Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, by Sarah Jane Downing – A Review

Revolution had changed the world and fashion had dressed it accordingly.” Sarah Jane Downing 

It is hard for me not to think of a Jane Austen movie adaptation and not remember how fashion influenced my enjoyment of the film. Some of my most vivid memories are of Elizabeth Bennet walking the verdant countryside in her russet colored spencer jacket in Pride and Prejudice 1995, Marianne Dashwood spraining her ankle and being carried to safety by Willoughby in her rain drenched white muslin frock in Sense and Sensibility 1995, or Mary Crawford ready to pounce like a black widow spider in her cobwebby evening dress in Mansfield Park 1999. Much of how we perceive Regency fashion today is from film costume designer’s interpretations of the fashions during Jane Austen’s time. I admit to admiring the fine cut of a gentleman’s tailored redingote or the elegant flow of a ladies formal evening dress as much as the next Janeite, but am totally clueless about why and how fashion changed so drastically since the heavy brocades, embroidered silks and powdered wigs of pre-revolutionary France. 

As an introduction to Georgian and Regency fashion, this slim 63 page volume answered many questions and gave me a better understanding of the evolution of fashion, its importance in society and how English style influenced the world. The chapters are neatly broken down into seven significant categories: The Age of Elegance, The Rise of English Fashion, A Fine Romance, Beau Brummell and the Great Renunciation, Rousseau and Fashion Au Natural, Reticule and Ridicule, and After the age of Elegance. Throughout are beautiful (but small) images from original sources such as the popular women’s fashion  magazines Ackermann’s Repository and La Belle Assemblée, portraits by the leading painters of the day Sir Henry Raeburn, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Sir Thomas Lawrence, and photographs of vintage clothing from the era. Interspersed throughout the text are references to Jane Austen, her family and characters in her novels to tie into a description of clothing or styles. A brief index at the back allows for quick reference by topic, person or place. 

As part of the popular Shire Library series, Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen is a little glistening jewel of information on British fashion during the Georgian and Regency periods. For the novice historian it will inform and whet your appetite. For the veteran it will be a great refresher. For each, you will appreciate Downing’s straight forward presentation of material and her handling of the sense of the ridiculous that fashion can take by including Gillray caricatures and comical anecdotes. From the perspective of a Jane Austen enthusiast, Downing does state some eyebrow raising facts that to my knowledge have yet to be proven. As much as the Austen descendants would like the “Rice portrait” to be of Jane Austen, even my rudimentary knowledge of Regency fashion styles and math calculate the portrait to be much later than the 1792-93 range evaluated by experts, and the James Stanier Clarke portrait of a lady with a fur muff could be Jane Austen, but we shall never know for sure. (Best to say possibly Jane Austen to be safe and raise your credibility.) A small quibble in an overall splendid little treasure trove sure to please the Austenista in all of us.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, by Sarah Jane Downing
Shire Publications, Oxford (2010)
Trade paperback (63) pages
ISBN: 978-0747807674

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12 thoughts on “Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, by Sarah Jane Downing – A Review

  1. This sounds wonderful. I know so little about fashion. Whenever I write a story, I’m always consulting some website in the hopes of getting it right. This is my punishment for not taking home economics (i.e., sewing) in high school. Thanks. Mary

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    • This book would be great for writers of the Georgian and Regency era Mary. It is concise and to the point with great illustrations. I think you will find it very helpfu. Vic’s blog Jane Austen’s World is also packed full of info and images. Fashion is one of her passions, so you can always relie on her to post great info. Good luck with your writing. Looking forward to your next book.

      Cheers, Laurel Ann

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  2. Sounds like a perfect little edition to my JA shelf–great review of a what sounds like an informative but not overwhelming treatment of the subject. Too often, books on subjects like this get arcane and lose me.

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  3. I agree with that – fashion influenced a greater part of my enjoyment while watching any regency era or whatever-era inspired movie. I’m a lady after all!

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  4. This sounds so fascinating. I love books like this. I like how it is broken down into one specific part – fashions. So many books cover so many items that you get overwhelmed, who wouldn’t? dancing, eating, cooking clothing, customs, manners, fans, etc. I’d love to get this book.

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  5. Laurel Ann, I am going to travel tomorrow (vacation with family), so in the beggining of august I will publish your review (and link directly to your blog). Thanks,

    Adriana

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  6. I recently became interested in gentlemen’s clothes of the JA period since I am writing the biography of my gggggfr Louis Bazalgette, who is unknown to the public but who was tailor to the Prince of Wales (later George IV) for 32 years. To publicise the impending book but also to gather information I started a blog which has (I hope you agree) some interesting posts on the clothes Louis made for Prinny, amongst other things. You are most welcome to subscribe!

    On Facebook:http://www.facebook.com/pages/Prinnys-Taylor-The-Life-of-Louis-Bazalgette/134150089955380?v=wall

    On Posterous (the actual blog):http://chasbaz.posterous.com/

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  7. Pingback: My Top 20 Jane Austen Books of 2010 « Austenprose – A Jane Austen Blog

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