PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.23, NO.1 (Winter 2002)

 
 
On Pettiness and Petticoats: The Significance of the Petticoat in Pride and Prejudice
  EFRAT MARGALIT

Efrat Margalit (email: efratmargalit@yahoo.com)  received her degree in English last year from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the editor of Truman News, the newsletter of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University. Efrat is planning to begin her graduate studies next fall.

According to Roland Barthes, “The description of a garment may be the site of rhetorical connotation” (Fashion 235-36).[1] This paper addresses a certain reference to dress and fashion in Pride and Prejudice that serves as an indirect presentation of character-traits; that is, a reference that does not name or describe explicitly the traits of a character but rather displays and exemplifies them, “leaving to the reader the task of inferring the [qualities it implies]” (Rimmon-Kenan 59-61).

The discussion regarding Lizzy’s garments and appearance after she arrives at Netherfield to visit her ill sister Jane functions as such a character-indicator. It affects the characterization not only of Elizabeth, but also of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. One may assume that Jane Austen’s contemporary reader was well acquainted with the “cultural code” to which she was referring, and was thus able to grasp immediately the innuendoes of the Bingley sisters’ parley (S/Z 20). [2] However, the modern reader who is not thoroughly aware of the cultural backdrop of Austen’s writing might miss its undertones. I shall examine the implications of Caroline and Louisa’s focus on Elizabeth’s soiled petticoat and show how, while aiming to reinforce their overt disparagement of the visitor, the speakers inadvertently expose themselves. 

On the first evening Elizabeth spends at Netherfield, she leaves the ladies and returns to her sister’s bedside:

Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was out of the room. Her manners were pronounced to be very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no stile [sic], no taste, no beauty. Mrs. Hurst thought the same, and added,
        “She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.”  
   
     “She did indeed, Louisa.  I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”
          “Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office.”
        “Your picture may be very exact, Louisa,” said Bingley; “but . . . I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well. . . . Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice.”
        “You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley; “and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition.”
        “Certainly not.”
                    (P&P 35-36; italics in text, boldface mine)

 Barthes points out that “every intransitive (unproductive) description founds the possibility of a certain poetics”; “by describing a material object, if it is not to construct it or to use it, we are led to link the qualities of its matter to a second meaning, to be signified through the notable which we attribute to it” (Fashion 235-36). The “second meaning” invoked by Caroline’s and Louisa’s description of Lizzy’s appearance is that of gross impropriety verging on immodesty. Their censure of Elizabeth, using her appearance as ammunition, is ironized by the text, ultimately reflecting on the soiled and superficial nature of their own ostensible gentility rather than on Elizabeth’s honor.

It is significant that the sisters decide to concentrate on the petticoat and to prolong the discussion of it. The choice of the petticoat is a barely veiled attack on Elizabeth’s feminine honor and thus extends the criticism levelled at her into the realms of both sexuality and morality. As Barthes claims, “Language . . . conveys a choice and imposes it, it requires the perception of this dress to stop here (i.e., neither before nor beyond), it arrests the level of reading at its fabric, at its belt, at the accessory which adorns it. Thus, every written word has a function of authority insofar as it chooses” (Fashion 13). Barthes’s example of a specific dress demonstrates one fundamental function of “written clothing” (Fashion 4), which is suggested by the discourse of Caroline and Louisa. The sisters refer to Elizabeth’s petticoat not only to ground their explicit slander but to expand it by implication.

An examination of the socio-cultural significance of the petticoat at the time Pride and Prejudice was written reveals what it is the sisters are suggesting. Critics disagree on the exact dates of the composition of the novel. The dating spans over a period of almost two decades: from the late 1790s to the early 1810s. [3] However, during the seventeen years between the earliest and the latest chronological estimation, the significance of the petticoat remained unchanged. During a period of about forty years, beginning thirty-five years before Jane Austen was born and ending in her childhood, the petticoat was visible and elaborately ornamented. From the 1740s up to the 1780s, “skirts were often open in front and looped back to display a quilted petticoat. The petticoat was therefore an important part of the dress, but was still called a petticoat” (Ewing 51). Between the 1780s and 1820s, however, the fashion changed drastically. During that period, the “vertical” style became dominant: “the vogue was for slim, high-waisted muslin or cotton gowns, clinging to the figure and worn with the minimum of underclothing. . . . [U]nderwear was often reduced to a mere single narrow petticoat . . . under the white dress” (Ewing 52, 55). 

One might argue that Jane Austen did not envision the Bennet girls being fashionably dressed in the “vertical” style described above. This is owing to their father’s poor financial situation and to fact that, at the time, “knowledge of new fashions must have traveled slowly, styles used in the provinces were probably obsolete in the capital” (Cunnington 27). Yet it is interesting to note that, in fact, the “vertical” style of dress originated in the English countryside; when the fashionable society in France adopted this style, it was named à l’anglaise (see Ewing 54). It is therefore credible to assume that Austen did imagine Elizabeth dressed in the “vertical” style, even if the paragraph of the novel quoted above was written before the end of the eighteenth century. Moreover, it is unlikely that Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst misname the undergarment in question. Nor is it probable that they belittle its significance. As Mrs. Bennet notices, they are highly aware of the current trends of fashion and take great care to be dressed elegantly.[4]  

Throughout the “vertical” period, the paucity of underwear raised its socio-cultural importance. Although “the idea of physical cleanliness had not been given much importance in the past,” during the “vertical” epoch, it “was raised to being almost the ultimate test of good breeding and gentility. . . . It pervaded society steadily, becoming part of fashion and leading to underwear being given more attention, being changed more frequently and therefore possessed in larger quantities. From this time on it attracted more attention” (Ewing 59). By indicating that Elizabeth’s petticoat is ”six inches deep in mud,” the sisters insinuate that it contrasts with the accepted norms of modesty, the rule being “that garments next to the skin should be white, to conform with the purity of the mind” (Cunnington 20).

Therefore, the “notable” that Jane Austen’s readers would have attributed to the dirty petticoat touches upon sexual indecency (Fashion 235). The sisters’ rather general remark on Elizabeth’s being “almost wild” is thus anchored in a very specific context.[5] Furthermore, the reference to Elizabeth’s unsuccessful effort to “hide” the muddy petticoat by letting down her gown is meant to indicate that she does not possess even the finesse required to conceal so gross an impropriety.

The connotations of indecency amplify Mrs. Hurst’s concluding remarks on Lizzy’s appearance and take them to an even harsher extreme: “‘To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles [sic] in dirt, and alone, quite alone!  what could she mean by it? It seems to me to shew [sic] an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum’” (36; my italics). The earlier allusions to the petticoat charge this overtly abusive judgement with derogatory implications which the sisters cannot allow themselves to express openly in the presence of the gentlemen. Since Caroline and Louisa cannot afford to be more explicit on the subject without its severely reflecting on their own sense of decorum, they must rely on the connotative qualities of the soiled undergarment.

The sexual audacity implied by these connotations is further emphasized by Louisa’s remark about the dirt reaching above Elizabeth’s “ancles.” Although during Austen’s life the ankles were not as tabooed as they would become at the height of the Victorian period, they were certainly a locus of sexual indecency if too much exposed—let alone any area above the ankles—as can be inferred from the shocked tone of a letter written around 1803 by one very prudent matron:

When I see a young lady displaying to every licentious eye her snow white bosom and panting breasts, with stays cut down before, the better to expose them to view—or when to shew [sic] a fine ankle the petticoat is shortened until half the leg is exposed—I blush for her indelicacy.  (quoted in Cunnington 40)

If the ankles and calves were not to be exposed, they were certainly not to be soiled. As we recall, female dress propriety required that items of clothing worn close to the skin should be meticulously clean. 

The Bingley sisters’ parley gave Jane Austen’s contemporary reader, who was well aware of its connotations of indecency, an important indication of the maliciously tainted minds of the sisters rather than a reliable judgment of the heroine. Because the explicit references to Lizzy’s character do not “proceed from the most authoritative voice[s] in the text” (Rimmon-Kenan 60), the reader accepts at face value neither the sisters’ slander nor its abusive implications. However, since what a “character says about another may characterize not only the one spoken about but also the one who speaks” (Rimmon-Kenan 64), the episode confirms Elizabeth’s initial disapproval of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. Eager to debase Elizabeth and, by association, to degrade Jane, the sisters unwittingly expose their own coarseness. Furthermore, in their insistence on dwelling on the delicate subject of the petticoat, Louisa and Caroline reveal how threatened they are by the growing attention their brother and Darcy pay to the Bennet sisters. 

Since Jane Austen uses descriptive details economically, the attentive reader can gain a more comprehensive understanding of her works by exploring the cultural code underlying such details. By noting the socio-cultural significance of the petticoat at the time Pride and Prejudice was written we are able not only to understand why the Bingley sisters insistently refer to it, but also to pick up on the ironic undertone of the dialogue which foreshadows the text’s final rejection of mock propriety, propriety that has everything to do with appearances and nothing to do with true gentility.   



Notes

[1]  Although Barthes discusses texts that relate to photographed clothing in fashion magazines, many of his assertions are applicable to literary texts that relate to what he calls “imagined” garments, cf. p. 6.  

[2]  The cultural code, according to Barthes, is comprised of a text’s “references to a science or a body of knowledge” existing outside itself thus creating a context or a set of meanings for the reader to decipher.

[3] According to some critics, the published manuscript of Pride and Prejudice was largely based on “First Impressions,” which was written in 1796-97. Others claim that the novel was completely revised during 1809-12, while a few critics contend that it was extensively rewritten in 1813, the year of its publication (see Halperin 66-69).

[4]  ‘Oh! my dear,’ continued Mrs. Bennet, ‘ . . . He is so excessively handsome! And his sisters are charming women. I never in my life saw anything more elegant than their dresses. I dare say the lace upon Mrs. Hurst’s gown—’” (13).

[5] In this context the “exhibition” that Elizabeth makes of herself ought to be distinguished from Mary’s “exhibiting” at the Netherfield ball (36, 101). Mary’s performance merely exposes her poor social skills and her inferior singing and playing while Elizabeth’s dirty petticoat presumably impinges on her morals and sexual decency.  

Works Cited  

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd Ed. Oxford: OUP, 1940.  

Barthes, Roland. The Fashion System. Trans. Matthew Ward & Richard Howard. New
York: Hill & Wang, 1983.  

_____.  S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill & Wang, 1974.  

Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A 
Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations
. New York: Dover, 1990.  

Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress: A History of Women’s Underwear. New York:

Drama Book Specialists, 1978.  

Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Sussex: Harvester, 1984.  

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London:
Routledge, 1983.


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