19th Century Nitty-Gritty: Dancing with Jane Austen

By Jennifer Albers-Smith

It’s certainly no twerk (thank goodness), but there are people all over who love to dress up and dance the way people danced in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. What woman in love with Jane Austen’s world wouldn’t dream of going back in time and being Elizabeth Bennet at a ball, meeting Darcy (minus the rejection part)?

Jane Austen Dancing (207x300)The professor for my Jane Austen course at the University of Michigan was really inventive. She actually got the class together and taught us some of the dances that were popular during Jane Austen’s life.
My only wish is that I would have been wearing an empire waist dress. (Should I also mention that I sewed an empire waist dress for my junior homecoming dance? I’m telling you – this love of Austen runs deep). The ball gowns that women wore in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were truly beautiful. I love looking at pictures of them, imagining what they would have looked like since any version that has survived in a museum looks ratty and faded.

They must have been amazing in person like this dress I pulled from our 19th Century UK Periodicals digital collection. This image came from The Ladies’ Treasury: A Household Magazine, published in London in 1893. Granted, this was 80 years after Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, so it’s not something she would have worn, but I imagine it would have been breathtaking. It was made of white silk muslin with a silver pattern and an embroidered silver flounce.

Unfortunately, color photography was by no means rampant at this time, so we have to rely on someone’s black and white illustration. I had an illustrator color in the dress based on the author’s description.


Empire West BW (190x300)
As it was published in the magazine
Our illustrator’s interpretation














And a lovely dinner gown from the same magazine, this one from 1885. This one was made with striped crème satin and mulberry velvet. Based on the description, this is how we would have imagined it.

Dinner Gown Black and White (188x300)
As it was published in the magazine
Our illustrator’s interpretation
Our illustrator’s interpretation














And for those married ladies, a beautiful gown from Hearth and Home, published in London in 1895.  This one is made of dahlia velvet with the palest pink chiffon sleeves, trimmed with jet beads and gold sequins. Is this how you would have imagined it?

As it was published in the magazine
As it was published in the magazine
Our illustrator’s interpretation
Our illustrator’s interpretation














<Sigh> Sadly my closet contains skinny jeans, leggings, and blouses. No ball gowns.




photoAbout the Author

Jennifer loves her children, dogs, and Jane Austen. She has a B.A. in English and Sociology from the University of Michigan, and spends her waking hours as a marketing director and feeding her family.



2 thoughts on “19th Century Nitty-Gritty: Dancing with Jane Austen

    • Hi Robin, you are right. These dresses are from the late 19th century – several decades past Jane’s death. I started looking at the Austen dresses, but found amazing descriptions of how the dresses of the 18th century were worn and the materials that were used, so I went in that direction for this post. Austen was my inspiration.

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