Jane Austen wasn’t prone to dwelling on clothing in her books or in her life. Many of her nieces and nephews felt that she tended to dress in the rather dowdy fashion of middle age even when she was in her twenties and thirties. As far as it is known, there are no examples of clothing worn by her and while later versions of her books have been illustrated with characters in Regency or Empire style as have most of the films, Jane’s short life spanned two very distinct and divergent clothing eras.
Illustration by Hugh Thomson
French designers were the hallmark and touchstone of fashion and style in the late 18th century. The clothing of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI was the rage on the continent and in England. The style of tight corsets, elaborate gowns of heavy fabric, skirts held out with hoops and petticoats along with powered hair and wigs, finished off with white make-up was designed to make the wearer look like a porcelain doll. By the time Jane was in her mid-teens the styles were beginning to change with the advent of looms that created fine cotton fabric.
The chemise has been around for centuries but by 1790 was being used as a dress by simply adding a ribbon around the waist. As time progressed so too did the chemise as it was refined by creating a separate bodice on to which the skirt (fuller in the back) was sewn.
The political upheaval of the French revolution solidified the movement away from satins and brocades, corsets, hoops and petticoats. While the Regency style with its lightweight fabrics and high waist did not rely on stiff, heavy corsets for a proper fit ladies still wore stays but the more natural and flowing gowns led to the end of porcelain white make-up and powdered wigs.
Sarah 'Pinkie' Moulton (1783-1795) was likely
wearing a chemise tied high with a wide pink
ribbon in the famed portrait by Thomas Lawrence.
To ward off the cooler weather of the British Isles, heavier fabrics were not uncommon although muslin and calico were still the first choice for daytime wear accented with the customary bonnet and gloves. The Spencer jacket and Pelisse, designed and constructed of velvet or wool were added to the fashionable English wardrobe along with continued use of cloaks.