A love of fine things, especially in clothing, is often a sign of shallowness for a character in a Jane Austen novel. In Austen’s writing, fashion is rarely there just for show. Dress may be called a frivolous distinction, but at the same time, it served as a meaningful marker of character or taste, or the lack of it.
Jewelry: Pieces of Remembrance
In Sense and Sensibility, Edward has a piece of jewelry—a ring—with a piece of hair set inside it. This was a common thing during Jane Austen’s era—hair set in jewelry. It served as an intimate remembrance of a loved one. Edward’s ring showed him to be sentimental and intimate.
In fact, there is a surviving piece of jewelry with Austen’s own hair set into it. Other jewelry said to have once belonged to her survives, too: a topaz cross from her brother and a turquoise ring. Replicas of these last two pieces of jewelry have become popular items among the fans of Austen.
Miniatures: Fashion Accessory
Miniature painted portraits were valued fashionable objects, and they could be worn as jewelry as well. Austen once compared her own writing to a miniature portrait. She jokingly, and self-deprecatingly, called it “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Two and a half inches of ivory is precisely what miniature portraits were painted on. Austen means that she works, in effect, on a small canvas in her fiction. However, if one looks closely at a miniature portrait, they’ll see that they required an incredible amount of skill to create.
Miniatures feature in Austen’s novels, too. In Sense and Sensibility, a miniature portrait of Edward Ferrars is Lucy Steele’s prized object. She shows it to Elinor Dashwood as tangible proof of her secret engagement to him. Men and women alike carried a miniature portrait as a prized possession and a fashion accessory.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Men’s Fashion in Jane Austen’s Works
Men’s fashions were changing in this era, too. Knee breeches, worn with boots, were giving way to full-length trousers. Pants could be light colored, with coats in dark colors. Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy both wear blue coats. Shirts were made of linen, usually in white. Cravats—pieces of cloth, usually of muslin—were tied around the neck.
Men wore frocks, coats with tails that were functional and looked dashing while riding horseback. Shooting jackets fell below the waist and could be made of leather. Great coats were like heavy capes. The close-fitting waistcoat (spelled like waste cote)—an undercoat or a vest—could be made with or without sleeves.
In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne judges Willoughby attractive because he wears a dashing shooting jacket. But she finds Colonel Brandon old-looking because he wears a flannel waistcoat, designed to keep the body warm. Marianne assumes from his waistcoat that the Colonel must have rheumatism.
Austen’s male character who is most obsessed with his looks is Persuasion’s Sir Walter Elliot. Vanity of person and position are said to be the beginning and end of his character. His house is full of mirrors, placed so that he’s able to look at himself constantly. Thus, a vain overindulgence in fashion was not limited to Austen’s female characters.
Regency World in Television and Film
Today, our sense of what the fashions of Austen’s day looked like tend to be heavily shaped by television and film. The visual versions of Austen’s stories vary widely in costuming aims and budgets, as well as in historical accuracy. Some depict the Regency world as if it were impossibly spotless, colorful, and neat. Others show it as entirely drab, consisting only of muddy browns and dirty grays.
The reality of daily life then would have involved confronting both extremes, from vivid to drab. The privileged could do more to avoid the muck, especially by hiring others to help them steer clear of it.
Northanger Abbey’s fashion-conscious and fastidious Mrs. Allen gives us a hint of this when she complains about riding in open carriages, which were, like today’s convertibles, open to the air. Mrs. Allen calls open carriages ‘nasty things’ because, “A clean gown is not five minutes wear in them. You are splashed getting in and getting out; and the wind takes your hair and your bonnet in every direction.”
Ordinariness of Fashion Disasters
If we watch today’s film and television versions of Austen’s stories, we rarely get of a sense of the banality of this kind of fashion disaster. Yet in that era, streets and roads were made of dirt, and, after it rained, of mud. Horses kicked up dirt and mud. In cities, streets were places where sewage drained.
To protect their feet, people could wear wooden and iron overshoes called pattens. These were like clogs, or miniature stilts, strapped on over the shoes, designed to raise one’s feet and clothes off the dirty ground. By the time Austen was an adult, pattens were mostly associated with the working class.
On film and TV versions of Austen, we don’t tend to see the washerwomen who were hired to clean dirty clothing for the better off. Austen does give an occasional nod to their labor, however.
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland finds a laundry bill in a trunk, when she’s expecting to discover a mysterious old manuscript. This is comedy, of course, but it also shows us that luxury, fashion, and labor, despite their often hidden connections, were necessarily intertwined.
Common Questions about Understanding Regency Fashion through Jane Austen’s Novels
Austen‘s jewelry that has survived include a piece of jewelry with Austen’s own hair set into it, a topaz cross from her brother, and a turquoise ring.
Austen’s male character who is most obsessed with his looks is Persuasion’s Sir Walter Elliot. His house is full of mirrors, placed so that he’s able to look at himself constantly.
To protect their feet from dirt and mud, people wore wooden and iron overshoes called pattens. These were like clogs, or miniature stilts, strapped on over the shoes, designed to raise one’s feet and clothes off the dirty ground. By the time Austen was an adult, pattens were mostly associated with the working class.