Please welcome web mistress of The Emma Adaptations Pages, Graphic and Web Designer of Strangegirl Designs, and Regency fashion and style authority Kali Pappas today, as she chats about the “frivolus distinctions” of fashion in the two movie adaptations of Northanger Abbey. Enjoy!
“Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening.” Chapter 10
Ever since “Her love of dirt gave way to an inclination for finery,” Catherine Morland has yearned to experience society – balls, gowns, boys, and all the excitement and adventure that every naive young woman on the cusp of adulthood eagerly anticipates. Since Miss Morland’s first grand, grown-up adventure takes place in Bath – the famous health spa and mythic center of Georgian society and fashion – it’s only natural that dress, as frivolous a distinction as it may be, should play a distinguished part in the drama that unfolds before our heroine.
NA 1986: Parties galore are evident upon arrival in Bath!
With clotheshorse Mrs. Allen as her chaperone and first advisor on things sartorial, Catherine costumes herself for a dual role – that of a garden-variety romantic heroine on the loose in a fancy town, in addition to that of a wannabe gothic heroine whose imagination tends toward the horrid. Both the 1986 and 2007 adaptations of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey use fashion to play up the romance and hyperbole presented in this gothic parody, though sometimes in starkly different ways. While the 2007 adaptation is relatively subtle in its costuming, the 1986 adaptation veers a bit more toward the cartoonish at times.
NA 1986: Catherine and her brother dash through a rather gothic-appropriate graveyard.
In the novel, clothing and one’s relationship with it function as more than mere “frivolous distinctions,” despite the authoress’ narrations to the contrary. It is, after all, it’s Henry Tilney’s knowledge of muslin which proves his “genius” to Mrs. Allen. “Men commonly take so little notice of those things,” she tells him. “I can never get Mr. Allen to know one of my gowns from another.” While Mrs. Allen’s comfort in Henry’s knowledge is superficial, his interest in matters of feminine importance shows us as readers that he’s a sensitive guy who makes an honest effort to understand and appreciate girls.
NA 2007: “I gave but five shillings a yard for it, and a true Indian muslin!”
In the television adaptations of the story, one could argue that fashion is an even more important distinction, given the visual dimension of the medium. Aside from the usual quick inferences it allows a viewer to make – regarding class and age, for example – it also subtly informs us as to the personality and even the motives of the wearer.
In both adaptations, Catherine first appears as a clean, blank, and thoroughly transparent being. She is the antithesis of artifice, wearing sheer, simple muslin gowns in virginal white. Her hair is uncomplicated, even a bit unkempt. In the 1986 adaptation, we find her reading in a tree; in dirty stocking feet, no less, which indicates that while her “inclination for finery” may be considerable, her tolerance of dirt has not yet subsided. She is not yet a fully-civilized “adult.’
NA 1986: Early Catherine reading in a tree
NA 2007: Catherine reading novels
In the 1986 adaptation, Catherine begins her transformation upon embarkation for Bath, suited up in simple yet elegant new travelling togs which appear to consist of a smart new bonnet, a new gown, and a satiny-blue pelisse over it.