While watching a video clip from The Devil Wears Prada the other day, I was struck with how powerfully the clothing of the characters provides visual insights into both the nature of the people and the internal arc of the protagonist, Andy. Having studied so many Austen adaptations over the past few years, I began pondering how many of the costume designers of these productions did the same. I’m sure others have put much thought into how Jane Austen herself used clothing to illustrate character, but I soon turned my own brain cells to this task. Although Austen did not spend a lot of time describing the clothing, when she does introduce clothing into the plot, it always reveals something about the characters. I found numerous examples, but I’ll share three, and invite you to consider what we learn from these examples.
The first example isn’t even of a gown in a scene but one mentioned in a letter. In Lydia’s letter to her family after she has eloped with Wickham. It’s mentioned like an afterthought at the end of the letter. I can’t help but speculate as to how her gown was torn.
I shall send for my clothes when I get to Longbourn; but I wish you would tell Sally to mend a great slit in my worked muslin gown before they are packed up (emphasis added). Good-bye. Give my love to Colonel Forster. I hope you will drink to our good journey. —
Your affectionate friend, LYDIA BENNET.
The second example doesn’t actually tell us anything about Marianne Dashwood’s attire but describes Lucy Steele’s attention to it vividly. What do we learn about the two characters here? There is a lot to unpack in this single paragraph!
To her dress and appearance she was grown so perfectly indifferent, as not to bestow half the consideration on it, during the whole of her toilette, which it received from Miss Steele in the first five minutes of their being together, when it was finished. Nothing escaped her minute observation and general curiosity; she saw everything, and asked everything; was never easy till she knew the price of every part of Marianne’s dress; could have guessed the number of her gowns altogether with better judgment than Marianne herself, and was not without hopes of finding out before they parted, how much her washing cost per week, and how much she had every year to spend upon herself. The impertinence of these kind of scrutinies, moreover, was generally concluded with a compliment, which though meant as its douceur, was considered by Marianne as the greatest impertinence of all; for after undergoing an examination into the value and make of her gown, the colour of her shoes, and the arrangement of her hair, she was almost sure of being told that upon “her word she looked vastly smart, and she dared to say would make a great many conquests.”
Our third example takes us to one of Austen’s comical persons, that is, Mrs. Elton in Emma, speaking with Mr. Knightley. I love how she prattles on about giving the appearance of simplicity, as though being natural and simple is a costume. What do we learn about Mr. Elton’s bride in this scene?
“It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing. I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here, — probably this basket with pink ribbon. Nothing can be more simple, you see. And Jane will have such another. There is to be no form or parade — a sort of gipsy party. We are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees; and whatever else you may like to provide, it is to be all out of doors; a table spread in the shade, you know. Every thing as natural and simple as possible. Is not that your idea?”
Austen’s genius in turning our minds to the significance of clothing artfully exposes the nature of the characters without dwelling too much on the particulars. What did you learn from these examples? Can you think of other examples in the Austen canon where Jane used clothing as part of the story? We would love to hear your thoughts!