Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion by Hilary Davidson is one of those books that you wish could just go on and on. At 300 plus pages, one would think I’d be satisfied, but the topic is so interesting, and Hilary’s approach is so novel that I could do with a few more chapters.
But that would be tampering with how she approached Regency dress. Instead of looking at the topic chronologically, Davidson chose to make each chapter focus on how people of Austen’s time interacted with the world, in terms of self, home, village, country, city, nation, and world. It’s like an ever widening circle of relationships, and this worked well in the context of Austen and the Regency.
While it’s not completely necessary to be a fan of Jane Austen’s work, it really does help in the understanding of the text. Davidson refers often to Austen’s characters, and a knowledge of them, especially in the film versions, adds greatly to the enjoyment of this book. I really do wish I’d have reread all of Austen’s novels before reading this book, even though I’m well acquainted with her work.
Hilary Davidson chose the years of 1795 through 1825 to study. The Regency technically was from 1811 to 1820, but most historians extend the period for a longer time, as the fashions just didn’t change overnight. The beginnings of what we think of Regency fashion do start in the eighteenth century.
The illustrations are excellent, and well chosen. Above you see the only garment that we know was owned by Jane Austen. It’s a pelisse from around 1812. A lot can be told about Austen by studying this garment. For instance, we learn she was tall and thin. And if you aren’t acquainted with the term pelisse, there’s a convenient glossary in the book.
So many times books on fashion deal with the clothing of the privileged only. Davidson has strived to give us a look at what different classes of people would have worn. Here we see the grocer alongside the shopper of a higher class.
Most interestingly, Davidson shows how fashion spread across the world, even in the early nineteenth century. These women on St. Kitts in the Caribbean can immediately be identified as wearing Regency fashion, though they are thousands of miles from Britain.
Another strength of the book is the inclusion of men’s attire.
We also are treated to looks at accessories like hats and shoes.
The book contains a through explanation of how textiles were, even two hundred years ago, a global enterprise. Muslin from India and cashmere shawls from Kashmir were highly prized in Regency England. This dress is circa 1800.
Along with telling what people wore during Jane Austen’s time, we also learn how clothing and textiles were acquired by consumers. I loved this look at an 1809 draper’s emporium.
Davidson also makes clear the changes that occurred in the thirty-five year span the book covers. Compare the circa 1820 gown above to the circa 1800 dress shown earlier. The waistline is moving downward toward the natural waist. The skirt is widening and gaining decoration.
So, what did I not like about this book? The only thing I really can complain about is the color of the print. Instead of being black, it’s a medium gray. That may not be an issue for readers with excellent eyes, but I found I had to either read under a strong lamp, or in bright natural light. But considering the quality of the research and the writing, I gladly gave up my habit of reading in bed to enjoy this one in my armchair with a 100 watt bulb.