Sense, Sensibility and Style: Fashion in the time of Jane Austen
Jane Austen once said that “dress is at all times a frivolous distinction.” However, much as she was a woman who valued the mind and morals, she was not above being concerned with parasols and petticoats. The Authoress of six of the greatest novels in the English Language is particularly dear to us in Winchester, as she spent the last days of her relatively short life here, and is buried in the cathedral.
Before then, she also spent the majority of her life residing in Hampshire – in two houses in Steventon and Chawton. The former no longer stands, but the latter, where she wrote the bulk of her work and lived with her mother and sister, acts today as Jane Austen’s House Museum. It is dedicated to her life and works, and amongst other artefacts, you can see objects which confirm that fashion was no less important in the Regency era than it is now: drawings depicting ladies in the latest fashions; costumes from the period dramas based on Jane’s work and even two topaz crosses, bought for Jane and her sister Cassandra by one of their brothers. I asked Louise West, curator of the museum how she thought fashion had changed since then: “I suppose the answer is: different, very different indeed. But they were just as obsessed by fashion as we are, and that shows through the numerous references to fashion and clothes in Jane Austen’s letters. Even in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet mentions the fashion for long sleeves which would have started in London. They did have fashion magazines, so even those who weren’t in London could discover the latest fashion within a few weeks, either through those or communication with friends.”
But was this just the obsession of slightly bored women who had nothing better to do? Or were men equally preoccupied with their appearance? “Oh yes, they were very concerned by it. By then [the period when Jane Austen was writing] they tried to appear less concerned, but would have been respectable and know the best tailor to go to. Earlier, in the 18th Century, they were quite foppish, but by this point it was rather understated. They wouldn’t neglect their appearance, often even getting a fashionable haircut. ‘A la Brutus’ was a style of the time.” In fact, much of the style at the time fell into the neo-classical category, an aesthetic based on imagery from Greek and Roman times, probably brought to popularity by the emergence of archaeology. As ancient cities were unearthed, so was interest in the fashions of the inhabitants. This led to hairstyles called things like the afore-mentioned “Brutus” and another, longer one named “Titus”. For ladies, the ostentatious styles of the previous generation were abandoned in favour of more natural silhouettes with higher waists and lower necklines. Women would have had their new gowns made to measure, as there was no ready-to-wear or sometimes they would make their own garments.
Jane Austen herself seemed to be quite good at making clothes, as was expected of any woman at the time. But even so, she appears to have enjoyed making and altering garments. One of her nephews wrote in his memoir of her: “some of her merriest talk was over clothes which she and her companions were making, sometimes for themselves, and sometimes for the poor.” However, she could also have thoughts on clothing which were ahead of their time. She once wrote in a letter: “I cannot determine what to do about my new gown; I wish such things were to be bought ready-made.” In many ways, she was a modern woman, who I believe would have enjoyed today’s fast-paced and readily-available world of fashion. In light of that, I asked Louise West whether she though Jane might have enjoyed Winchester Fashion Week: “Oh Yes! She would have been on the front row. I think she really was very interested in fashion, buying clothes and looking nice. She sometimes writes about it being a bit silly, but I suppose as she aged, she thought it was a bit silly of her to get excited over that sort of thing.” Hopefully, her love of fashion would have overcome that insecurity, and if she was around today we would see Jane happily going about her business in Primark or River Island. Now that I’d like to see.
words by Alys Key @FashionMoriarty