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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.