SNARK WEEK: Jane Austen’s Little White Dresses vs. the Regency Bad Girls

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As a life-long student of 19th-century English literature and as a historical costumer since my teens, I’m contractually obligated to love Jane Austen novels. And I mostly do (though the Brontes are more my gig). Austen’s way with words and her intricate plotting are delightful to read, and I certainly can’t help but watch any old screen adaption of her works, whether movie or TV, British or American, strictly historical or a modern take. I bow down to the One True Colin Firth Moment in Pride and Prejudice (1995), and I even dig Clueless for its twist on Emma.

But if there’s anything I can’t stand it’s dumpy little white Regency dresses. Jane Austen movies are chock full of the damn things! Partly it was the trend of the early 1800s fashion, and partly filmmakers use it to denote delicate feminine innocence and simplicity of characters. Pshaw! It’s hideous. Everyone looks like they’re wearing white sacks or running around in their nighties. Utter crap. I love the dialog in the 1995 P&P, but watching otherwise attractive Jennifer Ehle dressed in a drippy tablecloth, hmph, it’s not just the inferiority of her connections that irritates me, like Darcy, but the completely pathetic state of her wardrobe.

You know who gets the only good costumes in a Jane Austen movie or TV series? The bad girls — any lady who’s considered shallow, greedy, or manipulative in comparison to the virtuous main characters. So instead of wearing wimpy white, these women get to drape themselves in bright red, deep orange, acid green, lots of black, plus stripes or prints, and they have crazy huge bonnets, turbans, and towering feathers in their hair.

Let’s hear it for the Regency Bad Girls! Boo for the proper ladies in their fussy white maternity gowns! Huzzah for the bitches who know what they want and aren’t afraid to wear sari fabric and bling while they tell the goody-two-shoes what’s what! Let’s dish about the gloriously greedy Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, the more-fashionable-than-you Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, the snobby old Lady Russell in Persuasion, the sassy and spoiled sister Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion, and the baddest bitches of them all, the Bingley sisters in Pride and Prejudice! They’re not just plot devices, they’re fashion icons!

Sense and Sensibility (1995), Fanny Dashwood

Sense and Sensibility (1995), Fanny Dashwood

Tightly curled hair = evil. Fanny Dashwood hopes you’ll starve in the hedgerows.

Sense and Sensibility (1995), Fanny Dashwood

Sense and Sensibility (1995), Fanny Dashwood

My cares are as light as a feather because I can kick you out of your home any time I wish. Cup of tea?

 

Mansfield Park (1999), Mary Crawford

Mansfield Park (1999), Mary Crawford

“She never has danced with a clergyman … and she never will!”
Not in a dress like this, mrow.

 

Mansfield Park (2007), Mary Crawford

Mansfield Park (2007), Mary Crawford

Feather in turban = mean girl. Red dress = super-mean girl.
This dress carries extra Regency Bad Girl juju because Lady Russell wore it
(with a stand-up lace collar, because stand-up collars are evil, just ask Maleficent)
in Persuasion (1995).

 

Persuasion (1995) Lady Russell

Persuasion (1995) Lady Russell

Meddlesome older ladies wear crazy colors. And prints.

Persuasion (1995) Lady Russell

Persuasion (1995) Lady Russell

And wacky hats because they know how to run your life better than you.
Now listen up, girlies in pathetic white dresses, while we set things right!

 

Persuasion (1995), Elizabeth

Persuasion (1995), Elizabeth and Mary

Mean girl in red again. With sister Mary, another snob trying to run the heroine’s life.
So she gets a gorgeous dress. Obviously, only bad girls had decent fashion sense from 1800-1820.

 

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Bingley and his sisters

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Bingley and his sisters

Poor dumb Bingley has no clue what fabulous bitches his sisters are.
Was he adopted? Maybe he was dropped as a baby?

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Caroline Bingley

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Caroline Bingley

Queen bee Caroline. Sari-fabric gown and a snake-like smile.

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Caroline Bingley

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Caroline Bingley

I’m terribly excited by the prospect of ruining your life.

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Caroline Bingley

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Caroline Bingley

Green = sneaky. Stripes = devious. Velvet = malicious.
This ensemble is so delightfully wicked, it was later worn by fellow
Regency Bad Girl Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion (2007).

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Bingley sisters

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Bingley sisters

We do so love dashing your hopes and dreams. It makes us all giddy.

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Bingley sisters

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Bingley sisters

If you can’t say anything nice about someone, come sit next to me.

 

 

Are you a Regency Bad Girl or are you Team Little White Dress?
Which side of Austenland do live on???

25 Responses

  1. Stephani

    I just watched 1995’s S&S last night and was drooling over Fanny’s outfits. They’re so .. MUCH! Now, I do love how this version didn’t put the heroines in pristine white dresses and I liked several of their gowns, too, but yes, the bad girls generally get the interesting clothes. I do love Marianne’s dresses in this version, especially the pink robe.
    I must offer a correction, though–respectfully–regarding the identity of the Persuasion characters you’ve shown. The lady on the right is Elizabeth’s hanger-on Mrs. Clay, not her sister, Mary. Mary actually spends most of her time in dumpy I’ve-given-up-because-I’m-disappointed-I-didn’t-marry-up house dresses.
    But otherwise: spot-on!

    Reply
  2. Loren

    I’m always more drawn to the bad girls dresses because they’re so colorful. And I don’t think I’m the only one – I don’t think it’s coincidence that the most repro-ed good-girl gown in Sense and Sensibility is Marianne’s bright peach open robe.

    Reply
  3. clara

    Exception to the rule: Caroline Bingley in a dress that looks suspiciously like undies at the first ball scene in the 2007 P&P (which yes, is a disastuh, I know. But I must admit it is one of my guilty pleasures)

    Reply
    • Trystan

      But she also wears a BRIGHT red dress in that movie — I was going to include it but couldn’t get a high-quality full length image. She also has dark RED hair. I could have added how many of the Regency Bad Girls have really dark hair, esp. glossy & hard. But I left it at the curls bec. that’s so distinctive ;)

      Reply
  4. Colleen Crosby

    Thank you!

    I think those awful white dresses, which seem to be paired with clunky black boots for outdoor adventures, are why I first learned to hate Regency fashions.

    Reply
    • Trystan

      Lydia even gets some great bright red outfits in that one! Tho that show has a slightly darker aesthetic overall since it’s a mystery & not strictly an Austen story (smart choice by the director & costumer).

      Reply
      • Kendra

        oooo, I actually loved Lydia’s outfits in Death Comes to Pemberley (although I’m not positive the color choices are HA, I still liked them!).

        Reply
  5. Carolyn

    Oh my Gawd, this was such a fabulous post. You took the words out of my head! I have always loved the Bingley sisters’ dresses more than most of the Bennets’ (though I think Lizzie gets some pretty smart spencers and I like her bonnet with the rust silk…..aaaaand…I kinda knocked off Jane’s pink dress worn when they get the letter about the settlement of Lydia’s “situation”). That green dress of Fanny Dashwood’s has also been a long favourite – those juicy colours!.

    And just to add to this: the black/red/gold-trimmed gown of Caroline Bingleys was re-used in the 2008 (?) Emma on Mrs Elton. If you look closely it’s what she’s wearing when her ‘caro sposo’ carries her across the threshold of the parsonage upon first arrival. ;o)

    Now I want me a bad girl Regency dress! lol

    Reply
  6. LE

    Of course, my understanding is that actual regency bad girls would wear the little white dress… as thin as possible and (if you were really daring and/or French) just a bit damp so it stuck to you and was slightly transparent.

    Reply
  7. The Author

    Though, irony calling them maternity dresses, apparently the actress playing Jane in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice was pregnant during most of the filming. The silhouette means you can’t tell.

    Reply
  8. Meredith A Bailey-MacLeod

    Re: the Bingleys (I know I am super late to this party; but forgive me for not knowing about this super awesome site earlier): I believe there is a very rational explanation for the fashion awesomeness that is the Bingley sisters’ wardrobe. In the early stages of the novel (when Mrs. Bennet is just GUSHING about the Bingleys), there is an offhand comment regarding the reason why Bingley is settling in the neighborhood: upper class respectability, distancing himself from the new-fangled and slightly distasteful manner of his obtaining his wealth – his family is in trade, in the north.

    What was going on in the north of England at this time? The textile manufacturing industry. It was just on the cusp of converting from an entirely hand-arts industry to a mechanized one (see also: “North and South,” “Shirley,” as a Bronte fan, I’m sure you have read it, and Gaskell, too), so it was, for the Bingleys, a lucrative profession. In the north, it was likely mostly wool goods, but they quite possibly would have access to other textiles as well (via trade).

    So the Bingley girls had access to (1) money, (2) tons of fabric, (3) fashion, and (4) some seriously major desires to disassociate themselves from middle-class origins in a rural section of England that was as far from fashionable London as they could have been. That makes them fashion queens.

    Reply
  9. broadwaybarb

    Ha ha ha ha. I just stumbled onto this blog by accident. I take part in our local Regency balls (we have them twice a year, we’re a little insane given we’re in Canada, not England). I always dress in vivid colours and fancy dresses. I guess that makes me a Bingley Bitch (and proud of it). Thank you for a most enjoyable read (and now back to the machine to hem my next gown).

    Reply
  10. Liza D.

    Having my first Regency dress made as we speak (not nearly skilled enough to tackle it on my own, yet). Hunter green/black changeable silk (left over from my CW ball gown), surplice bodice, longer sleeves. But then I got invited to a Jane Austen picnic here in Atlanta in a few weeks (i.e. hot). Lavender dotted swiss muslin. But not pale. Sort of a deep lavender, if that makes sense. So far, no nighties for me. I’m too old, too dumpy, and far too evil to wear plain, diaphanous white.

    Thanks for a really fun post!

    Reply
  11. Samantha

    What kills me is that frigging Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the only adaptation I’ve seen to thoroughly avert the little white dresses on the heroines. Elizabeth even wears — gasp! — RED at one point.

    Reply
  12. Valerie

    Just a quick note: the photo of “Persuasion” characters Elizabeth and Mary is not actually a photo of Anne’s sister, Mary. The woman with Elizabeth is the poor but scheming widowed friend of Elizabeth, Mrs. Clay. Another nasty character. “Persuasion” is riddled with them.

    Reply
  13. A. Marina Fournier

    I think I was turned off by the first episode of the 1995 P&P–it was as if the costumer had no idea how to manage the layers, the draping was awful, and no one taught the women (Jane and Elizabeth) to walk in them properly. Colin Firth, however, has grown on me in later roles. It was odd to see him & Jennifer Ehle in The King’s Speech. She looked so aged and drab–perhaps that was makeup and direction.

    I admit to having been spoilt by the 1980s version (Rintoul & Garvie), as everything was so elegant.

    As to the Kiera Knightley version–no hats??? In public? What were they thinking?

    Reply
  14. Orian Hutton

    Others may have commented on this, but in the persuasion photo sister Elizabeth is in red and scheming Mrs Clay is the lady in the green stripes.

    Reply

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