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Get over it, Miss Bingley - Cheapside was great for retail therapy

All kinds of fascinating pieces of information came to my notice when I was researching life in Regency England for What Kitty Did Next. For example, I starting thinking about shoe roses rereading that Pride and Prejudice line, “the very shoe roses for Netherfield were got by proxy”. Shoe roses? Well, that was soon sorted. Silk decorative roses pinned on dancing shoes. Pretty straightforward. The shoes, being flimsy, didn't last too long, as you can see below. Very few have survived. I also learnt that there were shoe roses on ladies’ walking boots too, which was interesting, in a cute sort of way.

But it led me on to shopping in general. Then, as now, it was a very popular pastime, assuming you had the means. The contemporary novelist Fanny Burney declared that “gossiping, shopping and dressing” were the main activities of a fashionable woman’s morning.

Where did those fashionable ladies shop? In Pride and Prejudice, the mean-spirited Caroline Bingley disparages Elizabeth Bennet for having an uncle who lives in Cheapside. That uncle, Mr Gardiner, had various warehouses in the city, which to our modern ear doesn’t sound very glam but, back then, a warehouse simply meant a shop, a place that housed and sold wares. Some of those shops/warehouses were rather grand, with enticing frontages and even more enticing wares inside – all manner of exotic silks and brocades, chinoiserie, ribbons, beads and bonnets. So yes, Cheapside was an area with good warehouses; Oxford Street and Mayfair were also coming into their own as shoppers’ paradises. Those of you who know London might be intrigued to learn that names such as Debenhams (then Clark & Debenhams), Fortnum & Mason and Benjamin Harvey (soon to be Harvey Nichols) were familiar to Georgian shoppers. The shop pictured below, a forerunner to the modern department store, is Harding Howell & Co, and it was open in Pall Mall from 1796 to 1820. In What Kitty Did Next, Miss Catherine Bennet adores shopping in London!

In the 21st century we can shop online, in person, by mail order. They had choices back in Regency times too and, given the era and the country, class had a lot to do with who did what. Those with the time and inclination could, of course, call into the various establishments to see and be seen (important!), to examine the goods and fabrics on offer, confer with their friends and neighbours, and possibly place an order.

If you were rich and aristocratic enough, the retailer would be obliged to call on you – although that did mean that the range of samples and fabrics might be smaller, given that he’d have to haul them over to your townhouse. If you lived out of town you could request samples to be sent. And if you liked what you saw, you could send one of your old gowns up to a city dressmaker to serve as a pattern for a new one.

Or you could employ a proxy shopper. Some of Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra reference fabrics chosen in town for her. The proxy shopper could be seen as a forerunner to today’s personal shopper, I suppose. There was more of an onus to choose well in order to get it right though; it could be quite a responsibility.

Of course the “proxy” sent to fetch the shoe roses for the Netherfield Ball wasn’t on such a grand errand. He or she would have been some lowly servant required to walk into Meryton in the rain to save the young ladies from getting wet. There would have been no shoe roses on his or her boots!

And while we might think we are terribly modern to be living in a virtually cashless society, the Georgians weren’t big on dealing in cash either. The rich in Regency England thrived on credit or, as they put it, “coming to terms”. Some rather rich people thought nothing of keeping their suppliers waiting for “ready money” for up to a year or more. Not surprisingly, some of those shopkeepers went bankrupt, and ended up in debtors’ prison. So much for noblesse oblige!.

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