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The empire line strikes back

‘There are definitely some people who think we are a bit weird’: Jane Austen superfans at a festival celebrating the author last year

As Netflix’s new period drama Bridgerton takes over our screens, Hanna Woodside meets the Regency superfans for whom bonnets, balls and clip-on ringlets really are a way of life  

‘I feel naked if I don’t wear a top hat – I can’t leave the house without one,’ says 26-year-old Zack Pinsent. Having shunned modern clothing as a teenager (symbolically throwing his last pair of jeans on a bonfire aged 14 in favour of wearing his great-grandfather’s old suits), Zack has dressed in full Regency attire every day for the past decade. These include breeches, waistcoat, tailcoat, wool cloak and, of course, a top hat. ‘I’m very fond of a cane, too,’ he adds. ‘Accessories are the cherry on the cake of authenticity.’ Zack’s version of loungewear is an 18th-century banyan – a sort of silky dressing gown for men. This year, to stay Covid-safe, he’s sewn fabric face masks with prints from the 1770s.

As a historic tailor based in Brighton, Zack creates bespoke period pieces for clients as well as himself, and his delightful Instagram account (@pinsent_tailoring) has amassed a huge following. You might think that he’s an eccentric one-off, but he’s part of a surprisingly large community of historical enthusiasts who are obsessed with everything about the Regency era (1811-1820), which is familiar to most of us through the myriad adaptations of Jane Austen’s beloved novels.

While many of us are enjoying Netflix’s scandalous new Regency drama Bridgerton – an extravaganza of ravishing period costumes, beautiful ball scenes and sumptuous stately homes that began on Christmas Day – Zack and his fellow Regency devotees take their love of the era to another level, immersing themselves in the fashions and lifestyle of the time.

The cast of Netflix’s new regency drama Bridgerton

The cast of Netflix’s new regency drama Bridgerton

For Zack, it’s the ‘sense of colour and flamboyance’ that draws him to the period. Initially, he flirted with wearing late-Victorian costume, but the elegance of the Regency silhouette was irresistible. ‘It makes me feel very much myself, dressing like this. I’m not saying everyone should style themselves like me, but if your clothes aren’t bringing you joy, you’re sort of missing the point.’

He’s used to odd looks on the street. ‘I get people stopping me a lot, asking if I’m in a play. When I explain, they are always genuinely positive and interested.’

While it was the fashion that first captivated Zack, for 24-year-old Sophie Andrews, a finance administrator in Reading, it was a love of Jane Austen that got her hooked on the Regency era. The author of Be More Jane, she is also the founder of the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society, a collective of 30 ‘Janeites’ (Austen superfans).

The majority of the ‘Pineapples’, as they call themselves, are in their mid-20s to early 30s, and have met at various Jane Austen events. ‘We’ve got an opera-singing doctor, a biochemist, an archaeologist. It’s a real mix.’ The group is mainly female but there are a few men (including Zack). ‘When we’re together, we’re comfortable being completely ourselves,’ says Sophie. ‘These are my people; they accept me for who I am – all the weird things, too.’

If you’re wondering about the significance of the pineapple, Sophie explains that the fruit was a Regency status symbol: ‘It was extremely exotic and hard to come by. In old money, it cost around £85 for one pineapple – that’s thousands now. People would buy them and rent them out to other families to use as centrepieces at fancy dinners.’

Every February, the Pineapples host a week-long house party renting a different historic property across England (this year they stayed at Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset), fully immersing themselves in Regency life. ‘We host a ball, have musical soirées and play the same board games and card games they did 200 years ago. In the day, we sew and embroider and have afternoon teas and picnics,’ says Sophie. ‘There are a lot of hardcore tea drinkers in the group.’

Naturally, Regency costume is de rigueur. ‘For us, it isn’t “dressing up” any more – it just feels fairly normal now.’ For women, Regency dress is ‘empire-line maxidresses – it’s very flattering’. While many of her fellow Pineapples sew their own outfits, Sophie buys hers. ‘There are a lot of historical tailors and seamstresses out there. If you look on Google, you’d be surprised how easy it is to source them online.’

Sophie also keeps her hair long so she can re-create the elaborate Regency updos. ‘You can do quite a lot with fake buns – and you have to have ringlets at the side of the face, like Jennifer Ehle in the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice adaptation.’ (Sophie often uses clip-in ringlets as a quick fix, which isn’t cheating, she hastens to add: ‘They had tie-in ringlets 200 years ago, made out of real hair.’) When a bad hair day strikes, ‘you can just hide it under your bonnet’.

Fine and dandy: ‘Dressing like this makes me feel like myself,’ says Zack Pinsent, who won’t leave the house in anything but regency wear

Fine and dandy: ‘Dressing like this makes me feel like myself,’ says Zack Pinsent, who won’t leave the house in anything but regency wear

The Pineapples often take day trips to National Trust properties in full Regency dress. ‘You’ve got to give yourself an extra 20 minutes to go anywhere because you’ll be stopped for pictures. There are definitely people who think what we do is a bit weird but when they understand the motivations – that it’s about escapism – they get it.’

For Sophie, there is joy in ‘forgetting about your real life for a bit. Especially this year, there’s been a lot going on – and it’s nice not to think about that for a while.’ During lockdown the Pineapples stayed in touch via Zoom (wearing bonnets and tiaras), and held a remote Regency-themed Bake Off; the technical challenge was a historic macaroon. ‘There was a trend for taking a “costumed constitutional” in the historical community, too. I’ve taken the dog for a walk in Regency costume a few times. It always puts a smile on people’s faces.’

Under normal circumstances Sophie says you can find a Regency ball – with guests in full costume doing period-accurate dances – happening in stately homes and town halls across England most weekends between March and October. ‘Balls are great fun,’ says Sophie. ‘You’re all in your finery; you have a dance caller who talks you through each dance. It’s one of the best ways to really feel that you are of that time.’

Attending a Regency ball at Chawton House (Jane Austen’s brother’s home in Alton, Hampshire) was Rachel Dittrich’s gateway into the Regency community.

Zack, Sophie (front right) and the Janeites at Hughenden manor, Buckinghamshire

Zack, Sophie (front right) and the Janeites at Hughenden manor, Buckinghamshire

‘I’ve always been interested in history but I didn’t really realise it was a “thing” you could do,’ says Rachel, 45, who works in social care in Southampton. ‘When I went to my first ball I thought, “This is amazing. You get to be in a period drama!” After that I was absolutely addicted.’

Rachel often rents a house in Bath and has friends stay for a Regency weekend complete with period food (Rachel’s favourite is a ‘salmagundi’, a bonkers salad combining pickles, eggs, chicken, anchovies and vegetables) and Regency games, such as ‘battledore and shuttlecock’ (an early version of badminton) and ‘game and graces’ (throwing and catching a wooden hoop in the air with a pair of sticks; it was a pastime for women only, designed to show off the figure).

In 2013, Rachel founded the Duke of Wellington’s Dancers (dukesdancers.com), who meet weekly to learn traditional Georgian and Regency dances, and are often hired to perform in television dramas and at historical events. There are similar dance troupes throughout the country: the Quadrille Club in London, Devizes Regency Dancers, the Meryton Mob in Staffordshire, Hampshire Regency Dancers and Mrs Bennet’s Ballroom in Surbiton.

‘There are lots of Regency dances with slightly rude names, which we find hilarious,’ says Rachel. ‘There’s The Muff, which is a really fun, fast one. And one called Trip To Barnard. So we’ve had lots of jokes about Barnard Castle with that one.’

Yasmin Zaman, 40, is one of 20 dedicated members of the Duke of Wellington’s Dancers. Also from Southampton, she works in mental health, and is a proud Janeite. Yasmin was enchanted by Regency dancing after going to a ball at Southampton’s Dolphin Hotel, where Austen attended dances in her lifetime. ‘It was just amazing: the history, the environment, the whole vibe. Dancing on the same floorboards that Jane did.

‘When I tell people that I do historical dancing, they don’t really know what it is. They think it might be something bizarre.

But when people actually see what it is about, they love it,’ adds Yasmin. Although the Duke of Wellington’s Dancers haven’t been able to meet for most of this year due to Covid restrictions, they’ve practised as a group over Zoom. ‘Our dance mistress sets out six pairs of shoes, so we can see the formation and understand the pattern of the dance,’ says Yasmin. ‘But we’re all dancing in our own living rooms or kitchens.’

The dancers train in T-shirts and leggings, saving their costumes for balls and performances. Rachel has a collection of more than 80 period dresses. ‘It’s ridiculous! They’ve taken over. I’ve got a wardrobe that is only period dresses, and two big archive boxes under my bed for my best silk dresses,’ she says.

Her most expensive piece is a velvet dress, based on a painting from 1813, that cost £2,500. She has others, made of cotton, that cost £150. ‘You’re looking at about £250 for a well-made Regency dress,’ she says. ‘If you’re having any decorative hand-embroidery on the dress, you can add some noughts to the price.’

Like Zack, Rachel feels more at home wearing Regency attire. ‘I used to be quite a shy, quiet person but when I put on the costume, I feel really confident, which I don’t in jeans.’ She’s equally fanatical about accessorising: ‘A dress on its own doesn’t make the outfit.’ She has a small collection of original Napoleonic tiaras and Regency fans – and a few antique silk parasols, too. ‘My worst indulgence is gloves. If you’re not wearing gloves, you’re not dressed! They’re around £100 a pair but white or cream leather gloves spoil instantly. It’s a terrible habit to have.’

Duke of Wellington’s dancers Samantha, Rachel and Yasmin enjoy doing ‘The Muff’

Duke of Wellington’s dancers Samantha, Rachel and Yasmin enjoy doing ‘The Muff’

Historical accuracy has its limits, though – even among the most ardent enthusiasts. ‘You have that fantasy of big houses, fabulous feasts, the balls – it’s very easy to use that as an escape. But the reality was nowhere near as romantic, and there was so little power for women at the time,’ acknowledges Rachel. ‘We get to cherry-pick the lovely, glamorous bits.’

And while she will research ‘quite seriously’ aspects of Regency dress and society, when she heads to a ball, she’s simply there to have a good time. ‘I just want to dance and flirt – and look fabulous!’

Zack agrees that enjoying yourself is paramount: ‘I strive for historical accuracy myself, but I won’t have a go at people for not being accurate. It’s all about being inclusive. Otherwise you’ll just be in a ballroom by yourself – and where’s the fun in that?’

Bridgerton is available now on Netflix


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