Dressing the Part: Costume in Three Jane Austen Film Adaptations

by Jennie Chancey

Sitting in front of the t.v. recently, I muttered, "Look at the shape of that armscye! Isn't that interesting?" My husband, who wouldn't know an armscye from an Armistice blouse, shot me a puzzled glance and asked what on earth I was talking about. I shook my head and let the subject drop. You're galloping into dangerous territory when you watch a movie with a costume buff!

Three recent Jane Austen film adaptations have made wonderful use of costumes to enhance characterizations and carry storylines forward. Watching them for the first time is a delight, and subsequent viewings only serve to augment my appreciation for the thought and care that went into each film's look. Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, both of which appeared in theaters in 1995, and A&E's Pride and Prejudice, which made its five-part debut in 1996, are all excellent examples of costuming done well and with an eye on the story.

Sense and Sensibility Sense and Sensibility, adapted for the screen by Emma Thompson, was one of Jane Austen's earliest forays into novel writing. Designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright, who costumed the 1995 film, obviously did their homework. Since the novel was originally written in the late 18th century, most of the clothing in the film is patterned after those early Regency styles. The skirt backs of the gowns are fuller and worn over a "bum roll," which filled in the hollow at the small of the back. Several of the day dress skirts feature long trains fashionable from the 1790s to the early 1800s (later trains moved to evening gowns, then disappeared entirely). Sleeves are small and tight and do not feature the "furbelows" found on later Regency and 1820s gowns. Even the stays worn under the gowns are a bit stiffer than later Regency undergarments, since fashion was only just beginning the move from the more form-fitting to free-flowing styles. Fabric colors and patterns are appropriate to the era, and viewers get a good glimpse of what men and women of various age groups and social strata would wear.

Sense and Sensibility The older female characters, including Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Dashwood, wear gowns reflective of their youth -- slightly earlier fashions which included more generous skirts and wide lace accenting sleeves and necklines. Beavan and Bright also gave us a wonderful glimpse of what an extremely fashion-minded lady would enjoy wearing when she dressed Fanny Dashwood in rather violent greens and oranges, coupled with severe curls and stiff accessories. Not a speck of Romance in this character! Sir John Middleton (who was aged a bit for the film) is shown with the powdered wig and more courtly-looking suits of his younger days, while Willoughby, Edward and Robert Ferrars sport the latest in men's suits, the double-breasted tailcoat and looser knee-breeches which would give way to trousers in fifteen years. Elinor and Marianne both wear fashions appropriate to their age, and, as is proper for their newly-impoverished state, do not appear in new gowns every other scene! One item of clothing in particular helps to cement the era: the style of pelisse (overdress) worn by both sisters. Elinor wears a green one, while Marianne's is yellow. Both fasten with bands under the bosom, a style which had a very brief fling in the mid-1790s. If you can lay your hands on a copy of Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 1: 1660-1860, you will find this exact pelisse design sketched and described in the section on early Regency gowns. There is also a pattern for a short "robe" that is exactly like Marianne's tangerine-colored gown from the "May I play your pianoforte?" scene. The costumers simply lengthened the gown to make it appropriate for eveningwear.

Sense and Sensibility I have only a few gripes with the costuming for the Dashwood ladies. First is their exceedingly rapid move from mourning to everyday wear. For the death of her husband, Mrs. Dashwood would have remained in black for at least a year, if not 18 months, before moving to greys and blues. Elinor and Marianne would have worn black for six months to a year before moving on to greys, blues lavenders and greens. Marianne's canary yellow pellise, bright blue gown and bonnet and light colored Summer dresses would have been entirely inappropriate. This may have been intentional, though the story does not hint at this impropriety. Elinor, the more sober of the sisters, would certainly have followed the conventions more strictly, yet she is seen in evening clothes and light-colored day dresses from the earliest scenes. But how dull it would be to see our heroines in black and grey for 80% of the film! My other points are minor ones: Elinor and Marianne's evening gowns are closer to the styles of the 1810s with their tubular skirts and extremely high waistlines; and, finally, almost all of the women in the film wear fichu scarves stuffed into the necklines of their gowns for warmth -- chemisettes would have been more appropriate and realistic. However, all of the costumes are beautifully made and reveal a good bit of careful research. Such wonderful attention to detail, along with the truly artistic look of the whole film, makes this adaptation a joy to view over and over again.

Persuasion Alexandra Byrne, who designed the costumes for Persuasion, gets my five star award. I believe hers are the most realistic and accurate of all the adaptations thus far. It's a tough call between this film and Pride and Prejudice, but, for overall authenticity, I lean toward Persuasion. The actors in this film were not made to look pretty or perfect in every scene. They tramp through the rainy countryside, sweat, live in damp houses and get a lot of wear out of their clothing.

Persuasion Set in 1814, the film is a wonderful showcase for new fashion trends, including men's trousers, women's hats and jewelry. As in Sense and Sensibility, costumes go a long way toward establishing character traits. The vain and pompous baronet of Kellynch Hall wears more flamboyant clothing with floral motifs and pastel colors. He does not follow the newest fashions, such as trousers, which younger gentlemen have adopted, but chooses to display his supposed wealth through ostentatious court dress. All of his clothing cries, "Peacock!" The three Elliot sisters each show a different level of fashion consciousness. Elizabeth Elliot, who, like her father, is ruled by fashion's dictates, wears some of the louder colors seen in the film. Anne Elliot, who has "so altered" since her "disappointment" at age 19, keeps a sober, plainer wardrobe and is seen in the same few dresses many times over, which is so perfectly in line with her careful use of money. We finally see her in a new evening gown after her arrival at Bath -- doubtless because her father couldn't bear to be seen with her in an older gown! Mary Elliot Musgrove, who feels she has married beneath her station, is not as bound to fashion as her father, but she still pays attention to how she is dressed, no matter how "ill" she might feel. Her day dresses give a wonderful idea of some of the patterned muslins available at the time. All of the women in Persuasion dress appropriately to the damp weather and are never without their chemisettes during the day.

A very good example of the mode of the day is Lady Russell, whose turbans, feathers and short hair establish her as a lady of means and one who does not turn a blind eye toward Paris. The younger Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay, both of whom try to climb above their station in life, also dress as closely to the current mode as possible. Mr. Elliot follows the Beau Brummel crowd with his white trousers, colored tailcoats and curly hair. Mrs. Clay, who is attempting to catch a baronet, often wears more revealing gowns and brighter colors. Even the naval officers sport the latest cut of uniform, including trousers!

Persuasion Some of the most delightful scenes in the film involve the Musgrove family, Mary's in-laws who are gentleman farmers. Mrs. Musgrove wears clothing patterned after the late 18th century and looks so comfortable in her wide skirts and elbow-length sleeves. Mr. Musgrove is jolly in his breeches and curled white hair. The Musgrove sisters look like they have stepped directly out of Diana Sperling's Regency watercolors with their white dresses, red capes and straw bonnets, and their clothing is both practical and beautiful. We also get a peek into the lower class in this film, when Anne visits her school chum, Mrs. Smith, and her nurse. Both women wear sturdy, serviceable clothing without a speck of fashion consciousness about them. And there are plenty of servants in the movie to show workaday world clothing. Be sure to notice the attendants in courtly attire and powdered wigs in the room with Lady Dalrymple! The viscountess herself wears current fashions, but her face is painted with the white leaded makeup of thirty years earlier, no doubt harking back her her heyday at court.

Persuasion gives such a wonderful feeling of everyday life with its realistic outdoor scenes and the attention given to the various stations in life of the characters. The costumes do not call attention to themselves, but blend in perfectly with the whole look of the film. My kudos to Alexandra Byrne for her research and hard work!

Finally, I'd like to take an abbreviated look at the costumes in A&E's Pride and Prejudice. A much longer article could be written on this miniseries by itself, which had the benefit of a substantial costume budget. The director gave the actresses the freedom to choose what they would wear from day to day, and we get to see their wonderful clothing, designed by Dinah Collin and Kate Stewart, many times over in the course of the five hour film.

Pride and Prejudice Although we are not given the time period during which the film is supposed to be set, the overall look falls anywhere between 1805 and 1815. The men wear breeches and the very high collars still associated with pre-1810 fashions, but the ladies' dresses are much more reminiscent of post-1810 styles with their more tubular skirts, spencer jackets and bonnets. Both Jane and Elizabeth Bennet wear wonderful, practical day dresses in printed and sheer muslins. Elizabeth's "Turkey red" dress, which she wears when she first visits Lady Catherine DeBourgh, is straight out of the fashion plates of the time. Jane's pink ballgown with the cross-over front is also right out of a fashion illustration, although less extravagantly adorned than what fashion dictated. (This is one thing I have noticed in every Austen film adaptation: the heroines are dressed in plainer, prettier versions of the fashions of the time, while the "bad" ladies are trimmed and accessorized to the hilt!)

Pride and Prejudice Again, good use is made of costume to illustrate character. Perhaps no examples are better than Mr. Bingley's two sisters. Both wear burnt oranges, lime greens, bright golds and rust reds; their jewelry is large and flashy; their headgear is extreme; and their makeup is rather bright. Both look like they've stepped right out of the Paris books, and all of their clothing is made of the finer silks and taffetas of the period. Most modern viewers would perceive their clothing as ugly, which is probably what the director and designer intended. Other ladies are also fashion conscious, even if they are not as obviously overstated as the Bingley sisters. Mrs. Bennet, whose head is emptier than her eldest daughters would like, asks her sister about the latest fashions for long sleeves and is seen in a turban and other accessories from the latest mode. Costume designers Collin and Stewart also show us what "fast" young ladies might wear, since Lydia, who ends up ruining the family's reputation, frequently wears necklines far too low for her age; and, although Kitty prides herself on being the brighter of the two youngest sisters, she frequently apes Lydia's choices in dress. An example at the other end of the fashion extreme is Mary Bennet's severe clothing and high necklines. Even her hair is pulled straight back and up without a hint of Romantic sensibility.

Pride and Prejudice Like Persuasion, all of the women in the film are dressed appropriately for the weather, wearing chemisettes and spencers when it is cold. My only exception is Elizabeth's light blue spencer, which features a low neckline -- entirely defeating the purpose of a spencer jacket! (Still, it is a beautiful piece and displays sleeve ornamentation similar to what is seen in the late Regency period.) The colorful gowns and good mixture of patterns and styles makes for enjoyable repeated viewings. I frequently pop in this series while I am sewing, letting it run in the background and looking up now and again to enjoy a nicely-shaped armscye or a particular trim on a ballgown. My husband can shake his head. To each her own!

Jennie Chancey is a costume designer specializing in reproduction Regency clothing. Visit her Sense and Sensibility web site at http://www.sensibility.com.

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