Zeina Makky is a newspaper designer turned web developer, living and working in the D.C. area. Besides Jane Austen, Zeina’s passions include calligraphy, pop culture and chocolate.
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Since we’ll be discussing Jane Austen’s life and letters at this year’s JASP, it may be time to brush up on some of the basic details of her life. Take this quiz to find out whether you’re a pro or need to catch up on some reading — in addition to the Claire Tomalin biography, we have some other recommendations here as well as a list of a few movies and documentaries about our favorite author.
Jane Austen was born in 1775, when the rococo style (very ornate, flowery) had already reached its apotheosis and was on its way out. However, some of the fashion remained. Women’s clothes were still ornate, featuring bows, lace, and puffs. Court dresses still featured those very wide panniers — cushions strapped to the waist — giving women the distinct shape you see above. Impractical, yes. But suited if you want to make sure everyone has to stand before the king and queen.
If you fast forward 30 years, the height of style was the exact opposite, and the silhouette couldn’t be more different. It’s hard to find such a radical shift in the modern era, and events of the time contributed to that (the fall of the French monarchy and disgust of ostentation, war, expansion of the British empire to the East).
In this timeline, we take a very quick look at women’s fashion from 1775 to 1817, when Jane Austen died.
Why not start with Marie Antoinette herself in this detail of the painting by Jean-Baptiste André Gautier d’Agoty. It’s the height of ostentation. Bows, furs, lace, jewels, pearls:
This painting by Francis Wheatley depicts a family circa 1775-1780. Even though this is not a court scene, you can see dresses are still pouffy and women’s hair followed the mantra: the bigger the hair, the closer to God.
This fashion plate from 1792 shows a woman very likely wearing panniers under her dress. The waistline is still at the natural waist.
1796 – 1800
The waistline has now gone full empire — under the breastbone. The silhouette is much narrower, and the appearance is overall simpler.
Not all dresses were white or pale, as shown in the fashion plate below.
Hair styles also changed, becoming sleeker, less vertical.
Some women also wore their hair short, à la victime, i.e., cropped as one would have it on the way to the guillotine.
Eastern influences can be seen in the 1813 fashion plate above, left. To the right, some outerwear for a change.
And because fashion is cyclical, what was out once out of style rears its head back, sometimes slightly modified to suit current tastes. Sleeves got puffier, bows and ruffles are back in, although the waistline is still high.
Here are a few resources for more in-depth information on Georgian and Regency fashion:
“Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen” by Sarah Jane Downing
“Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style” by Ian Kelly
“Regency Women’s Dress: Techniques and Patterns 1800-1830” by Cassidy Percoco
“Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion” by Hilary Davidson
Frock Flicks: a blog with sassy reviews of historical costumes in period pieces
In case you missed last week’s post, tailor and historical costume builder Samantha Bullat is returning to JASP to talk about fashion, in particular Ottoman and Eastern influences on Friday, June 19 at 9 a.m.. She will also lead workshops on making your own turban 12:30 to 2 p.m. June 19 and 12:45 to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 20. REGISTER HERE. (If you have already registered for JASP and wish to add on the workshops, you do not need to re-register for the program; you may sign up for only the turban-making workshops.)
“Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage” according to the Frank Sinatra song, but marriage in the Regency era was more like a business arrangement, designed to consolidate or amass wealth and land, and provide families with heirs on the one hand, and “save” women from spinsterhood and poverty on the other. The idea must have caused a great deal of anxiety for women such as Mrs. Bennet, trying to get their daughters married in a time of war.
In “Pride and Prejudice,” another mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh is eager to have her heiress daughter marry Mr. Darcy, a union planned in their infancy. Fortunes and properties would stay in the family.
On the flipside, Miss Bates, the poor spinster in “Emma,” is often a source of ridicule from the lead character — although one of empathy from Mr. Knightley.
But escape from poverty came at a price. In “Jane Austen’s England”, Roy and Lesley Adkins write that “When a woman married, she passed from the control of her father, who ‘gave her away’ at the wedding to the control of her husband.” All she owned would become her husband’s. Only a marriage settlement would allow a wife to earn her own income or own land. Even children would belong to the husband.
Rich young women could fall prey to mercenary young men, as Miss King and Georgiana Darcy, with their respective £10,000 and £30,000, almost do to Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice.”
Similarly, a woman’s debts would also become her husband’s upon marriage—except in the case of “smock weddings,” where a woman would get married naked (or wearing a smock) to show that she had nothing to bring to the marriage, as the Adkinses describe in their book.
Most weddings were simple affairs, as the industrial wedding complex hadn’t yet taken hold, but wealthy families did like to flaunt their status through new, fine clothes and carriages. But if time was of the essence, couples could elope to Gretna Green, as Lydia Bennet thought she and Wickham would do in “Pride and Prejudice.” “Scottish marriage law required only a declaration before witnesses,” thus couples could avoid announcing the wedding in the parish as required by the Marriage Act of 1753 and potentially meeting with resistance from their families.
Not everyone’s behavior aligned itself to the conduct books of the time. People had premarital sex, and it was more than frowned upon. The Adkinses describe the wedding of an Elizabeth Howlett and Robert Astick, who were forced to marry, not because of “premarital sex, but [for] causing a penniless woman and baby to be a burden on the parish.”
That said, not everyone was forced into a marriage because of that. Wealthy men could afford to have indiscretion upon indiscretion (see Lord Byron or the prince regent).
“Royal and aristocratic rakes did not attempt to work within or around sexual strictures. They merely ignored them. To be sure they needed to marry respectably to sire a legitimate heir, and to behave with courtly refinement to ladies in salons or wives in domestic settings….Once they had stepped outside polite circles and posturings, however, they frequently reveled in almost unfettered sexual freedom.”
— Robert Morrison, “The Regency Years”
Sexually free women were not afforded the same tolerance, garnering insults from even Lord Byron.
While this paints a pretty dismal picture of marriage, especially from a woman’s point of view, we still have Austen’s novels that depict love conquering all — familial and societal pressures and opposition, differences in class, and misunderstandings. And although our heroes’ journeys end soon after the trip to the altar, we do have examples of good marriages, where mutual respect and love are evident.
Examples of good marriages
Mr. and Mrs. Weston in “Emma”
Admiral and Mrs. Croft in “Persuasion”
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner in “Pride and Prejudice”
Mr. and Mrs. Moreland in “Northanger Abbey”
Examples of bad marriages
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice”
Lydia Bennet and Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice”
Mr and Mrs. Rushworth in “Mansfield Park”
General and Mrs. Tilney in “Northanger Abbey”
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