Though Jane Austen’s views about the triviality of fashionable clothing in her novels might suggest that she was anti-fashion, it was not actually the case. Her letters show that she had an extensive, personal interest in clothing. Although fashion changed profoundly over the course of her life, Austen’s view about it remained the same. And, what were those?
Mid-18th Century Fashion
Mid-18th century wealthy women’s dresses were small and tight above the waist and enormous and wide below it, creating an almost furniture-like look. Some dresses were so wide that women would literally need to turn to the side to pass through a doorway. These dresses involved stays or corsets that bound the waist, the torso, and the chest, as well as hoops to widen the hips.
Hair, too, was worn as if it were a piece of furniture—raised high, in a tower-like arrangement, and decorated with accessories. For several decades in the late 18th century, it was fashionable for hair or wigs to be powdered white.
By the time Austen was a young woman, this had become an old-fashioned look. The trend was for loose-fitting garments in new fabrics. Hems came up a little to reveal shoes and ankles. Popular empire-waist gowns sat high on the body, accentuating the bust. Below that, they were light, diaphanous shifts. These dresses, often made of muslin, or lightweight cotton, allowed for greater freedom of movement.
Although women’s dress at this time stressed simplicity, it wasn’t exactly simple. Garments still had layers and intricacies. Underclothing consisted of a linen chemise and owning a number of these was the norm. Petticoats, a sort of underskirt, could be worn beneath a dress, although sometimes they’re described as a main garment. Stays or corsets were still worn over the chemise for shaping the torso and chest. Stockings went up to the knee, held in place by garters. Silk stockings were particularly prized. Over these things went dresses, coats, jackets, and other garments.
In Austen’s youth, a vogue for Grecian or Neo-classical looks took hold, and it long remained popular. Women copied the looks of statues from antiquity. The color white became fashionable, as dresses started to be made in lighter weight fabrics that were easier to wash. Wearing white also signaled a woman had the means to have her dress washed, so it was another sign of wealth and privilege.
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Popular Fabric: Muslin
The most popular fabric was muslin, a generic term for a light, delicately woven cotton material. Muslin could be bought in many varieties, costs, and levels of quality.
In Northanger Abbey, the hero, Henry Tilney, impresses the clothing-obsessed Mrs. Allen when he professes to have a fine eye for muslin. He teasingly says he suspects that the muslin of Catherine Morland’s gown is not well-made and will fray.
He also once teases Catherine about a dress of sprigged muslin, which was a white muslin with a finely embroidered pattern, also in white. Henry knows his muslins, a character detail that may telegraph that he’s humorously observant, that he enjoys conversations with women, and that he’s admirably close to his fashionable sister, Eleanor. Eleanor is said always to wear white. She offers a rare instance in Austen’s fiction in which fine dressing highlights admirable simplicity and elegance, rather than selfish overindulgence.
However, not all dresses were simple. Evening dresses were for show. They began to feature short sleeves, to show off the upper arms. Gloves were worn, almost up to the elbows. A dress could be covered by a pelisse, a kind of draped over-layer that clasped in the front.
There were other kinds of jackets, too, including the short spencer jackets, which could be made of silk or wool. Longer jackets, or cloaks, also called mantles, could be light or heavy. In cold weather, muffs warmed the hands, as a fashion accessory. A tippet was a stole, which could be made out of fur or other materials.
Women would learn about regularly changing fashions by word of mouth, from people they knew who traveled to commercial centers in cities, and from monthly publications like The Lady’s Magazine, which included fashion plates that showed off the latest styles.
Clothes and Characters
Clothes could signal cosmopolitanism or exoticism, as was the case for shawls imported from the British colonial East Indies. Lady Bertram, the shallow, indolent matriarch from Mansfield Park, says that she hopes her nephew “may go to the East Indies, that I may have my shawl. I think I will have two shawls”. She thinks nothing of the trouble he’d have to go to not only to purchase but to bring back two Indian shawls, as they were called. She ignores the risks to his health or safety in taking up a military post there. She imagines him only as the conduit of luxury goods, which tells us a great deal about her character.
Focusing on things rather than people isn’t a fatal character flaw in Austen’s fiction, but it’s certainly a flaw. When Northanger Abbey’s heroine, Catherine Morland, stays up late at night to try to decide which one of her two dresses she should wear—her spotted or tamboured muslin—we’re meant to laugh at her, not despise her.
Hats and Bonnets
For other Austen characters, bonnets were a more engrossing subject. Hats and bonnets were purchased from the milliner, but often further decorated and individualized at home, perhaps using ribbons. Bonnets could feature veils as well. Turbans and feathers worn on the head were also in high fashion. To make older headwear look new, it could also be decorated with flowers or even fruits.
Hats weren’t just for formal occasions. Nightcaps were worn with nightgowns. During the daytime, too, head coverings were the norm for women in their ’20s and older, even indoors. A lady’s cap was a sign of age and modesty. It was probably also a timesaving device for one’s hair, although hairstyles often featured curls peeking out around the cap. A famous portrait of Austen shows her in such cultivated curls and a cap.
Common Questions about Fashion in Jane Austen’s Era
Mid-18th century wealthy women’s dresses were small and tight above the waist and enormous and wide below it, creating an almost furniture-like look.
Wearing white signaled a woman had the means to have her dress washed, so it was a sign of wealth and privilege.
Hats and bonnets were decorated with ribbons, flowers and even fruits.