The pièce-de-résistance of any Regency gentleman's attire, as we all know, was his cravat. Although it has almost disappeared from men’s wardrobes, it lives on in fiction. Georgette Heyer instilled in her readers the importance of this starched and tied neck-kerchief. The variety of ways for trying a cravat was a source of competition and envy between the dandies of the period.
So, what is a cravat?
The answer is - a simple piece of fine linen cut into a triangle and hemmed.
Linen is made from the flax plant and in the Regency period was imported into Britain from Germany. It was also produced in Ireland where its production was a cottage industry. Families spun, wove and dyed the cloth as well as made shirts, underclothes and household linen for sale. It was sold by the yard by linen-drapers, haberdashers and travelling salesmen. Womenfolk then manufactured their family's nightwear, shirts and cravats, by hand, as sewing machines weren't widely available until after 1829.
I didn't realise how much importance the cravat had assumed in my own writing until I began this article. Then I discovered that the humble cravat was a part of the tension of many of the scenes between the hero and heroine of The Persuasion of Miss Jane Brody as their relationship grew.
The heroine, Jane Brody, sees it, feels it, smells it.
With the first bars of the waltz, Lord Dalton offered his left hand to her as he slid his right arm onto her waist. Her skin warmed at his touch and she glanced up into his dark eyes to find them gazing at her intently. Flustered, she looked down and found herself staring at his sapphire-studded cravat pin.
She felt the crisp starched linen of his cravat under one hand while the fingers of her other hand were entwined in his soft wavy hair.
Inside the carriage she was again aware of Lord Dalton’s close proximity seated opposite her. His long legs crowded hers. His attentive eyes watched her closely. The mingled scents of his freshly shaven face and crisply starched cravat besieged her senses. She squirmed on her seat attempting to subdue her tremors of attraction.
The cravat becomes an integral part of their Regency romance and a barometer of it.
A few minutes into the talk she made the error of including Jonathan in her survey of the room when making a point and faltered again. Had he taken to tying his cravat in a different way since they had parted? It appeared so. What else had he changed, in his efforts to forget her by obliterating everything in his life that reminded him of her? He looked immaculate in his evening clothes.
The hero, Jonathan, Marquis of Dalton, has his cravat put on …
He needed a wife who could fulfil a multitude of household tasks and social duties. He wanted a wife who supported his political activities and views, as well as one willing to provide him with the necessary heir and preferably other sons. He would like a wife who loved him. He suspected Miss Brody would not willingly do any of these things.
Finally, as his valet finished his task, Jonathan impatiently tugged the towel from his shoulders and surged to his feet. He must do something to distract himself. Ordering Jenkins to be quick, Jonathan stood impatiently as his cravat was tied, then struggled into his well-cut coat.
… and taken off in dramatic moments of cravat abuse.
as he gently lifted her and sat her on the canopied bed before kneeling to remove her shoes and garters. As he worked, she began undoing his cravat, destroying his valet’s skilled creation. With glee she watched the linen flutter to the floor, then gave him her full attention as he slipped off her stockings one at a time, kissing each foot as it was revealed before gently lowering it to the carpeted floor.
In his own chamber Jonathan ripped the cravat from around his neck and tossed it to the floor. Damn you, Jane – you care nothing for me, only about my influence for your cause.
So, I now see that the humble cravat has functions beyond its role as an item of dress and a neck-warmer. To the Regency author, this triangular piece of fine linen is an important prop, almost a character, able to convey not only status and personality, but also mood and sensuality. Long live the cravat!
Do you have some favourite Regency scenes in which the gentleman's cravat is vital to their telling?
Jennifer Forest, Jane Austen's Sewing Box: Craft Projects and Stories from Jane Austen's World. Murdoch Press, London, 2009, pp. 48-9, 58, 60-1. Link: http://jenniferforest.typepad.com/jennifer-forest/books.html
Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sewing_machine, accessed 24 Mar 2015.
Isabella Hargreaves, The Persuasion of Miss Jane Brody, Steam eReads, ebook, 2013.