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Pride and Parasols

Dressing to impress at the world’s premier Jane Austen festival

Author Hannah Stuart-Leach Photography © Tom Morgan/Demotix/Corbis

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BATH, ENGLAND – “You see, that is not Regency,” mutters an elderly lady in a marigold bonnet and matching frock, wagging a lace-gloved finger at a similarly dressed woman.

“That is late Victorian!”

The Jane Austen Festival, held annually in the English city of Bath, tends to provoke this sort of quibble. The festival spans 10 days, involves activities ranging from seminars (“Rummaging Through the Reticule”) to masked balls, and draws visitors from across the world. One man wearing a monocle says he came all the way from Japan. “I can’t stay for the whole thing, though,” he adds in a stage whisper. “I’ve got the Agatha Christie Festival next.”

Though ostensibly a literary festival meant to celebrate the work of the esteemed novelist, the occasion really adds up to a big costume party. The main event is the promenade, which allows participants to show off their Regency duds and to pass judgment on those worn by others—a fate unlikely to befall historically precise regulars Helen Stokes and Esther Harvey. “Someone on the train asked if we were going to a wedding,” Stokes says as she rearranges the feathers on her hat.

For the two visitors, both in their 40s, the festival’s appeal is simple. “It’s a chance to have a day out from normal life, time out from the kids,” Harvey says, curtseying at a group of bemused exchange students. A moment later, they swivel their heads to watch a woman with an elegant lace fan and a swishy silk dress pass by. Harvey, who made her duck-egg-colored dress this year using curtain fabric, puffs her cheeks. “You get dreadful parasol envy doing this.”

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