By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
There was a great change in fashion over the course of Austen’s life. In this era, more attention had turned to women’s feet and ankles and shoes and stockings because higher dress hems began to show them off. Ironically, though, it was previous generation’s intellectual women who brought new meaning to stockings.
Importance of Footwear
During Austen’s time, along with clothes, footwear had become important as well. Slippers and ankle boots were popular and colorful, and could be ready-made or made to order from a shoemaker.
Footwear was designed for indoor or outdoor use, with ankle boots the likeliest outdoor choice. Boots varied in their level of hardiness. Some were made of a sturdy cotton material. Delicate footwear could be chosen by wealthy people who had access to carriages, with servants to deliver them from door to door. However, few had that level of privilege.
There’s a famous scene from Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet walks miles from her home, in order to visit her sister Jane, who’s taken ill and is convalescing at Mr. Bingley’s home. Elizabeth’s walk shows how little she cares for keeping her footwear and stockings pristine. She arrives “with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise”.
The persnickety Miss Bingley is outraged that Lizzy has dirt rising higher than her ankles. She declares that Elizabeth looks “almost wild”, with “a most country-town indifference to decorum”. For Miss Bingley, Lizzy’s dirt is class marker, revealing her to be a country bumpkin. Miss Bingley’s criticisms of Lizzy’s appearance are designed to make herself look better, but there her tactic backfires. Mr. Bingley sees Elizabeth’s walk as a gesture of sisterly affection, and Mr. Darcy finds Lizzy’s eyes brightened by exercise. In this scene, utility and strength win out over fashionability and care for one’s clothes and shoes.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A generation before Jane Austen’s, intellectual women had brought new meaning to stockings. Their group came to be called ‘Bluestockings’, not from their own stockings, but from those of a man in their circle wearing regular blue worsted-wool stockings. A blue worsted stocking signaled plain, not fancy, dress. But the term ‘bluestocking’ came to mean an upstart intellectual woman who rejected previous feminine conventions or rules.
The ‘blues’, as these intellectual women were called, may even have changed the cultural associations of the color itself. In 1823, an anonymous writer imagined what Austen might have worn while writing her novels. She was conjured up wearing a light blue gown, with a lace cap, and pink ribbons. Interestingly, an actual portrait of Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra, shows her only from the back, wearing a light blue gown and blue bonnet. Perhaps blue was one of Austen’s preferred colors. If so, that may have had particular significance for her intellectual affiliations, too. But this is mere speculation.
Significance of Colors
The meaning and fashion of colors, expressed in dyes and hues, changed over time. Some blue dyes, like indigo, were considered exotic imports.
In Austen’s fiction, colors are significant, and purple stands out. Northanger Abbey’s hateful Isabella Thorpe tells heroine Catherine Morland, “I wear nothing but purple now; I know I look hideous in it, but no matter—it is your dear brother’s favourite colour.” The obnoxious Mrs. Elton, in Emma, is said to have had a reticule, or small purse, in purple and gold.
Fashionable colors came and went, like a jonquil yellow or a pinkish puce. The exception was black, consistently worn then as an obligatory sign of mourning. Clothes were sometimes dyed black after a death, in order to have garments that would signal a family’s being in mourning.
Learning how to evaluate fabric could come from hard-won experience or from shopping. Shops were prevalent in London and Bath, but not as much in smaller towns. In Emma’s fictional village of Highbury, one shop—Ford’s—serves as the village’s principal woolen-draper, linen-draper, and haberdasher all in one. When Emma’s Frank Churchill buys a pair of gloves at Ford’s, he shows himself not to be a fashion snob.
Shopping at Popular Shops
Shopping could be done by proxy, when someone else went to a center of commerce. A trusted person could go on a ‘commission’—purchasing an item on another’s behalf. At popular shops, the wait times could be quite long. Austen’s letters report shops being ‘thronged’ and her party having to wait 30 to 45 minutes to be served. A shopper could look at samples of goods displayed, especially in windows, but actual articles purchased usually came from behind a counter.
The most famous scene of Austen’s characters being forced to wait a long time in a shop may be in Sense and Sensibility, when Elinor and Marianne watch a man take an enormous amount of time to buy a toothpick case. The sisters are there to exchange, or sell, old-fashioned jewels of their mother’s. The customer who forces them to wait so long to be served turns out to be Robert Ferrars, the hero Edward’s brother.
Elinor’s observations of Robert’s shopping and purchasing habits give us insight into his character. Robert was there ‘giving orders’ for his toothpick case, debating for a quarter of an hour every one they had in the shop. In the end, he used his own ‘inventive fancy’ to determine the size, shape, and ornaments used, choosing ivory, gold, and pearls. By the time he completed his transaction, Elinor was convinced of his conceit, puppyism (or immaturity), and affected indifference. Robert is a shallow, fashionable dandy, showing off and acting a part. The toothpick case episode demonstrates it.
Common Questions about Personal Values and Motivations As Reflected by the Fashion in Austen’s Novels
Delicate footwear were chosen by wealthy people who had access to carriages, with servants to deliver them from door to door.
The term ‘bluestocking’ came to mean an upstart intellectual woman who rejected previous feminine conventions or rules.
Black was consistently worn as an obligatory sign of mourning. Clothes were sometimes dyed black after a death, in order to have garments that would signal a family’s being in mourning.