Better Late than Never – Part II: Fashion in Jane Austen’s World

Please see Kelly’s post below this for Part I – we have both been swamped these past two weeks and FINALLY getting to our respective posts on Hope Greenberg’s fabulous talk on fashion at our June 7th  JASNA-Vermont gathering …  with the beautiful backdrop of the Chapel at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a capacity crowd …

First I append a guest post from our own Janeite Marcia: 

Fashionable Sunday in Montpelier

 Hope Greenberg’s presentation on Sunday June 7, 2009 provided much, much more than I imagined.  Who knew fashion was so complex? 

 For me, the most fascinating part was learning about how Austen used references to clothing and fashion to develop her characters.  While reading Sense and Sensibility, it was clear that Lucy Steele’s manners were lacking, her behavior even tacky.  Hope used the scene where Lucy inquires of Marianne regarding her clothing, and even her clothing allowance, to illustrate how Lucy is revealed as crass and ill-mannered. 

As Hope Greenberg described, in addition to Lucy’s inquires of Marianne, from Wickham’s (Pride and Prejudice) only needing regimentals, to Mrs. Allen (Northanger Abbey) talking of little but clothing, we are treated to exquisite development of many of the Austen characters by these brief, but powerful, references to wardrobe, clothing, and fashion.  We all accept that Lucy is uncultured, Wickham is without depth of character, and Mrs. Allen is a mere silly airhead.  These are the perfect, subtle, understated Jane Austen descriptions which leave the reader with no doubt of the author’s meaning, while wondering where the impression came from.  

While there are few enough references in the Austen novels regarding fashion and clothing, each of those mentioned by Hope Greenberg is amazingly revealing and powerful.  Thanks to Hope, those of us who attended on Sunday will be more aware of such references and techniques as we reread Austen and will certainly be able to better appreciate the genius of Jane Austen. 

It was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  Thank you to JASNA-Vermont!


fashion plate walking dress

Thank you Marcia for your thoughts!   We were most fortunate to have Hope spend a few hours with us – as a Humanities Computing Specialist at the University of Vermont, Hope has combined her love of history and 19th-century material and literary culture with her love of historic clothing and English Country Dance – she offered us a visual feast [with a new Macintosh program that presented all the fashion illustrations in the mode of flipping the pages of a book!] taking us through the process of dressing a lady of fashion from her linen shifts, corsets, petticoats, dresses, pelisses /spencers, to her shawls, hats and muffs, reticules, and other accessories; and dressing the man of fashion with his shirts, breaches / trousers, weskits, cravats, jackets and the glorious greatcoat – all this shown in the various fabrics and textiles of the time, with Hope’s actual dresses, fashion illustrations, and photographs from the trove of 18th and 19th century clothing in the UVM Fleming Museum.  Hope ended her talk with a quick run through the various changes in fashion over the short period from the late 1780s to the 1820s – the French influence; the military influence; the return to the classical Egyptian and Grecian styles; the waist going up; the waist going down; the petticoat as an undergarment to the petticoat as part of the main dress; Beau Brummel’s affect on male fashion; the central role of the fashion magazines – all this in a short 2-hour whirlwind of muslin, linen and silk!  [alas!  we did go over a bit!]

And as Marcia mentions above – I too learned much from Hope’s references to Austen’s use of clothing details [or lack thereof] to delineate character – Willoughby’s shooting jacket; Nancy Steele’s obsession with her appearance; the lack of description of Bingley and Darcy, yet the emphasis on Wickham’s “regimentals”; Mrs. Bennet’s ridiculous concerns with wedding clothes and carriages; Lydia’s silliness about her bonnet; Mrs. Elton in Emma [no more need be said!]; Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey – and only Henry Tilney [dear Henry!] being “forgiven” for his extensive clothing musings!

So we heartily thank Hope for sharing her expertise with us – we are all alot wiser about Regency fashion and more attuned to Austen’s brilliant commentary.


Ditto Kelly’s thanks for a gracious afternoon in Montreal, a la Donwell Abbey and strawberry picking; hearing a fascinating preview of Jan Fergus’s upcoming AGM talk on “Tensions between Brothers and Sisters in Austen’s Novels”; and sharing a delicious tea with other JASNA-Montreal members [my daughter joined me for this trek to Montreal – and she loved all the Austen chatter – it is my daughter after all who got me re-reading Austen when she was studying Emma in college nearly 20 years ago – she called me up to say she seemed to be the only one in the class who thought Emma was FUNNY – I knew then and there we had raised her right!]  Anyway, I digress – a huge thank you to Elaine Bander for a wonderful afternoon!


And a little counterpoint to my blogging partner and cohort in JASNA-Vermont – who ever said that Knightley was a “namby-pamby”??  – I always viewed him as a very strong character – so we need to have a lively discussion about this!  And of course lots to discuss about Mr. Collins – I agree that the 1995 makes him out to be SUCH a dolt [and the Lost in Austen character is just too CREEPY!] – the Elizabeth Garvie P&P rendition is much truer to the book [the music alone captures his essence] – but think we need to go back to the novel to see what Austen really says about him – and she makes no bones about making him out to be quite ridiculous.  Kelly, we should have a session JUST on Mr. Collins – I think we could get a rousing discussion going! [there is also a book just on him by the way, titled “Mr. Collins Considered” – a great place to start, as well as the Irene Collins [no relation!] book on Austen and the clergy…]

mr collins brock illus

[illustration from]

Posted by Deb

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