Tag Archives: Regency

Currently Reading – Fashion in the Age of Jane Austen by Hilary Davidson

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.

 

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Cinematic Couture at SCADFASH, Atlanta

I had the great fun of driving to Atlanta to spend the afternoon with friend Liza at the latest exhibition at SCADFASH, Cinematic Couture. As the name tells us, this was a show of film costumes. SCADFASH does not have a huge permanent collection from which to mount lavish exhibitions, so they rely on shows that travel. This one is from Cosprop, a UK based costume house.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because the exhibitions at Biltmore Estate I written about have also used Cosprop.  If you are a fan of British costume dramas, you have seen Cosprop’s work. They have provided costumes for everything from Downton Abbey to the 1996 version of Pride and Prejudice.

I was a bit concerned that this exhibition would be a repeat of costumes we had already seen, and there was indeed a bit of overlap. However, it was the experience of seeing the same garments at two different venues that ended up being one of the biggest revelations of this visit.

There’s so much that I love about SCADFASH exhibitions, so I’ll start there. The big first thing is the ability to get close to the garments. At Biltmore some of the garments are behind glass due to their being displayed in unmonitored locations. The dress, above left, is an embroidered wool dress worn by Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane, a film about how Jane Austen became the writer we know, and most of us love. We didn’t give it much of a second look when we saw it at Biltmore.

But here we can see the same dress as presented at SCADFASH. The mounting was so much better, but it was being able to actually see and appreciate the details that made the difference. The dress at Biltmore was in a hotel public space, and the windows caused so much glare that the dress sort of disappeared into the glass cage.

I’m always amazed at all the work that goes into just one costume. This dress was hand embroidered, though some of the others had smaller areas of machine embroidery.

Well, I’m sorry that the back view is poor, but the point is that you can see the back.  Most of the costumes are displayed on circular platforms that are pulled away from the wall enough so that visitors can go behind most of the garments. The docent who was assisting us said that was a deliberate choice because so many visitors were trying to squeeze behind the exhibits to see the backs. So thanks SCAD for making it easy for us.

Just so you’ll not think I’m picking on Biltmore, here’s another comparison shot. This dress was worn by Emma Thompson is Sense and Sensibility. On the left is the dress at SCADFASH, and on the right you see it at Biltmore. While the glare on glass is still distracting, I like the mount better, especially the way the shawl is draped.  And the fit just looks better as well.

Again we are treated to the back of this costume, with that lovely little train. You could see the back at Biltmore as well, but it seemed a bit cramped in that glass box.

Here you can see the lovely texture of the dress and of the shawl, but you can also see one big old blaring anachronism: shiny modern synthetic gloves. We had a bit of a discussion with the docent, and then the curator appeared and we had a word or two with him as well. As it turns out, Cosprop sent the gloves used in the films, but in many cases they were too small to fit on the mannequins’ hands. We tried to point out that the exhibits would look better with no gloves at all than with these silly shiny things.

It seems like Jane Austen is always a favorite, and my guess is that costumes were chosen at least in part because they were likely to have been seen by most visitors.  This costume was worn by Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice.

And this was worn by the other Bingley sister, Mrs. Hurst.  I don’t have a photo of the dress representing the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie Bennet, but her dress was quite plain in comparison to the richer city girl Bingleys.

This is a button from Mr. Darcy’s waistcoat. The button is hand embroidered, but the buttonhole looks machine made to me. Still, it shows an amazing concern toward the details.

My last Regency/Austen photo is this crocheted silk pineapple purse. It was carried by Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion.  It just goes to show how one special little piece can really make one’s costume.

In my next installment we’ll go back in time to the Georgians, and forward to the Victorians.

 

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