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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End of Month Austenesque Mini-Review Roundup – September

Waiting for Mr. Darcy, by Chamein Canton (2009)Waiting for Mr. Darcy, by Chamein Canton 

A contemporary mid-lit novel inspired by every woman’s dream of finding her Mr. Darcy no matter what age. Lauren, Gabby, and Alicia are three forty-something full figured friends who met in adolescence, loved, worked, married, divorced, and everything in-between, but are not quite ready to give up on their eternal quest for a Jane Austen hero. Packed with endearing friendships, romance, and tons of food, this novel is as full-figured as its heroines in its social commentary on midlife dating, and as generous as its 405 pages in pure fun. Be prepared for sexual situations, inter-racial relationships and plenty of laughs.  Genesis Press, ISBN: 978-1585713516 

3 out of 5 Regency Stars 

The English Pleasure Garden, by Sarah Jane Downing (2009)The English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860, by Sarah Jane Downing 

This slim volume is brimming with historical information on the creation and evolution of the popular Pleasure Gardens in England. Originally designed as a diversion for the rich, Pleasure Gardens such as Vauxhall Garden in London and Sydney Gardens in Bath not only featured beautifully landscaped walks and vistas, but halls for music and dancing. Given the size limitations of this book, it is a nice introduction to a topic that will appeal to historical fiction readers and history students. My one disappointment is that the lovely vintage images are not credited. Otherwise, the author’s research is impressive, taking the reader back to a time when the social scene meant putting on your best frock and leaving the house instead of poking your friends on Facebook. Shire Publications, ISBN: 978-0747806998 

4 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. WintersSense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters 

Trolling for a fresh catch after the runaway best seller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the new craze of literary mash-up’s rears its irreverent head from the briny deep and takes a big bite out of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, rewriting a masterpiece and inserting sea monsters and very little humor. Served up are sixty percent original Austen and forty percent cioppino, swimming with man-eating jellyfish, giant lobsters, and rampaging octopi. What results is a Jules Verne nightmare that belongs 20,000 leagues under the sea. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a clever parody of Jane Austen’s original, laughing with her tongue-in-cheek. This time out, only the bald headed, gibberish chanting little sister Margaret Dashwood makes any sense, and all the ironic sensibility of Austen’s classic ends up as soggy fish and chips. Quirk Books, ISBN: 978-1594744426 

1 out of 5 Regency Stars