As part of the Grand Tour for Natasha Farrant's brilliant Pride and Prejudice retelling, Lydia, Natasha Farrant is telling us all about fashion in Austen's time.
I have on loan, for the purpose of promoting LYDIA, an exquisite bonnet of soft gold straw, trimmed with green ostrich feathers, artificial berries and three different kinds of ribbons. Small crowned and wide peaked, the glow of the straw gives a soft sheen to my skin. The weight of the thing makes me stand a little straighter. The bow beneath my chin has a feminine coyness, the feathers lend glamour, the fruit a touch of playfulness. Hidden several miles behind the brim, I feel at once demure and flirtatious, empowered and restrained. To wear an (imitation) Regency bonnet raises complicated emotions. Rather like slipping on a pair of impossibly high heels or having a manicure or wearing a push-up bra, it changes both the way you feel about yourself and the way you behave.
The late eighteenth century saw a fashion explosion in Britain. Gone were the stiff brocades and uncomfortable hoops of previous eras. The Victorian constraints have not yet made their appearance. Regency fashion is all about the “athletic”, neo-Grecian figure – high waisted, flowing, promoting ease of movement for activities such as walking and dancing. This was a time of increased global trading links which brought in new fabrics and designs. A rising middle-class had money and leisure on its hands, improving roads and communication links spread ideas and goods. The first fashion periodicals appeared. Ribbons and feathers, turbans and bonnets, muslins and military jackets – it was a time of experimentation and excess (and see the attached illustration for a risqué satire of the new fashion of ditching underwear under flimsy dresses.
This passage about the trimming of hats, from one of Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra, gives us a clue as to her thoughts on all this:
“Flowers are very much worn, and Fruit is still more the thing. Eliz. Has a bunch of Strawberries, and I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs and Apricots – There are likewise Almonds & raisins, French plumbs and Tamarinds at the Grocers, but I have never seen any of them in hats (-) I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit.”
From this and other letters, it’s clear that she found the world of high fashion absurd, but we know also that she enjoyed it. Her letters are full of references to stockings she has bought, caps she has trimmed, and her determination to keep up with the latest trends (for example, in the wearing of long sleeves for dinner). Austen uses this duality – embracing fashion, while remaining conscious of its absurdities – to inform us about her characters. As a general rule, while it is entirely right for a person to be well turned out, an over-interest in fashion soon becomes a shorthand for ridicule. We know, for example, that Lizzy Bennet spends longer than usual getting ready for the Netherfield ball, that Jane Fairfax is elegant, that Fanny Price dresses with modesty and correct propriety, but are told little else about their dress. Mrs Elton in Emma, on the other hand, speaks at length of her “horror of being overtrimmed”. Isabella Morland longs for a “coquelicot ribboned” hat. The first thing Mrs Bennet does with visitors from out of town in make them tell her all about the latest fashions. Poor Lydia is forever trimming bonnets. Excessive interest in fashion, it is implied, is always a hallmark for intellectual inferiority.
If Austen were alive today, I imagine she would be investing in timeless classical pieces in the House of Fraser sales, with good brogues and a well-cut coat, personalised with cleverly tied scarves and discreet jewellery. She would use own brand face creams and maybe a little mascara and expensive perfume on special occasions, and she would always be appropriately dressed. I would be very nervous to approach her unless I too were dressed exactly right: nothing pulled un-ironed out of the basket, no uncombed hair or chipped nail varnish or old T-shirt. No frumpiness, but no ostentation either. Jeans, maybe, but not ripped, and definitely with a jacket, and squeaky clean trainers.
It is not a coincidence that my Lydia and indeed her female nemesis, Theo de Fombelle, are obsessed with clothes. Lydia’s obsession is an indication, as in Austen’s novels, of her frivolous nature, though also of her sense of fun and experimentation. Theo’s is more complicated: she has understood the obsession of her era with fashion, and plans to use it to her advantage. In both cases, fashion, as Austen understood so well, is a highly charged thing – frivolous and fun, but also deeply revealing of character.
Thank you so much, Natasha! You can read my review of the fantastic 'Lydia' right here and make sure to check out the rest of the Grand Tour!