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
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
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.
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!