A Frivolous Distinction
Jane Austen Fashion: Fashion and
Needlework in the Works of Jane Austen
By Penelope Byrde.
Excellent Press, 1999. 128 pages.
36 color illustrations.
Reviewed by Marsha Huff.
to Cassandra on January 8, 1799, Jane Austen provides a lively fashion
commentary. In addition to reporting on her new gown (“the sleeves are
short, the wrap fuller”) and accessories (“I wore my Green shoes last
night, & took my white fan”),
am not to wear my white sattin cap tonight after all; I am to wear a
Mamalouc cap instead. …It is all the fashion now, worn at the Opera,
& by Lady Mildmays at Hackwood Balls—I hate describing such things,
& I dare say You will be able to guess what it is like.
It is no surprise to a reader of Austen’s novels to learn that Austen
does not like to describe clothing or, for that matter, furniture,
landscape, or architecture. Austen provides details of fashion and
furnishings only when they bear on the personality of her characters.
When she writes, for example, that Mr. Darcy drives a curricle and John
Thorpe a gig, the mention of conveyance is not gratuitous but adds to
her portrait of the men.
Penelope Byrde, in Jane Austen
Fashion, notes that references to contemporary dress in Austen’s
novels are few and well-chosen. Austen employs preoccupation with
clothing satirically, to establish a character’s vanity (Mrs. Elton),
superficiality and vacuity (Mrs. Allen and Lydia Bennet), or disguised
nature (Lucy Steele and Isabella Thorpe). For praise-worthy women
Austen reserves the term “elegant.” Jane Fairfax is “remarkably
elegant,” and Emma has “herself the highest value for elegance.” In
spite of Austen’s economic use of detail in her fiction, the many
fashion references in her letters show that she was not indifferent to
This beautifully designed little book, by the Curator of the Museum of
Costume and Fashion Research Centre in Bath, explains and illustrates
clothing and needlework mentioned in Austen’s novels and letters. The
text was first published 20 years earlier in a booklet, whose title—A Frivolous Distinction—borrowed a
phrase from Northanger Abbey
about Catherine Morland’s anxious consideration of what to wear to a
ball: “Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive
solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.” This edition adds
three dozen full-color fashion plates and photographs.
While the book is not a comprehensive study, it brings together a great
deal of information about the style and fabrication of clothing,
including a useful glossary of textile terms. The green baize used by
Mrs. Norris for the theater at Mansfield Park, we learn, was a coarse
woolen fabric for linings, coverings, or curtains, and the black
sarsenet purchased by Austen in London for her mother (letter, May 20,
1813) was a fine, soft silk, usually with a twill weave. As a
collection of Austen’s references to clothing and needlework, Jane Austen Fashion is perhaps
unique. Every chapter—every page, in fact—is dense with quotations from
the novels and letters, well documented in endnotes. Regrettably,
however, no index is provided.
Byrde explains, through her text and illustrations, many oddities of
18th and 19th Century style. The tight fit of a spencer and various
cuts of a pelisse are shown in fashion plates. The function of pattens
is explained: they were overshoes with wooden soles supported on an
iron frame, which raised the lady several inches from the ground but
made a “ceaseless clink” on any hard surface, as Anne Elliot notices on
her arrival in Bath. Catherine Morland’s tamboured muslin was
embroidered on a frame (like Mrs. Grant’s tambour frame in Mansfield Park) with a fine hook
passed through the fabric to make a series of chain stitches.
I read Jane Austen Fashion
hoping to learn more about the famous Mamalouc cap. I was, however,
unable to reconcile Byrde’s description of a satin turban, trimmed with
an ostrich feather, with that of Constance Hill (quoted by Deirdre Le
Faye in the notes to her edition of Austen’s Letters), who wrote that a Mamalouc
cap was a toupee, somewhat resembling a fez. Since Austen chose not to
describe the cap she wore that January night in 1799, a fashion mystery
Marsha Huff is
Co-coordinator of the 2005 AGM, whose theme is “Jane Austen’s Letters
in Fact and Fiction.” The Regency Room at the Milwaukee AGM will
include fashions mentioned in Austen’s letters.
v.19, no. 3, Winter 2003, p. 25
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