A Few Words on Fashion from Jane Austen

Public domain image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum.

This passage about fashion is from Northanger Abbey. First published in 1811, it was written in 1798. I bolded the “quotable bits.”

“[Catherine] went home very happy. The morning had answered all her hopes, and the evening of the following day was now the object of expectation, the future good. What gown and what head-dress she should wear on the occasion became her chief concern. She cannot be justified in it. Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of time prevented her from buying a new one for the evening. This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt, might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man toward a new gown. It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter. But not one of these grave reflections troubled the tranquillity of Catherine.”

This 1790s evening dress in the Met collection has delicate beading and sequin embroidery. Follow this link for several views.

Late 1790 dress embroidered with beads and sequins. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum.

The embroidered hem. Later 1790s.

This British dress circa 1796 to 1798 is in the Metropolitan museum collection. You can see several views, all large scale-able. Follow this link and click on the small images to see front, back, side, and bodice details.

British dress in Met collection. Circa 1798.

Bodice details, British dress in Met collection.

This French dress of 1797-98 is a printed muslin. Does it have a separate bodice? Visit the Met Collection to see bigger images.

French dress in collection of the Metropolitan Museum, dated 1797-98.

A closer view of the printed fabric on the French dress from 1797-98.

For more about Muslin dresses and other things “Austen,” I recommend the blog, Jane Austen’s World. Click here for the post showing various muslin dresses.

What I learned today: This empire dress, embroidered with a wool chain stitch, is a “tamboured muslin!”

Empire dress, early 1800’s, with wool embroidery at hem in three shades of brown. Private collection. Sadly, moths have eaten some of the wool.

The Met also has a great collection of fashion plates, and you can zoom in for the details. Here’s a link to the ones from 1790-1799.

 

7 Comments

Filed under 1700s, Costumes for the 18th Century, Dresses, Resources for Costumers

7 responses to “A Few Words on Fashion from Jane Austen

  1. I have been a long time subscriber/swooner! I have my own little tiny costume rental business that’s been on hold since Covid…in the meantime, I have been sewing for myself….but itching to sew historical costumes for myself–it’s been an obsessing of mine since i was a child….i never have a chance because i am always sewing historic costumes for kids for their school history learning days….i think this Jane Austen post put me in the mood for something for me now!
    xo eva

  2. seweverythingblog

    Wow. Now I want to pull out Northanger Abbey again!

  3. anna

    Unlike so many fabrics of Austen’s day, which were so thick a dress could be “turned twice” (meaning you ripped the seams and sewed it the other way round to get more wear out of a single garment) those muslins are so sheer I can well understand the contemporary trope of a young miss getting heated in a ballroom, stepping out on the balcony with the gallant of her choice, and catching her death of cold.

  4. Thanks so much for a lovely reminder of Jane’s gentler world. Have been engrossed in family on the Peninsula, & Sonoma. Hope are faring well in your location! And thanks again!

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