By Jennifer Abella
Jane Austen’s books bring to life more than her characters and Regency society. They also evoke images of empire-waist gowns, reticules, top hats and cravats.
One of the most popular presentations at the Jane Austen Summer Program is the talk on period clothing by costume designer and visiting assistant professor Jade Bettin.
Bettin, who grew up in Iowa, majored in theatrical design and production at the University of Northern Iowa, and received her master’s at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She spent a summer at the Wimbledon School of Art in London, taking courses on corset making, millinery and women’s dressmaking. Currently, Bettin is designing costumes for “Habitus,” a production by Vector, a dance company in Durham, N.C., and she’s in the planning phases of a production called “Mary’s Wedding,” by the PlayMakers Repertory Company at UNC. She’s teaching a class on costume history (her favorite) in the fall, looking at clothing from ancient Greece to Christian Dior’s New Look.
Tell us a little of your background:
I grew up on a farm in a very rural community, but my family always encouraged the arts, and we went to see plays and concerts as much as we could. My mother was a seamstress, and for Christmas when I was in fifth grade, I got a sewing machine and my mom started to teach me how to sew. I learned all of my early sewing skills from her.
[At the University of Northern Iowa,] I was a theatrical design and production major from the moment I stepped on campus to the moment I left. Because it was a small program, I took classes in scenic and lighting design in addition to costume design, but also acting, directing, and stage management classes. I think it has benefited me greatly to have a background in all of the areas of theater.
What made you get into costume design?
I can remember designing and attempting to make clothes for my dolls when I was growing up. I also remember spending a lot of time on my own costumes as Maid Marion for a production of “Robin Hood” that I did in middle school. My mother was a night owl, and her sewing room was right next to my bedroom, so I was often lulled to sleep by the sounds of her sewing machine. I don’t think there was any way for me to escape this life.
What historical fashion era intrigues you the most?
I am most intrigued by the transition that happens around the French Revolution. It is not very often that you have such drastic and sudden changes in clothing styles. This time period also demonstrates what is most fascinating to me about clothing throughout history: that it does not live independently of the world around it. That it is shaped by, and shapes, the people who wear the clothes and speaks to the enormous impact clothing can have on a larger culture. This is the time period when after September 1793, it was mandated that women wear the tricolor cockade in public or face the consequences. When Louis Capet (formerly Louis XVI) was forced to accept the Constitution, he was forcibly dressed in the red bonnet of freedom, one of the many symbols of the revolutionaries that visually, through clothing, exhibited their beliefs and demanded their freedom.
Do you have a go-to book or web site on fashion history for inspiration or fact-checking?
I have a number of favorite books. I’m a huge fan of costume historian Aileen Ribeiro and the way she examines clothing through culture. Janet Arnold published a series of books in which she analyzed clothing from British museums, set them in their contextual period and then created patterns for the garments. They’re remarkable books that span the history of costume from the early 1500s to the 1920s. If I’m looking online, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Victoria & Albert Museum have fantastic databases showing their beautiful holdings.
Last year you told attendees about UNC’s online costume archive, Costar, which someone could spend hours browsing! Do you have a favorite item in the collection?
Well, I’ll always be a fan of the Silk Striped Bodice circa 1895-1897. That’s the garment I chose to re-create in my third year of graduate school. (You can read my paper and see my reproduction on the site! The G# for the garment is G1154.)
I’m also currently obsessing about a pair of women’s linen jodhpurs from the early 20th century that haven’t made it on to the Web site yet.
Regency wear isn’t required for our ball, of course, but a number of attendees dress up. Do you have any fashion/costuming advice for the men and women who want to?
Don’t worry if every little detail isn’t historically accurate! Just capture the essence of it and have fun. We have so little opportunity to really dress up these days that simply wearing long, full dresses with gloves or a top hat with knickers changes our attitude and the way we interact with other people.
What’s one fashion accessory a Regency woman couldn’t do without? A Regency man?
Hmm. For the ladies, probably a shawl — preferably a cashmere one. Those light cotton dresses didn’t provide a lot of warmth! For a man, probably his cravat and the skill (or the valet) that went a long with tying one expertly.
With their shirts, waistcoats, cravats and coats, sometimes it seems like men in the Regency era might have had it worse than the women. Does it seem that way to you?
Well, there was certainly an inordinate amount of attention put on mens’ clothes. Elegance in subtlety. Beau Brummell saw to that. There is an amazing story about someone coming to visit Brummell and upon arrival, was told he was still dressing. The visitor waited for quite a while and eventually went to see what was taking so long. Upon entering Brummell’s dressing room, the visitor saw Brummell, his valet, and a pile of linen (his cravats) on the floor. The valet was in tears and Brummell’s response was, “Those were the mistakes.” Now, who knows how apocryphal that tale is, but it does point out that dressing was as much an event for men as it was for women.
How do you react when you see anachronistic clothing choices in period dramas? Does it irk you? Are you able to look past those kinds of errors?
I certainly notice them, but they usually don’t bother me too much. As a costume designer, I understand that some choices may need to be made that serve to evoke certain qualities about a character that require adjustments to the silhouette or details. Unless they are huge mistakes. If I see a zipper up the back a Regency dress, that’s probably going to drive me a bit mad.
When you first sit down to design costumes for a show, what are the questions you ask yourself beyond the logistics of production?
I always ask myself, “Who are these people?” I need to get into the world they live in and inside their heads so that I know why they dress themselves in the way they do as well as I know why I choose clothes for myself. Those answers are in the script. Maybe not all of them, but the foundation. And then I rely on my understanding of the period that play is set in to fill in other gaps. I also ask myself, what mood or atmosphere needs to be evoked through these clothes and how is that going to support the director and other designers’ vision for this piece.
Emma is always depicted as a fashionable woman, whether in traditional period adaptations or updates such as “Clueless.” If you were designing a costume for an “Emma” adaptation in any time period, how would you dress her? Austen immediately gives us such great information about Emma. She’s “handsome, clever, and rich”. Emma is on the forefront of fashion and would have the income to subscribe to Ackermann’s Fashion Monthly and other fashion magazines popular in Regency England. Or if we’re talking about her in the contemporary, she’s shopping in stores you’d find on Rodeo or Seventh Avenue. It is of the utmost importance that she present a polished, strong, and well-to-do front. But all is not what it seems on the outside. There is vulnerability hovering just below the surface. Her clothing allows her to avoid letting other people see that, but also prevents her from having to confront it herself.
Bettin is scheduled to give a presentation at this year’s Jane Austen Summer Program.
Jennifer Abella is a TV/movie/pop culture/knitting/sewing/Jane Austen geek. Oh, and a total Anglophile. Follow @nextjen on Twitter. And remember to like Jane Austen Summer Program on Facebook and follow @JASPhotline on Twitter.