BOOK REVIEWS
George Justice, Editor
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. Hardcover.  $12.95. 

Reviewed by Marsha Huff.


Writing 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”), she says:

I 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 style.

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 remains.


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.

JASNA News v.19, no. 3, Winter 2003, p. 25

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