The Cost of A Season
By Elizabeth Rasche, author of Flirtation & Folly, A Season in London
Finally! You have turned sixteen (or fifteen, and have a dazzlingly persuasive nature), and you are ready for your first Season in London. But while you are practising minuets and planning your furbelows, what exactly is it that dear papa will have to plunk down to pay for it all?
If you are lucky, you already have a family member (like Marianne’s Aunt Harriet in Flirtation and Folly) living in London and willing to put you up for the winter and spring. Otherwise, Papa will have to rent a house. A medium-sized home in a respectable part of London might cost anywhere from £12 to £25 per year, plus £25 for six months’ worth of coal.
Living with a relative would also offset food costs, of course, but if Papa is footing the bill, that is another £2 or so a week for a family of five with one servant. Of course, the family will have to eat whether you tread the cobblestones of London or remain in some duller place, but London food costs run higher than elsewhere. If you stay in London for six glorious months, that means roughly £52 for the Season.
As for servants, an array of household servants (a cook, two maids, a coachman, and a footman) might cost £87 a year in wages. But supposing those are already accounted for, and you only want to hire a lady’s maid for a few months to help you make your proper entrance into society—that will cost about £8 for the Season.
What about transportation? For the duration of a Season, a family carriage could be maintained for about £200. If you persuade the family you simply must have a riding horse for Hyde Park, the cost of keeping it would be £75 per Season.
And now for the biggest portion of the budget (and the most delightful!): clothing. What a What a young lady might spend on clothing of course varied. £10 was considered adequate by many ladies with a careful eye on their reticules. Jane Austen budgeted £40 per year for her usual attire at home. But because the whole point of a Season in London was to attract an eligible suitor, most ladies embarking on a Season spent much, much more. They had to look not only attractive, but also au courant, comme il faut—well, French in fashion, more or less, no matter what pesky military squabbles the countries might be engaged in.
The costs burgeoned in a number of ways. First, the quality of material. A yard of plain cotton might cost one shilling, while the same amount of plain silk would price at six shillings. Higher quality silks would cost even more, of course; Jane Austen admitted to spending six shillings just on a silk handkerchief. Although you could buy plain shoes for six to 11 shillings, walking boots would cost about £2, and anything dainty and appealing enough for a proper Season would cost much, much more.
The second way the cost of clothing for a Season grew was in selecting fashionable mantua makers (dressmakers) and milliners. A basic mantua maker might charge about £2 per garment, but hiring a more estimable woman to make your gowns would dramatically increase their cost. Add to that more fashionable bonnets, gloves, muffs, fans, and jewellery, and it was no surprise that the cost of fitting out a young lady for a whole Season might easily cost £500 for a well-to-do family, and some paid £15,000—close to half a million American dollars in today’s currency.
Even if you adore a trip to the shops, you might wonder why any respectable family would spend so much simply to make a young lady a little prettier. The answer is that clothing in the Regency was a significant way of conveying social signals. The cost of the goods was inflated by the meaning attached to them, a meaning that said, “I am a member of the gentry, my family has wealth, I know the social milieu of the elite and can navigate it.” This was an important signal to send any gentleman looking for a wife. Although on a personal level a man might favour blue eyes or bright repartee, he needed a wife who could solidify or enhance his social standing (or at least not disgrace him to his companions). But he had limited time to investigate any particular lady. There were few opportunities to spend meaningful quality time with an unmarried young woman. There might be a few dances, a few card games, a handful of rides—usually with an escort, of course—not a lot of chances to test a young lady to see if she knew the manners and habits of the group he belonged to. This made people rely more on proper attire as a gauge for a young lady’s suitability.
It becomes easier to understand such reliance on clothes when we see how we view social signals in our own time. For example, we might pay significantly more for an Ivy League education, knowing it sends a particular signal, even though the actual difference in learning might be small. We might choose an expensive vehicle over a cheaper one for its brand name, though the difference in safety or speed might be negligible. Many people pay thousands of pounds (or dollars) more for colleges or cars with cachet, hoping to send a particular signal about themselves and improve their social standing. But while we might be able to make a good life with a less applauded car or college, Regency misses would be hard pressed to have a good life without catching a good husband. The choice of a husband would determine too many parts of their lives—income, living space, children, and to some extent even friendships would depend on which gentlemen they married.
All told, the cost for a Season in London for the family might be around £900, with most of the cost devoted to clothing for the young lady. Compare this to Mr Bennet’s income (£2000) per year) or the Dashwoods (£500 per year) or a simple farmer or labourer of the time (£15 per year, on average), and you see what an outlay it was to give one young lady one Season. Today, that £900 would have the spending power of £30,564 (or $39,320). It’s a hefty price to pay to try and settle one woman with a good husband…but is it more than people pay for ‘the right college’ or ‘living in the proper neighbourhood’? We can sympathise with the young ladies eager for a Season in London, even if we might shake our heads at some of the profligate customs of the Regency era.
Sources used: The Period House: Style, Detail, and Decoration: 1774 – 1914 by Richard Russell Lawrence and Teresa Chris; “The London Season” by Dawn Aiello; Jane Austen’s World website; the Jane Austen Centre blog; The Proceedings of the Old Bailey (1800-1817); “The Cost of Keeping a Horse in Jane Austen’s Day” by Sheryl Craig; A History of the Cost of Living by John Burnett