Between the Pages bonus post: Dresses and Dancing

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I enjoy watching the styles, sets and scenery of Jane Austen’s novels portrayed on screen and learning about the fashions of the period. Seeing as my last post only covered a very small amount of contextual material for this month’s featured author, why not indulge in a Between the Pages bonus post?

Clothes and fashions change all the time, although I do wonder whether fashions today are becoming less defined. In a few decades’ time, when historians look back on decades in the early 2000s, what will the defining fashions be?

Each decade in the 20th century has a standout fashion. The 1920s had flapper dresses and the rise of Coco Chanel; beautifully feminine bias-cut dresses were popular in the ’30s; the wartime years in the 1940s saw practical fashions, with red lipstick and pincurls to add a touch of glamour; and Dior’s New Look was launched near the end of the decade, leading into the full-skirted ’50s.

Similarly, Jane Austen’s era — the Georgian period — had defined fashions. During the 1770s, extravagant dresses and headwear were popular with wealthy women. The celebrity status of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire meant that she influenced fashion and women tried to emulate her styles.

“Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire” by Thomas Gainsborough. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Whatever she wore became instantly fashionable. Women’s hair was already arranged high above the head, but Georgiana took the fashion a step further by creating the three-foot hair tower” (Foreman, 2008: 37).

An adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s biography of the Duchess was filmed a few years ago. The costumes portray the decadent fashions of the Georgian aristocracy as well as the troubled life of Georgiana Cavendish, née Spencer (she was the great-great-great-great aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales and there are striking similarities between their lives).

However, later in the Georgian period when Austen’s novels were published, fashions changed. Whereas powdered wigs and opulent dresses were in fashion when Georgiana was one of the leading celebrities of the time, this gave way to more natural-looking fashions.

According to Blank (2007: 235), “muslins […] became the favoured material for women’s gowns” in the 1780s and ’90s. Styles — in clothing and in architecture — were influenced by classical Greek and Roman art, resulting in the Neoclassical style.

“Walking Costume” (1809)
Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia

In adaptations of Austen’s books, I noticed that the women often wear empire-line dresses. These dresses have a long, straight shape with a waistline that sits just below the bust, such as the picture of the evening dress below. I think they look very comfortable; women still wore corsets but they weren’t as restrictive, and the dresses allowed for freedom of movement, perfect for country walks, energetic dancing and strolls around town.

Image credit:

Image credit: “Dancing-Dress-1809” by unknown 1809 artist — Scanned by H. Churchyard from The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen, edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallett.       Ultimate source: Ackermann’s Repository, February 1809. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

As I mentioned in a previous post, Jane Austen did not shy away from making blunt remarks about people. From the comments in her letters, I think we can conclude quite easily that she didn’t like unflattering low-cut fashions or styles which showed too much flesh:

Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress, & exposed bosom” (Letters, 1801)

In a letter to her sister, describing a ball she attended:

So many dozen young Women standing by without partners, & each of them with two ugly naked shoulders” (Letters, 1809).

Jane Austen enjoyed dancing and it features in important scenes in her novels. In Pride and Prejudice, for instance, the Netherfield ball (held at Mr Bingley’s house) is a prime social event.

“Five positions of dancing” from Thomas Wilson’s Analysis of Country Dancing (1811).
Image source: Wikipedia

During an era with rigid social mores that prohibited un-chaperoned meetings between young men and women, dances were one of the main ways to find a spouse, although there were restrictions even then: I’ve read that you were only allowed to dance two dances with the same partner! And when I researched info for this post, I found this excellent page from the British Library, The ball in the novels of Jane Austen, which says that:

“Codes of behaviour were exacting. At the Netherfield ball Elizabeth must dance with Mr Collins because if a woman turns down one request for a dance she must turn down all others. Say no to Mr Collins and you must stand out for the whole evening”

So many rules… Considering that each dance could last for around 15 minutes, if you were stuck with a clumsy partner or with someone you disliked, it must have been quite tedious!

What type of dances would Jane Austen and her heroes and heroines have danced? According to Gay (2007: 339-340), there were “more formal and complex French dances”, such as the cotillion (“a ‘square’ dance for four or eight people”), and more relaxed country dances, which were “based on a simple skipping step” (ibid.).

Stately cotillions were slow and formal, but country dances really get your feet tapping. I love this type of dancing — modern pop/dance music usually doesn’t make me want to dance, but ceilidhs and country dancing are great fun. I defy you not to listen to this Irish folk song from Miss Austen Regrets without wanting to dance energetically!

References

Blank, A. (2007). Dress. In J. Todd (Ed.), Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 234-251.

Foreman, A. (2008). The Duchess. London: Harper Perennial.

Gay, P. (2007). Pastimes. In J. Todd (Ed.), Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 337-345.

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16 thoughts on “Between the Pages bonus post: Dresses and Dancing

    • I think the reason for the two-dance rule was because you were expected to rotate between partners, so that everyone had a chance to dance with different people. And if you danced more than two dances with the same partner, it was tantamount to being engaged!

      In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne and Willoughby disobey this social convention when they danced several dances together:

      “If dancing formed the amusement of the night, they were partners for half the time; and when obliged to separate for a couple of dances, were careful to stand together and scarcely spoke a word to anybody else. Such conduct made them of course most exceedingly laughed at; but ridicule could not shame, and seemed hardly to provoke them” (ch. 11).

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  1. I agree with everyone in that I’ve been enjoying reading about Jane Austen and the time period she lived in. Though the social rules seem rather complicated and silly at times, I think that it ironically simplifies some things- more specifically, romantic relationships. Of course, a standardized process is never a guarantee that things will work out between people but compared with all the vague, uncommitted, are-we-or-aren’t-we type of shenanigans I keep seeing, it makes me think that maybe girls back then had a much easier time of finding someone than we do today.

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    • Thank you. 🙂

      I know what you mean — social interactions were very clear-cut in JA’s time, which probably made it more straightforward to find someone. But her heroines always find ‘the one’. A more cynical view is voiced by Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance”. There were probably lots of unhappy matches, and women had no way out of a less than harmonious marriage.

      That being said, sometimes I think that I was born in the wrong era. Finding a partner at a Georgian ball seems infinitely more preferable than dating apps and nightclubs.

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      • You and me both! You might be the only other person I know who’s ever said that about themselves so I’m so glad you feel that way too, about being born a little too far ahead in time haha. Glad I’m not the only one. And I do have to agree with Charlotte on some counts, especially taking into account how important marriage was for women then. Maybe it’s good we live in the 21st century after all? 😉

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        • 🙂 When I was a child, I used to imagine that I was a JA heroine! In some respects, I suppose I had a fairly Austenesque childhood — growing up in the English countryside, being home-schooled…

          If the manners and chivalry of Austen’s time could merge with 21st century principles on the subjects of education, the law and female equality, I think it would be a perfect fusion. 😀

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  2. Fashion and dancing are always such interesting subjects! I, too, have often wondered why our twenty-first-century sense of fashion is so much broader than it seems to have been in the twentieth century. My mother once told me that even when she was growing up, you didn’t really stray too far from what was considered the fashion of the year. If hemlines were shorter one year than they had been the year before, my grandmother wouldn’t wear a longer skirt, even if she had a whole bunch from the prior season. You pretty much did whatever they were showing in the fashion magazines. If you look through a fashion magazine today, you’d probably find that it contradicts itself on what you should be wearing from one article or photograph to the next. That’s a pretty radical change in a relatively short period of time, and I have no idea how to explain it.

    I realized that I never got back to you with any thoughts on our blog buddies plan. Maybe to start with, we should try re-blogging or linking to some of each other’s posts, so we can introduce each other to our readers. It might be nice to do guest posts at some point, but I’ve been pretty busy at the moment, and I think you said you are, too.

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    • Perhaps the lack of defined fashions in the twenty-first century is because ‘fast fashion’ has become so widely purchased. Stores such as H&M and Gap sell cheap clothes. And these clothes have highly dubious ethical origins — factory workers in Bangladesh and India generally receive tiny salaries and work in unsafe conditions. In 2013, a factory collapsed, killing over a thousand workers and wounding thousands more.

      I’m not a fashion historian and I haven’t got references to back this up, but I’d say it’s likely that twenty-first century fashions are influenced by the availability of mass-produced, low-cost clothes. In preceding decades and centuries, the culture of ‘fast fashion’ didn’t exist — clothes were made to last and you had fewer choices.

      You’re right… I am busy at the moment, and my life is going to get busier when I start my Masters! I think a flexible blog buddy arrangement would be best, so neither of us feels under pressure. I agree that sharing posts is a good way to start. 🙂

      I hope you’re having a good weekend!

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  3. Pingback: Between the Pages: Quotes from Jane Austen | Cultural Life

  4. In the wonderful book, Reading Lolita in Teheran, Azar Nafisi talks quite a bit about dancing in Jane Austen’s novel to her young Iranian students. You might like this book. It certainly demonstrates how classic novels can transcend time and cultural context.

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  5. Pingback: A Very Literary Christmas – Part I | Cultural Life

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