée continued to publish the latest advances in fashion throughout the 1830s.

Read, W., ’Full Dress, Ball Dress, Morning Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by Whittaker & Co.), October 1830. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1972-1888.

Further Reading

Jane Ashelford, ‘Perfect Cut and Fit’ in The Art of Dress: Clothes Through History 1500-1914 (London: National Trust, 1996), pp. 167-210

Margaret Beetham, ‘The ‘Fair Sex’ and the Magazine: The Early Ladies’ Journals’ in A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Women’s Magazine, 1800-1914 (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 17-34