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Fashion Forward: Dress in the Age of Jane Austen

Elyse Martin | Sep 30, 2019

When fashion historian Hilary Davidson (Univ. of Sydney) was living in, as she put it, “Jane Austen’s heartland of Hampshire” in England, the senior keeper of decorative arts at the Hampshire County Museum Services and Archives asked her to make a replica of the novelist’s pelisse—a long women’s coat-dress that the novelist likely wore—which the museum owned. As both a curator and a sewer, Davidson was an ideal candidate to create a replica that could be loaned out without risking damage to the original. Through the project and the talks she gave on the pelisse, Davidson noticed that the public often learned what they knew about dress in Britain’s Regency era (1811–20) through such novels as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and the costume dramas based on them.

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All classes mingle at the Regency-era Oxford races. Note the ladies in the box on the upper right, wearing “the little white dress” Davidson describes in her book. Charles Turner, An Extensive View of the Oxford Races, c1820, oil on canvas. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, Conn.

So when Davidson couldn’t find a scholarly monograph on clothing from the early 19th century, she decided to write a single-volume survey of Regency dress with Austen at its center. The result was Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion (Yale Univ. Press, 2019). Austen, she thought, would give a general audience an accessible entry point into Regency-era fashion history. And for scholars, Austen and her family would exemplify how the English middling classes and gentry dressed and thought about clothing in this era. Davidson thus treats historical garments as material objects open to interpretation, helping scholars and fans alike add to the traditional Austen archive by turning textile to text. 

The book relies extensively on Austen’s most renowned works—her letters and novels—as its main groups of primary sources. “An exceptionally observant woman,” Davidson writes, Austen also happened to be “part of the best biographized, non-elite, late Georgian family.” Austen’s relatives provided Davidson with a ready-made archive of valuable primary sources and attendant scholarly analysis, while also providing windows into Regency life beyond England’s shores. Austen’s aunt, for example, was born in Barbados; her sister-in-law was born in India and had been married to a French aristocrat; and her brothers served in the Navy, voyaging across the world. “The nature of British society at the time,” Davidson told Perspectives, “was highly globally connected.” Even a figure like Austen, who, Davidson says, is “often culturally represented as being the stay-at-home, afternoon tea [type] . . . actually had these extraordinary connections to the wider world.”

Davidson also examined authentic historical dress, portraits, fashion magazines, diaries, laundry invoices, tailors’ bills, satirical cartoons, advertisements from stay makers, account books by clergymen, watercolors of “street characters,” and pattern books to consider how Austen’s contemporaries, of all classes, discussed, maintained, and created clothing. 

Piecing together the social history of fashion from such a variety of archival sources can be “a bit overwhelming” to those unfamiliar with material culture study, according to Davidson. “Because dress is such a central practice of humanity,” she says, “if you’re really looking for clothing and perspectives on clothing . . . [you find sources] through all the possible ranges of human culture.” To organize the vast assortment of sources and information in a way that would be accessible to students, the general public, and historians who don’t have a background in fashion history, Davidson once again turned to Austen. Instead of a straight chronology, the seven chapters in Davidson’s book reflect how Austen might have categorized the world, from the inmost sphere of “Self” to the furthest reaches of Regency England’s trading networks, “World.”

Davidson treats historical garments as material objects open to interpretation, helping scholars and fans alike add to the traditional Austen archive by turning textile to text.

One consistent trope in the book is what is perhaps the era’s most famous garment type: the full-sleeved, ruffle-necked white linen shirt, which Davidson reads as evidence for the many ways shirts intersected with the overlapping social spheres after which she names her chapters.

In the Regency era, shirts were a foundational undergarment and were highly gendered. Men wore shirts, which reached to the mid-thigh and were to be tucked into breeches or trousers; women wore longer, tunic-like shifts that went down to the knees and were meant to give a smooth base for a gown. Even when women wore clothing cut like men’s shirts, they were referred to as modified “habit-shirts,” to be worn specifically under a riding habit. Shirts were personal body linens whose laundering was of constant concern. They were often sent out of the home to be laundered by village or city washerwomen. (In fact, the only mention of men’s shirts in Austen’s fiction is as part of a humorous laundry list in Northanger Abbey.)

In letters sent across England, Austen mentions sewing shirts with female relatives for her male relatives. Needlework gifts like these sustained Austen family bonds across long distances. Likewise, the material used to create the shirts shows the national networks of Regency Great Britain. In a 1798 letter, Austen describes purchasing Irish linen from a “Scotchman,” a historic term for an itinerant trader. Ireland produced so much of the linen consumed by England that it was often referred to as “Irish.” As Davidson jokes in her book, “Austen’s purchase of Irish in England from the Overton Scotchman was an accidental minor act of union”—a very inside nod to the Acts of Union 1800, which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

These shirts were manufactured within Great Britain’s borders, but also left them, as Austen’s relations participated in Britain’s imperial enterprise. Her brother Charles asked Austen in a letter to send the shirts she and her sister had stitched for him before he shipped out to serve abroad in the Napoleonic Wars. As Davidson writes, “Austen may never have travelled abroad but her stitching crossed oceans.” “As an Australian,” Davidson told Perspectives, “I found it really interesting to take on the lessons from the global turn in history and say, ‘Look how far we can track this supposedly very English, very cloistered, very stay-at-home iconic figure of British history.’”

Davidson demonstrates how to read different cultural trends and influences in another famous staple of costume dramas: the high-waisted white muslin dress. “The little white dress,” as Davidson humorously terms it, is often interpreted as evidence of Rousseau’s influence and his calls for simplicity of dress, or Classicism, the prevailing aesthetic trend during this period. Davidson points out in her book that muslin was, however, for most of the Regency era, imported from India. She quotes one Regency military man who claimed that the “peshawar shalwar” was “the robe from which our ladies have taken their present dress.” As Davidson writes, “Of all the styles existing in the British-connected world in the late eighteenth century, regional Indian variations on garments with high waists or skirts starting under the bust and made of muslin are the closest match.” The style was evidence not just of Continental European ideas in Britain, but of South Asian ones as well.

Davidson hopes Dress in the Age of Jane Austen will help readers appreciate “the non-literate skills that we extremely literate people sometimes have trouble finding our way back into.”

Davidson finds that her students become very engaged when studying fashion history. In class, she uses the Australian Dress Register, a collaborative digital history project that documents Australian clothing. The class examines and discusses “one object for four hours, and we catalog it to go online.” Afterward the students express surprise, saying, “I didn’t know you could see that much.” Digging into questions beyond “What is this fabric?” to “Where would this fabric have come from?” can help elucidate trade networks in a very hands-on and immediate way. “You can see them kind of get it, and get that spark,” said Davidson.

Making explicit the implicit knowledge that goes into creating a piece of needlework or other material object is a difficult but extremely useful skill to acquire, according to Davidson. It can make the underlying networks of empire, trade, class, and family—which allowed, say, a white shirt owned by Charles Austen to exist—more physically real to students. As Davidson writes, “Needlework filled women’s lives in the age of Austen.” And while examples of Austen’s sewing are not as abundant, easily found, or famous as her novels and letters, they are objects that allow scholars to better understand who Austen was and how she spent her days.

Davidson hopes Dress in the Age of Jane Austen will help readers appreciate “the non-literate skills that we extremely literate people sometimes have trouble finding our way back into,” such as needlework, and “give people different models of ways in” to history and to archives. “Dress is the place where I choose to stand and look at history,” Davidson told Perspectives. “It’s my filter, it’s my perspective . . . everyone finds their own way into history, and clothing has been mine.” 


Elyse Martin is associate editor, web content and social media, at the AHA. She tweets @champs_elyse.


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