top of page

The Regency Wardrobe collection - research - Atishoo



Collection: The Regency Wardrobe Garment: Woman's handkerchief

Materials: Aster Lace Paper, Bib Tengujo hemp fiber paper, dried flowers including Hawthorn the (reeking) May tree, embroidery thread

This piece is inspired by the history of the handkerchief and handkerchief flirtation. A Regency era handkerchief might be decorated in the centre with, for example, images of flowers created in raised work embroidery. In the Victorian era lace edging became more popular and ornate.

Atishoo reflects the reliance on herbs and flowers at the heart of Regency medicine - a Pocket Companion to Culpeper’s Herbal, or English physician was published in 1820 - in particular the traditional uses of May Blossom otherwise known as Hawthorn.

Primarily however Atishoo is inspired by the rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie,” or “Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses,” as it is more commonly known.

‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses, A pocket full of posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down’

It is widely believed that this rhyme arose from, and relates to, the Great Plague, an outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague that affected London in the year 1665. However this interpretation emerged in the mid 20th century, and is not accepted by many folklorists. There are many variants and versions of this rhyme, some without any suggestion of death, but the imagery of Posies is consistent. When linked to plague and disease flowers have tended to be thought of in relation to nosegays, pomanders, potpourri, scented waters and the posies used for centuries to ward off miasma - which was believed associated with the spread of airborne diseases. Yet it is also possible that the roses and posies in this rhyme simply signify joy and love as flowers otherwise traditionally do in European culture. In some parts of the world this rhyme is seen as a playful courtship game.


Atishoo was one of the pieces that grew out of the extended time period I had available to me to work on The Regency Wardrobe as our society closed down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In May 2020 every conversation seemed to be about what medicine and medical interventions we, today, had at our disposal to fight this new disease. At that point I had already been researching all things Regency for over two years, thus I couldn't help but think again about what medicine our ancestors had had available to them in1820. I say again because I had already taken my first few steps on this path by then. I'd already come across willow bark as a medical remedy, for it is mentioned several times in letters in The Regency Town House's Bevan and Dewar collection and those references had inspired Weeping Willow (link to come), one of the parasols in The Regency Wardrobe collection. But now I was hearing comparisons with the Great Plague of1666 and the Spanish Flu pandemic of1918. It seemed like mentions of history and disease and medicine were everywhere.

- For a light hearted take on how much better off we are than those in the Regency , in terms of health care, I'd recommend:

From before this period in my life I believed I'd heard something about a link between the nursery rhyme ring-a-ring-a-roses and the Black Death, I knew that herbs were of paramount importance in response to ill health in the past, and I knew something of nose-gays and the use of dried flowers in warding off disease that was believed to be airborne; but these references all needed fleshing out if I was to make anything of them and turn them into something beautiful. And whilst death and destruction was being wrought on our shores by an invisible foe all I could do was make something beautiful.

For a look at how viruses have been considered, including in the Regency, please see:

But what piece of clothing or fashion accessory would best relate to our new reality whilst linking also to the idea of ill health in the early 1800's? Surely the answer was obvious, and only became more so as I began reading, it had to be a handkerchief.

When you do a web search for historic handkerchiefs you get kerchief's coming up also and, for myself, I had to clarify both the difference and the connections between these two pieces of fabric.



Noun (old-fashioned) - a piece of cloth used to cover the head. "And mamma in her ' kerchief , and I in my cap,

Had just settled down for a long winter's nap..."

- 1823: Clement Clark Moore - The Night Before Christmas

Derived terms: handkerchief: headkerchief, kerchiefed, neckerchief


Alternative forms: handkercher (obsolete)

Noun - a piece of cloth, usually square and often fine and elegant, carried for wiping the face, eyes, nose or hands; a piece of cloth shaped like a handkerchief to be worn about the neck; a neckerchief or neckcloth.

Synonyms: hanky, pocket handkerchief

Really i was looking for images of Regency handkerchiefs but this wasn't proving easy.

I found a printed cotton example from 1800: and thought it interesting to compare the use of printing (therefore early mass production) and the subject matter of the imagery used in this context with that which I'd seen on printed fans from the same period.

In the end most of the examples I found of handkerchiefs from the late 1700's-early 1800's were quite minimally decorated.

- The same was true of kerchiefs, such as this one, but that is an aside:

This example uses whitework embroidery, so popular during The Regency. I found several examples with flowers embroidered near the centre.

In comparison when I looked at Victorian examples I found wide lacy boarders; to the extent that on some there seemed to barely be enough plain fabric included to actually blow your nose. A good example is this one from the collection at The Met

I wanted my handkerchief to be a combination of these two styles, and therefore eras. That is, to reflect the floral centre piece of a typical embroidered Georgian handkerchief whilst allowing me to have the fun of creating a lace edge. I wasn't sure at first how wide I would go with my own lacy boarder but of course as I worked it grew more lavish than I might at first have expected, and I didn't resist.

It would be several months in to our new (covid) world reality before I would actually put Atishoo together. I would know by then that The Regency Wardrobe collection was to be shown at Firle Place, therefore, I would know also that part of the way around the exhibition tour route would be The Victorian anti-room. I planned to put The Lady of the House dress in there from The Maison de Papier collection in order to illustrate how skirts spread in girth (and numbers of frilled) as the 1800's progressed. Illustrating likewise how the extent of applied decoration increased exponentially even on simple accessories such as the handkerchief would, I felt, help link the two eras and two parts of the collection - fashion and accessories. I was quite happy therefore that there would be an accessory in The Regency Wardrobe collection that looked forward in time. I was quite happy therefore with a wide lace border.

As to the rest of my research for this piece...let us first take a frivolous sidestep.

For do we not need an element of frivolity!

If you read enough about handkerchiefs from times past you are, I think, bound to come across mention also of the history of handkerchief flirtation.

I'm not sure if all the dates are quite right in this extract but the general history of the handkerchief is interesting:

"During the middle ages a kerchief was used as a head covering, but when Europeans began to use them to wipe their runny noses or sweaty foreheads, they were distinguished from the head covering kerchiefs by being called “hand-kerchiefs.” The word hand-kerchief first appeared in print in the 1530s, and the handkerchief once named quickly gained in popularity. For instance, during the time of Queen Elizabeth I, handkerchiefs were often presented as gifts between women. This gifting among women was done in part to avoid any sign of impropriety as “handkerchiefs were the customary messengers of Cupid.” However, Elizabeth I loved handkerchiefs and gave as many to women as she received, and it was during her reign that the handkerchief reached its pinnacle. In 1604, the idea of handkerchiefs and love was introduced and described in Friar Bacon’s Prophesie: “Handkerchers [sic] were wrought with names and true love knots..." John Stowe’s Chronicles provides a description of the sixteenth and seventeenth small, ornate, and sweetly scented handkerchief presented verbatim: “It was the custome for maydes and gentlewomen to give their favourites, as tokens of their love, little Handkerchiefs, of about three or four inches square…with a button or tassel at each corner, and a little one in the middle, with silke and threed; the best edged with a small gold, lace, or twist, which being doubled up in foure crosse foldes, so as the middle might be seene, gentlemen and others did usually wear them in their hattes, as favours of their loves and mistresses.” Under the right circumstances, gestures with a handkerchief could also easily be considered a marital contract, but exactly how handkerchiefs came to be used as flirtation signals is unclear. Handkerchief gestures at court may have been used to signal intentions, and, although unwritten, they may have become well understood love gestures over time. People outside of court likely wanted to imitate royals and latched onto this practice of handkerchief signalling. In the 1700 and 1800s, women could also not flirt openly or explicitly because social restrictions and cultural norms were in place and society disapproved of any type of overt sexual advances. A woman’s best tool for flirting was non-verbal communication. Thus, women made their interest or disinterest known to the opposite sex, by demurely batting their eyelashes, giving come-hither smiles, or tossing their hair. There was one other way women could rely on subtle signals to telegraph their feeling and intentions to the opposite sex. Something that all women carried was the handkerchief....By the end of the 1800s, it was an accepted custom for any woman to signal her intentions with a handkerchief and in the late 1800s, Daniel R. Shafer wrote about the handkerchief and this ability to signal feelings: “The handkerchief, among lovers, is used in a different manner than its legitimate purpose. The most delicate hints can be given without danger of misunderstanding, and in ‘flirtations’ it becomes a very useful instrument. It is in fact superior to the deaf and dumb alphabet, as the notice of bystanders is not attracted.”

from Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1886.

and now let us return to the serious subject matter of actually blowing ones nose, via the links between disease and the sweet smell of flowers.

Handkerchiefs are generally employed when one already has one of many conditions that can make your nose run; but what of the history of holding something up to the nose earlier in the process of contagion, in order in fact to try to ward off disease.

For a bit of background I need to quote from The Rise of Miasma:

" Bad Air - Miasma as a concept existed since at least Ancient Greece, but it took on new dimensions with the Black Death. Miasma Theory holds that particles of rotting matter (miasmata) are released into the air, especially at night, by refuse and decomposing bodies. A small number of miasmata are present in even the freshest of airs. However, should one breath in too much of this supposed putrified vapour, one’s body would be infested with decomposition and become ill...The concept of miasma post-Black Death was that once poisoned with the smallest amount of putrified material, one would inevitably get sick and die. Even the most common of unpleasant odours might hold the seeds of your death. A great paranoia around the act of breathing developed as one has little control over what one smells. Any inspiration could have night air, any breath could be your last. The only way to ward oneself against the bad air was through preservation...When diarists during the plague years talk of fumigation, they are not speaking of it in the modern sense. There was no sense that they were killing bacteria or pests. Fumigation was a form of olfactive prevention thought to move the miasmata out of the air by replacing it with other odours." I would highly recommend reading more on this site to learn about the history of smell and its believed link to disease. The link again is

It seems there was a strong spiritual link here, all things introduced to replace (or mask) foul olfactory effects were applied with the idea of inner and outer, physical and spiritual cleanliness in mind, that one might be forgiven and (physically) saved.

Another interesting aside is to consider how thoughts about the importance of

cleanliness during the Regency is evidenced through fashion by the popularity of pure white fabrics.

This link is made in a piece from the time that is otherwise about the cleanliness of the skin:

In order to keep ones Regency skin and clothes clean one of course would have needed soap,

and the products available haven't changed so much:

Then the addition of water:

Which all links nicely with Brighton, the location of origins and much of research behind

The Regency Wardrobe collection

What else could one could do on an individual level, to protect ones' own person? During this pandemic we've had to adopt the habit of putting masks over our faces but worldwide this is not a new practice, see: for a mask of a very different sort, with a long beak stuffed with herbs to be breathed through.

"The most common plague preservatives were posies and nosegays (aka bouquets and corsages). They consisted of strong smelling flowers and kitchen herbs being carried in a bundle, pinned to one’s garments or stuffed into pockets, hence pocket full of posey...Posies kept in one’s pockets were often wrapped in plain cloth for conveyance and were referred to in English by the amazing name of plague bags. The plague bags would be kept in a pocket or worn around the neck on a string to keep miasma away. Sadly this straightforward name was supplanted by sweet bag by the late 1500s and then, sachet de senteurs, in the 17th century." eventually these would become what we term now lavender bags, kept in drawers in the house rather than about our person

For the most informative pages I found on "The Sweet Smell of Plague Preservatives" I recommend these pages:

So I had come to my first reference to ring-a-ring-a-roses, previous to purposefully looking it up and it was being cited as linked to disease which seemed to confirm the impression I had of it but to be sure I had to investigate further.

The first verse is the best known of “Ring Around the Rosie,” or “Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses,” as it is more commonly known.

Ring-a-ring-a-roses, A pocket full of posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down’

And it’s not just me who had the impression that this rhyme arose from, or was related in to some way to the Great Plague, an outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague that affected London in the year 1665. Yet it turns out that this interpretation emerged in the mid 20th century, and is not accepted by many folklorists. It seems also that there are in fact many variants and versions of this rhyme, some without any suggestion of death. The imagery of Posies however is consistent across these variants. If linked to plague and disease it would make sense to mention flowers in relation to nose gays, pomanders, pot porri, scented waters, as we have already explored. The posies in the rhyme would be those used for centuries to ward off miasma. But in some parts of the world this rhyme is seen as a playful courtship game so is it possible that the roses and posies in this rhyme simply signify what flowers otherwise traditionally signify in European culture, that is, joy and love?

It's hard for us to know. Apart from the mention of posies the visual impression that stuck most strongly in my mind from re-reading this rhyme which I, like everybody perhaps, had known in childhood was that of a ring, a circle. So it would be a circle that I would lay my flowers in. But how to create those flowers? At another time of year I might have contemplated embroidery but as I've said it was May when I started thinking of flowers and herbs in this context. We were experiencing the UK's first lockdown but were allowed out to walk and I am lucky enough to have pretty roads and kerbsides accessible. So I started taking home in my pockets tiny samples of the spring's wild bounty

Promenading as it should more accurately be termed as regards the wlaking that was done in

the Regency was recognised not just as a chance to be seen by society, as you will find

referenced in my post about the three outfits made for walking that are

part of The Regency Wardrobe collection (to view please click here)

But just as we have been encouraged to continue to excercise during lock down it was

also recognised for it's health promoting properties:

Though women might have needed to be careful:

Atishoo I knew would reflect the reliance on herbs and wild flowers at the heart of Regency medicine. A Pocket Companion to Culpeper’s Herbal, or English physician was published in 1820:

To read studies of medicine from the 18th and early 19th centuries:

I have fallen for the old fashioned word Ague:

A word that indeed features in this beautiful old poem that heralds the value of flowers

in terms of human health, and was perhaps written by an ancestor of mine:

And for two contemporary takes:

As I read more of herbal medicine I came across the traditional uses of Hawthorn otherwise known as May Blossom (and also known as 'reeking' for its smell which Medieval folk apparently asserted was just like the smell of the Great Plague in London). Then I realised I was surrounded by it. Every day I was passing alongside hedgerows covered in its tiny white flowers. So that was one of the blooms I picked.


And I returned then to another element of my childhood for, having pulled out the heaviest books I could find, I began pressing flowers for the first time in years.

and I left them there for months, throughout the first lockdown and summer of 2020 and well into the autumn, when the second wave of covid was looming down upon us.

Some would press more successfully than others of course.

So this is what I ended up with, a ring of pressed flowers, a fallen down posie, flowers like children fallen in a circle...

At the centre of the handkerchief they are trapped between two pieces of paper, just as they were whilst being pressed.

These images show details of Atishoo.

Otherwise the materials I used to make it were: Aster Lace Paper, Bib Tengujo hemp fibre paper and embroidery thread

I mentioned earlier the idea of creating beauty in the face of disease. There is a (perhaps tenuous) link of course here in terms of the beauty industry and the health industry and the materials they have always shared in common. Examples include:

which can still be purchased today, the origins of which again link spirituality with cleanliness:

Worry about freckles and hair removal

Andthe use of hand lotion

My last aside in this post concerns the dangers there have been in this area, beauty's dark side if you will, that is, in terms of quacks...

...and poisons

And if all else failed, as regards looking after ones health, then it would seem one ought simply to go to sleep (but not for too long):


This project ihas been supported by:

Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page