Just like Bridgerton’s Eloise, real Regency women used muffs to express themselves – and form friendships

By Elisabeth Gernerd

Each season of Bridgerton is highly anticipated not only for the season’s plot, but also its elaborate costumes. While in season three most eyes have centred on Penelope Featherington’s (Nicola Coughlan) glow-up and transformation – a plot line that effectively argues for the power of clothing – another character’s unusual accessory has caught the attention of the period drama’s fans.

Though anything is possible in the fantasy-Regency world of Bridgerton and the question of the show’s historical accuracy is by now a moot point, this season has stumbled upon a happy case of accidental accuracy.

As Eloise (Claudia Jessie) and Cressida (Jessica Madsen) promenade in the park in the first episode, Eloise’s forearms are encased in a fuzzy, lilac muff. The unusual decision to have Eloise wear a muff in high summer was made to conceal Jessie’s broken wrist. However, this sartorial twist of fate is actually true to one of the 18th century’s lesser-known accessories – the silk muff.

Muffs, cylindrical accessories worn around the hands and forearms, were made of three materials during the 18th century: fur, feathers and silk.

First worn in the 16th century, fur muffs were the most luxurious. Made of fox, lynx or even bear cub, fur muffs could be stuffed with eider down, providing warmth, and were primarily sold from the beginning of October through February. Milliners and furriers (the makers of fur muffs) advertised new muffs in newspapers, as well as cleaning and alteration services to help the ladies of the ton get their muffs ready for the London winter season.

Feather muffs were also popular and worn throughout the year. After the seven years’ war (1756–1763), for example, newspapers in the spring and summer of 1762 were rife with advertisements and editorials for feather muffs. Their popularity was a byproduct of the French losing access to the north American fur trade to the British. However, the most versatile muffs for all seasons were those constructed of silk.

Worn since the 17th century, silk muffs were embellished with embroidery, spangles (aka sequins), or satin prints (printed pictures on silk). Though some are fur-trimmed and heavily insulated, many are only made using a thin layer of wool batting (a natural fibre wadding). This made them a lighter option that could be worn throughout the changeable temperatures of British spring and summertime.

Silk muffs were often made at home and offered women a blank canvas for sartorial self-expression. They were commonly embroidered using printed patterns from periodicals such as The Lady’s Magazine, or from patterns purchased from town.

Embroidering a muff demonstrated the maker’s skill and experience. It also provided a focus of commonality and connection between cousins, siblings and friends.

For example, the English paper-flower artist Mary Delany frequently instructed her sister on her embroidery work. Delany’s great niece, Frances Mabel Sparrow, also sought the advice of her older cousin Henrietta Pennington, whom she perceived as a “great Workwoman”.

In her letters, Sparrow sought Pennington’s advice and asked her to send patterns in the latest fashion from London to Sparrow’s home, 120 miles north of the capital. Pennington’s home in Kensington positioned her within reach of the ton (high society). In her cousin’s eyes, this made her an excellent arbiter of fashionable news and taste.

A silk muff from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In addition to the practical networks fostered around embroidery, the practice also formed and reinforced bonds of kinship. In Delany’s correspondence with her sister Anne, she describes one muff that she made as “an emblem of you and me, and so I must cherish it”. This shows the sentimental attachment sewing and making could imbue into an accessory.

Likewise, the choice of thread, stitch, shading, colour and pattern all reveal the personality and ability of a muff’s maker. Bridgerton’s first episode features a discussion of embroidery stitches between young women that Eloise finds extremely boring. It’s depicted as a trivially feminine waste of time. But in reality the practice was one of female empowerment, selfhood and self-expression.

With the addition of satin prints in the 1780s, the silk muff literally became a portable canvas. It not only showcased women’s artistic skill with the needle, but also displayed the work of female visual artists, like Angelica Kauffman. Satin prints often portrayed allegories of virtues, like felicity, innocence, or sincerity. These printed images, originally painted by Kauffman and printed onto silk, gave women another means of self-fashioning, as well as patronising and promoting women artists.

Silk muffs were a year-round accessory that bonded women in friendship and gave them a platform for their artistic skills and creativity. The humble muff, in the guise of a simple accessory, was a small, but powerful form of female agency.

Elisabeth Gernerd is Lecturer in Design Cultures, De Montfort University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence