Estimating Lace and Muslin: Dress and Fashion in Jane Austen and Her World. (Conference Papers)

By Nigro, Jeffrey A. | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

Estimating Lace and Muslin: Dress and Fashion in Jane Austen and Her World. (Conference Papers)


Nigro, Jeffrey A., Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


"Martha & I dined yesterday at Deane to meet the Powletts & Tom Chute, which we did not fail to do.--Mrs. Powlett was at once expensively & nakedly dress'd;--we have had the satisfaction of estimating her Lace & her Muslin; & she said too little to afford us much other amusement.--"

THUS JANE AUSTEN, writing to Cassandra 8-9 January 1801, delivers one of the many characteristically pithy assessments of fashion that fill her correspondence.

Jane Austen's lifetime saw some of the most radical changes in fashions and styles in history. At the time of her birth in 1775, it was still permissible for fashionable men to wear elaborately embroidered colored silks and velvets, lace, wigs and perfume. Elegant ladies of the time wore wide hoop skirts (originally called paniers), also lavishly decorated, and tall, elaborate, powdered coiffures. By the time of Austen's death in 1817, all this would completely change: women were wearing relatively simple, high-waisted gowns, bonnets, and shawls, and men had largely abandoned bright colors and laces for a more austere style of clothing that is the ancestor of the modern suit. This was also a period in which the choice of styles, accessories, even fabrics--the choice of lace and muslin, for example--often had specific social and political connotations. Despite all of this, Austen rarely goes into the specifics of fashion in her novels; her letters, by contrast, are full of witty references to changes in fashio ns and personal tastes, her own and other people's. Although Austen often portrays fashion-consciousness as a sign of foolish or frivolous behavior in her novels (with a few revealing exceptions, as will be discussed below), she was as concerned with cutting a fine figure as everyone else.

One reason for the many references to fashion in Austen's letters is that, in a sense, people were closer to fashion then than they are now. The making, purchasing, and care of clothing were different in Austen's day than they are in our own. Certain items, like bonnets or cloaks, could be bought ready-made, but in most cases, necessary materials were purchased at a linen draper's shop and the garments would be made at a tailor's or dressmaker's shop (in Austen's time, the old-fashioned term "mantua maker" was still in use), or by family or servants at home. Even small provincial towns had some sort of haberdasher's shop (like Ford's in Emma). Changes in fashion tended to be made by famous arbiters (royalty, the aristocracy, and the leaders of high society) rather than by celebrity fashion designers. Austen herself was not above emulating the Prince of Wales's current mistress, as she wrote to Cassandra in December 1798: "I have changed my mind, & changed the trimmings of my Cap this morning . . . & I think i t makes me look more like Lady Conyngham now than it did before, which is all that one lives for now" (18-19 December). Fashion periodicals, such as Heideloff's Gallery of Fashion, Ackermann's Repository of Arts or La Belle Assemblee, had just begun to appear, though people usually learned about the latest fashions from friends or relatives in London. When Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner arrive at Longbourn in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Gardiner's first duties are "to distribute her presents and describe the newest fashions" (189).

The changes in fashion that spanned Austen's lifetime were, to a very great extent, due to British influence. For most of the eighteenth century, France was considered the arbiter of tastes and styles, because of the cultural dominance of the royal court at Versailles. Later in the century, thanks to favorable trade relations and cultural exchanges between Britain and France, "Anglomania" took hold, not only in France, but elsewhere on the European continent as well. The import of continental fashions had always been eyed with skepticism, if not scorn, by many people in Britain. Particular objects of ridicule were the members of the Macaroni Club, founded in 1764 by a coterie of hyper-fashionable British males to promote continental foods and fashions in Britain. …

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