“Fashions come and go; bad taste is timeless.” — Beau Brummell
So saith the arbiter of style in the Regency era when all of Jane Austen’s books were published and she and her characters dwelled. Since fashion is mentioned sparingly in her novels how is one to know, two hundred years after the fact, what is fashionable and what is in bad taste? Is that actress in the current period drama wearing clothing appropriate to the era, her age, and her social status? Is the hero wearing a top hat that Victorian author Charles Dickens would have worn? Is that pelisse polyester, and is a half “updo” hairstyle totally inappropriate? Dress in the Age of Jane Austen, by Hilary Davidson explores these dilemmas for modern readers of Austen’s fiction, the adaptations of her works, and those set during the same timeframe.
When I first opened this book and skimmed its pages, I was overcome by its beauty. Page after page of eye-popping images of Regency clothing, portraits, landscapes, fashion plates, and cartoons by famous artists and illustrators of Austen’s day. The publisher states that the book boasts 180 full-color illustrations, and I do not doubt it. Here is a slide show of a few that I found especially significant to give you a glimpse of the extensive research that the author conducted to bring the book to life.
Interestingly, Davidson has chosen to present the extended Regency period (1795-1825) in a very intimate and logical manner, moving outward from the self to the home, village, country, city, nation, and the world. In her introduction, she centers Jane Austen as her inspiration by quoting Persuasion, which is always a good start.
“One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly.”
While this book is a serious study of fashion during the Regency period, I appreciate that the author has taken the witty tone that Austen is famous for and presented the material with some humor. Fashion can be trifling and silly, and the society that embraces it can be too. One need only look at the caricatures of the Prince Regent, or Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton to see the proof. Their clothing is ill-fitting and a total exaggeration of what royalty and the wealthy would have worn. Jane Austen also makes fun of her gentry class. In her letters, which frequently mention her procurement of fabrics and making of clothing, she is also concerned with trimming bonnets.
“Flowers are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing – Eliz: has a bunch of Strawberries, & I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs & Apricots – There are likewise Almonds & raisins, French plums & Tamarinds at the Grocers, but I have never seen any of them in hats.” 1799
Fashion can also be a mirror to the world. During Austen’s short life, Britain was at war with France, yet their fashions continued to dominate new designs in England. That irony must have amused her. Silhouettes went from full skirts, flounces, and ruffles, to sleek neo-classical streamlined gowns, inspired by antiquity. Were these changes influenced by national and global events? Deep into war, trade was restricted. Did local manufacture and trade limit or expand creativity and style? Davidson states that her goal in writing Dress in the Age of Jane Austen was to answer these questions and document the era by using Austen’s works as a springboard.
I am happy to share that Davidson answers these concerns and many more. While her choice of illustrations throughout dominates the book, I found the supporting text to be engaging and accessible. This lighter touch opens the readership to a more causal dilettante who may just want to treat this book like a fashion magazine and let the splendor of it all over wash them; read the notes to each image and skip the excellent text. The connoisseur will take a different approach and read every word. Being an Austen enthusiast, I fall into the latter category. My one disappointment will be minor to some and troublesome to others. The small text is difficult to read, amplified by the choice of swirly font in gray color. I struggled to read smoothly, even with glasses. Coupled with the dominance of the illustrations, I fear that some readers will be discouraged from exploring all of Davidson’s insights and excellent research.
Dress in the Age of Jane Austen’s sumptuous splendor fills a big gap in our knowledge of the Regency-era clothing that Austen and her characters would have worn. Nevermore will readers be puzzled by pattens or parasols, nor will movie and television viewers not know that a costume designer is using non-period fabrics and styles, or be in doubt if hurricane hair is être passé de mode. Happily, it elevates Beau Brummell to superhero status by raising our standards and annihilating bad taste. It is a treasure, and I recommend it highly.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion, by Hilary Davidson
Yale University Press (November 12, 2019)
Hardcover (336) pages
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Cover image courtesy of Yale University Press © 2019; Text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com