The woman is dressed in a powder-blue satin bonnet and dress, waiting beneath the entrance to the Roman baths. Top-hatted gentlemen swirl around her, accompanied by ladies in full-skirted dresses. She is clutching a parasol in her gloved left hand. In her right hand is a bright red mobile phone. "No, not up the steps, near the fountain .... THE FOUNTAIN!", she shouts into the mouthpiece, tossing her ringlets.
The fractious maiden has reason to be jittery. She was one of hundreds who gathered in Bath at 11am yesterday to break a world record. The Guinness world record in question – the largest gathering of people dressed in Regency costume – is not one that has been contested by many. In fact, there has been only one previous record, 200 people, set by "Someone in America" (naturally). But that did not calm the nerves of those waiting, who were keen that the promenade to the counting hall would be the pièce de résistance of the city's annual Jane Austen festival.
The festival, which is now in its ninth year, is one of Bath's more successful attempts to cash in on one of its its most famous former residents. Jane Austen Plc has become a boom industry for Bath, with package holidays dedicated to the author, Regency tea rooms, and shops selling "I love Mr Darcy" bags and period clothing. People come from as far as Japan, America and Australia to join the week-long festival, which includes lectures, plays and even a costume ball.
Sarah Arnold from Denver, Colorado, was one of 22 women from an international period sewing forum called the Sense and Sensibility Group who attended in her own handmade dress. The 28-year-old was in England for the first time, but until today she had yet to find the country of Austen's novels she dreamed of. "London was not exactly what I expected. I thought it would be lush and green and grand, but it was kind of squashed together and grey. This is more like it," she said, gesturing towards the stone columns and blue sky. "This is England."
Rochelle Tucker, 26, moved to Bath from California after last year's festival. Her outfit, with its straw bonnet and velvet cropped Spencer jacket, would have looked as if were straight out of a period drama if it weren't for the red Costa coffee cup she was sipping from. Her mother, Oonegh Tucker, encouraged her to move to the city in search of eligible bachelors.
Like the meddling Mrs Bennet of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Tucker wants her daughter married off. "I'm here to get her married and find her a Mr Darcy," she declared, scanning the horizon for suitable talent. It will take her a while. The few men that had been persuaded into breeches seemed to fall into two categories: re-enactment fanatics and very patient husbands.
Ian Furey-King, a health and safety consultant from Bristol, fell into the former group. He was dressed in full Regency military uniform, with curled-up moustache and an oversized period sword. He didn't say if it had been risk assessed. "I've been doing historical re-enactments for quite a while now," he said puffing his chest out of his intricately buttoned jacket. "The moustache is all my own and so is the sword."
All these photogenic costumes come at a price. Petticoats alone can cost £120; bonnets are £75 and a full man's military outfit can set its proud owner back several thousand pounds.
Kelly and Ian Charlesworth from Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, had reason to invest in their outfits: they got married in full costume yesterday afternoon. Kelly, 29, has always dreamed of a period wedding. "My dress is an exact replica of the one Elizabeth Bennet wore in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice TV show and Ian is wearing a 10th Light Dragoons uniform. His outfit cost £1,500, but my dress was only £400," she said.
"I've been interested in the Regency period since I was 12. I met Ian four years ago and asked him to watch Pride and Prejudice. Since then I don't think he's had any choice but to get involved, but he enjoys it." And surprisingly, he really does seem to. "I like things like motorbike racing, so when Kelly asked me to watch Pride and Prejudice I really wasn't sure," he said. "But it's a nice bit of escapism and to be honest, I love it. Not a lot of blokes go, so whenever I go along I get to dance with all the nice ladies."
The couple joined the parade as it was led away from the Roman baths by a drummer and a town crier in full 19th-century military regalia. People in the middle of their Saturday shopping stopped to stare. If that wasn't enough to make its participants self-conscious, a passing tour bus screeching to a halt so its enthusiastic snappers could capture the ultimate tourist shot did the job.
By noon, 409 people had reached the Assembly Rooms, the period building where the record was to be registered. As 10 minutes were logged, the requisite time for the record, a cheer of "huzzah" went up from the ballroom. The record was broken.
But outside, not everyone was happy. Thanks to the strict rules of the record attempt – which included compulsory bonnets and full length dresses – some costumes never passed muster. Jane, a 20-year-old art student from London, who was too embarrassed to give her surname, was told to wait at the entrance. Instead of a bonnet, she was wearing a floppy cloche hat tied on with ribbon. "I didn't get in. Apparently my costume is inaccurate," she said, looking down at her decidedly 21st-century ballet shoes. "I bought this skirt and top from a charity shop and I thought they looked old enough. I didn't realise it was so serious."Reuse content