Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Jane Austen's Novels: Clothing Details

Surprisingly, I can find in Jane's novels very little detail about clothes. As dress is Mrs. Allen's 'passion', there is more about clothes in Northanger Abbey than elsewhere, though we do not even know much about what she wore.

Muslin was a fashionable novelty in Jane Austen's youth. Heavier fabrics were superseded. Silk was popular. White gowns were now possible - and a symbol of elegance.

Jane Austen has a good eye for detail; yet she is very selective in the details she gives us. There is no need usually to describe what characters are wearing. The word ‘elegant’ says it all. But Jane makes a good deal out of a minor detail when it throws up questions of ethics or etiquette, or when reactions to the details reveal much about a group of characters. Think of the attention given to Emma’s portrait of Harriet, or the necklace Henry hopes to make Fanny Price wear. 

Incidentally, Penelope Byrde's A Frivolous Distinction: Fashion and Needlework in the works of Jane Austen is a handy guide to dress in England at the time. It makes clear, for example, what ‘bombazine’ and ‘sarsenet’ are.