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The Regency Red Cloak

My cloak is come home. I like it very much, and can now exclaim with delight, like J. Bond at hay-harvest, “This is what I have been looking for these three years.
-Jane Austen to Cassandra
June 2, 1799

For many years, the Regency Red Cloak was the staple of winter warmth in both England and the Americas. According to Jessamyn Brown, they were “common wear for several decades. Well-established garb by the onset of the Regency, they lasted into the 1830s, although they were out of style by then.” One researcher has pointed out that they were worn mainly in the country, (though the following fashion plate from the latter Regency shows a dressy “Town” version) and most often with Morning Dress, for walking, shopping, etc. Plush trim was also occasionally added, for a bit of dash.

 

Perhaps the most famous illustrator of the red walking cloak is Diana Sperling, who often captured scenes of young ladies out walking in her sketchbook, Mrs. Hurst Dancing. For some reason, the red cloak also became a symbol of the wandering gypsies (one wonders if they were worn by the Gypsy woman that accosted Harriet Smith, in Emma) and who could forget the role they played during the famous Battle of Fishguard, when the women of the town, dressed in their scarlet cloaks and tall Welsh hats were mistaken by the French for British Regulars!
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The Battle of Fishguard

Another moment sufficed to explain the mystery. A dress of very elegant materials, but of very simple form, was drawn forth by the dainty hands of Mrs. Selby, and displayed before the wondering eyes of her mistress. It consisted of a very full short petticoat, the fabric of which it was composed being very rich satin, but the colour of that dark, sombre tint of which the homely duffle garments of the west-country peasants were generally made, before the high-pressure cotton-mills had caused all local peculiarities of costume to give place to their patterned calicos. The upper part of the dress was of very delicate cambric, and bore a picturesque approximation to the short-sleeved under-garment of the females of all lands.

But the most remarkable feature of the dress was a small red cloak, such as little Red Riding-Hood has made immortal throughout the world of Romance, but which has the more solemn stamp of historical renown accorded to it in the Duchy of Cornwall. The head-dress was a somewhat fantastical little black hat, fastened under the chin by a blue ribbon, while the dainty and diminutive black shoes, though the material was black satin, had buckles high up on the instep, and heels that marked a very remote period in the art of shoe-making, lint the whole dress, such as it was, would decidedly have required an interpreter, had it not been made familiar to the London world by a very popular picture recently exhibited, which bore in the catalogue the title of—”The Cornish Heroine.”

Mrs. Cuthbert certainly contemplated this dress with more surprise than satisfaction. She was by no means ignorant of the tradition which attributed the safety of the Cornish coast, at a moment of threatened invasion, to the imposing appearance of a multitude of red cloaks, so arranged as to make the wearers mistaken for cohorts of the stouter sex; but she could trace no connection between this old story, and her present position as the honoured mistress of a mansion favoured by the presence of the Sovereign.
-The days of the Regency, George the fourth; or, Town and country
By Frances Trollope, 1857

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Coral Necklaces, Regency Style

 

Remember, I am to have a new Carriage hung as high as the Duttons’, and blue spotted with silver; and I shall expect a new saddle horse, a suit of fine lace, and an infinite number of the most valuable Jewels. Diamonds such as never were seen, and Pearls, Rubies, Emeralds, and Beads out of number…
-Jane Austen
The Three Sisters

Lady Maria Hamilton, 1802, by Thomas Lawrence.

You’ve probably seen the necklaces dozens of times without noticing them. I have. These beautiful single string coral necklaces worn by Regency ladies escaped my attention until my friend and blogging partner on Jane Austen Today, Laurel Ann of Austenprose, sent me some spectacular images, such as the one of Lady Maria Hamilton, who died in 1814, unmarried. Coral has enjoyed a long and ancient tradition, first worn as a talisman and later for its color and beauty. One of my favorite drawings by Peter Paul Rubens depicts his son with a coral necklace. At the time coral was thought to protect the wearer.

Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Necklace, Peter Paul Rubens, Red and black chalk heightened with white and some black ink on paper, c. 1619

The tradition of giving children coral necklaces continued through the 19th century, as shown in this detail of a late 18th century John Hoppner painting of one of the Sackville girls. The gemstone was considered a guardian of sorts, protecting children from illnesses like stomachaches, fever, typhus, smallpox, and rickets. The mala beads were polished to a smooth sheen and matched in color. Bead sizes could be similar or gradated from small to larger stones that were strung in the center.

The Sackville Children, detail, John Hoppner, 1796

Handmade jewellery created during the late Georgian Era (1760-1837) is extremely hard to find today.  As styles changed, the pieces were remade rather than tossed out or sold. Until the latter part of the 18th century, coral was harvested from the sea largely by dredging. Fine quality red coral came from the Mediterranean – Algeria, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Tunisia and the islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily, with some saying that the best corals came off the coasts of Algeria and Tunisia. Eighteenth century coral was a rich warm red and is unavailable today. In fact, original antique jewellery made with dark red coral is so difficult to find that it has become a highly prized collectible.

Jane Elizabeth, Countess of Oxford, John Hoppner, 1797

 

Early 19th century red coral necklace

Simple round necklaces, like the one worn by the Countess of Oxford, were popular and complimented low necklines, but chokers were also fashionable, like the Georgian Cannetille Sardinian red coral four strand necklace on the left. Coral is made up of the skeletal material built up by small animals that live in slow growing colonies in the sea. Colors range from vivid orange, red, and white, to salmon and pale pink (called angelskin coral). In jewelry making coral is either carved into beads, cameos, and other forms, or is left in its natural branch-like form and simply polished. (My mother had such a necklace, which I played with as a child.) The most sought after color (and the rarest) is a deep red, as in the necklace at left.  Coral manufacturing during the Regency Period consisted primarily of filing beads of smoothed coral and stringing necklaces. Because coral consists of calcium carbonate, it is extremely sensitive to chemicals,  perfumes, and body acids. Like pearls, the necklaces must be washed with a damp cloth (no detergents) and restrung periodically.

Little boy placing a coral necklace on a dog's neck, Martin Drolling
Drawing by Jacopo Vignali

Many mystical and medicinal properties were attributed to coral, among them vitality, physical strength, stronger marital relationships, wealth, increased sensuality, and protection while out to sea. Coral was also used as a medicinal powder. Primitive physics believed that coral oxides mixed with honey made a person strong. Mix it with betel leaf and it made a potent cure for cough and heart disease. Coral powder is still a popular aphrodisiac in India today, which prompts avaricious collectors to dynamite coral reefs, putting fragile reefs in acute danger. In the detail of a 17th century drawing by Jacopo Vignali at left, one can easily see why this semi-precious stone was considered to have sensual qualities. The combination of the coral necklace and her full lips make the young woman look both fragile and seductive.

More information about corals can be found in these links:

Modern Regency reproduction coral jewelry is available from Jane Smith’s Regency Collection


Vic Sanborn oversees two blogs: Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen Today. Before 2006 she merely adored Jane Austen and read Pride and Prejudice faithfully every year. These days, she is immersed in reading and writing about the author’s life and the Regency era. Co-founder of her local (and very small) book group, Janeites on the James, she began her blogs as a way to share her research on the Regency era for her novel, which sits unpublished on a dusty shelf. In her working life, Vic provides resources and professional development for teachers and administrators of Virginia’s adult education and literacy programs. This article was written for Jane Austen’s World and is used here with permission.