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Jane Austen Fashions

Updated on August 11, 2013

The Regency Period

The enduring popularity of English novelist, Jane Austen is a testament to the authors literary eloquence and her ability to involve the reader in enthralling, gossipy tales of English life in the early 19th century. Although the novels invariably featured a romantic theme, they were overlaid with an incisive, witty social commentary that gave the reader a birds-eye view of 19th century family relationships and social politics among the middle and upper classes.

Austen was popular in her own era, though she made little money from her writing and remarkably, the novels have garnered new fans in the late 20th and 21st centuries and have been dramatised many times for film and television. Whether in prose or on screen, it's fascinating to examine the social minutiae of the author's era, including the distinctive fashions that marked the Regency period in history (1795-1837), so called because King George III was declared unfit to rule and his son the Prince Regent took over the reins as his proxy until he became George IV after his father's death. It was a period of social and political upheaval, culturally rich but somewhat unstable. The French revolution of 1798-99 had made the status quo in England seem less secure.

Portrait of writer, Jane Austen
Portrait of writer, Jane Austen

Demure and Feminine

Jane Austen heroines were invariably young, often from good families but not always wealthy and although their clothes may have been demure and feminine, their characters displayed wit, chutzpah and a keen intelligence.

Fashions of the era took their inspiration from the classical past and included high waistbands, placed just beneath the bust and sometimes detailed with a soft band of silk or satin. Fabrics were light and breezy, skirts long and column-like rather than full and the sleeves short. For outdoors, dresses would often be paired with a woollen or velvet short jacket and a pert bonnet. Light colours were favoured, white in particular,owing to its classical associations. It was altogether a more natural look, as corsets were abandoned and there was less emphasis on waistlines.

Women of the Regency period had a wider range of cloth to choose from than previous generations, for although ready-to-wear was not yet a mainstream reality, the industrial revolution expanded the choice of material. Cotton muslin was a popular choice in dress fabric, as was fine wool and silk for the well-off.

Often social etiquette demanded women and men of the leisured classes change several times a day in accordance with social situations. While a woman might wear a cap and a loose fitting dress with a higher neckline in warm material at home, she would be expected to wear an entirely different outfit and accessories for dinner, visiting, walking out etc. Similarly, different times of day demanded different dress - while comfortable dress was acceptable earlier in the day, for afternoon a more outfit with a lower neckline would commonly be worn., while evening wear required a low decolletage, evening gloves, fancy trims, shawls, headwear and accessories. There were also special outfits for riding, walking and promenading.

Early 19th century Henry Moses drawing of a domestic scene, idealizing the classical look of the Regency period.
Early 19th century Henry Moses drawing of a domestic scene, idealizing the classical look of the Regency period.

Shopping in the Early 19th Century

Clothes were custom made and usually women spent many hours shopping for the right fabrics at drapers stores, fripperies, gloves, trims and tassels at the haberdashery and choosing from assorted designs at the dress-makers. Then it would be off to the milliners to choose an appropriate hat. While there were, at that time, some emerging dressmaker/designers who were beginning to offer 'the whole outfit package', it was not common to buy an entire outfit at one place. In the main, all the clothes were painstakingly hand-stiched by a poorly paid seamstresses, whose labours, it must be said, were disgracefully exploited - they worked very long hours, sewing thousands of tiny stitches for each outfit

Jane Austen heroines, who often resided in the country, while reasonably fashionable, were not cutting edge and wore the outfits typical of their age and social situation. Often they were sartorially outshone by richer, more fashionably chic rivals but the appeal of Jane Austen's heroines never depended on such superficialities. In Pride and Prejudice for example, the wealthy, well-travelled Bingley sisters in their cosmopolitan clothes, complete with plumes and exotic fabrics, make the Bennett sister's wardrobe seem provincial, yet through her natural charms and powerful personality, Elizabeth Bennett has no trouble securing the attentions of the sought after Mr. Darcy.

The richly attired Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst. From the BBC drama, Pride and Prejudice
The richly attired Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst. From the BBC drama, Pride and Prejudice
as Elizabeth Bennett. From the BBC drama, Pride and Prejudice
as Elizabeth Bennett. From the BBC drama, Pride and Prejudice

Hairstyles

Hairstyles were also classically inspired, resembling the elegant styles of ancient Greece and Rome. Hair was popularly worn up, smooth on the crown but with elaborate curls cascading over the forehead and a wad of curls at the back of the head, often adorned with elaborate headbands, very long feathers, decorative combs, ribbons, feathers, flowers or a delicate braids.

The heavy, bouffant hair of the previous era gave way to a stylised elegance and although curls featured prominently, they were relatively easy styles to achieve, with the hair pulled back into a curly ponytail or chignon. More unusually, a longer style was sometimes worn, with a single long curl draped over the shoulder.

For outdoors, pert bonnets were frequently worn, decorated with ribbons and/or flowers and curls peeping out to frame the face beneath the hat, while at home, many women would sport a lightweight, delicately frilled cap.

A silhouette of Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra
A silhouette of Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra
19th century Hugh Thompson  illustration for Sense and Sensibility
19th century Hugh Thompson illustration for Sense and Sensibility
The haught y Mr Darcy. Illustration by CE, Brock for the 1895 edition of Pride and Prejudice
The haught y Mr Darcy. Illustration by CE, Brock for the 1895 edition of Pride and Prejudice

Men's Fashions

Early 18th century fashions for men were far more dandified than they are today, though not as overtly effeminate as they were in the previous era of powdered wigs and beauty spots. Men opted for a simpler elegance and wore top hats, linen trousers with breeches and boots, ornate or plain waistcoats with wide collars, blousy shirts and cravats and double-breasted topcoats with tails which were cut away at the waist to reveal a mans torso.

Fashion trendsetter Beau Brummell was making his mark in Regency England at the time and influenced men's fashion toward understated but well tailored and fitted clothes with elaborately knotted cravats. The Brummell style cravat became a marker of sophisticated style and was a must-have for the fashion conscious Regency gent.

Side-burns were in and hair was longish, though not as long as the previous era - the young and trendy favoured shorter styles. Hair was wavy but left relatively natural looking and brushed forward to frame and flatter the face.

The extreme, foppish aristocratic look had by this time lost ground in the popularity stakes as few English aristocrats wished to stylistically emulate their French counterparts, many of whom had lost their exquisitely styled heads in the French revolution at the end of the 18th century.

The stylish Regency fashion icon, Beau Brummell
The stylish Regency fashion icon, Beau Brummell

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