Academic Research · Regency Era · Self-Fashioning and Jane Austen

Self-Fashioning and Jane Austen 2: The Mystery of the Surplice Gown

This is a series of posts exploring quotes from Jane Austen’s letters which reference fashion and dress.

“I have had my new gown made up, and it really makes a very superb surplice. I am sorry to say that my new coloured gown is very much washed out, though I charged everybody to take great care of it. I hope yours is so too.” – Jane Austen (age 21), September 1, 1796, Rowling

I find this passage to be perplexing for two reasons. First, the use of the term surplice as an adjective to mean a “crossover bodice”, is credited as not appearing until 1897 by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Until then, it was supposedly only known to be a noun meaning “a loose white outer ecclesiastical vestment usually of knee length with large open sleeves.” If you’ve ever watched Father Brown, you’ll know it as that white smock-like garment he wears on Sundays. I was hoping to find a portrait of an Anglican priest wearing one from the late 1790s, but what I ended up with was this portrait of a Catholic priest, from Rome, from 1798.

Painting by Angelica Kauffman, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In this painting, Monsignor Giuseppe Spina’s surplice has a lot of fine lace. Surplices seem to have come in many styles, from very plain to made entirely of lace, as this extant example, also from The Met, shows. It is dated to the 19th century.

Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What the mystery is then, is what is Austen referring to saying her new gown makes a very superb surplice? Does she mean a shorter overdress/tunic style? If so, I haven’t seen this terminology used elsewhere to describe such garments.

The only fashion plate of the regency era I have found to use the word surplice, is this one, for a morning dress, from Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, October 1806. (If you know of others, please chime in!) The blog on which I found it states that the description from the magazine is:

“Morning Dress or Costume à la Devotion. A plain cambric high gown, with surplice sleeves, and vandyke border round the throat. A Spanish robe of pea-green muslin, crape, or sarsnet, bordered with cambric trimming, and buttoned to the shape in front. A winged mob cap, composed of white crape and beading. A bee-hive bonnet of fine moss or plaited straw, ornamented with white sarsnet ribbon. Limeric gloves, and Spanish slippers of sea-green kid.”

Unfortunately, I’ve also found that sleeve style to go by other names, such as a mameluk sleeve, a term which got bandied in fashion about after Napoleon took his military campaign to Northern Africa.

Image from Regency World at candicehern.com

By a visual search, I found lots of short over-tunics, but only one so far which, to my eye, actually resembled a priest’s surplice. It is from the Journal des Dames et des Modes, Costume Parisien, 3 [July] 1798, [Year] 6, (47). However, according to the description, as I have translated it, it is an “Iphigenia veil, white mantle, currency bag.” Translation from Dutch (via Google Translator) of the museum’s description is: “Veil with the name ‘Voile a l’Iphigenie. Small white tippet on a frock with train. In the right hand a bag or ‘sac’ with motto. Further accessories: flower corsage, glove, flat shoe with pointed toe.”

Image from the Rijksmuseum.

Based on the description, and with a closer look at the way the construction of the mantle is drawn, I can indeed see that it is more of a shawl than a sleeved garment. It is quite deceptive, though when looking for something resembling a surplice! Also, if anyone knows more about the symbols on the bag, I’d love to hear about them. Why is a “currency bag” in a fashion plate anyways? Maybe campy conspicuous consumption came about earlier than we thought, if women were choosing to tote around reticules styled to look like bank bags?! I jest, but really, what is going on with that?

So we’re left with no answer yet as to the “surplice”, except the possibility that Merriam-Webster is wrong…but then why isn’t it used in fashion plates of the era? If you come across one using the term surplice, please post a link to it below.

On to question two: What does Austen mean by “I hope yours is so too.” Does she wish that Cassandra’s gown new coloured gown has also been “washed out”? (Presumably the color has faded due to wash fastness problems with the dye). That’s rather mean-spirited!

References

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Davidson, Hilary. Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. “Surplice.” Accessed April 28, 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/surplice.

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