This is the 20th anniversary of the beloved 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries, so we’re looking back at that version and Jane Austen’s world. This is the next in a series of posts about this classic adaptation!
Pride and Prejudice. Talk to anyone interested in historical costume movies, and you don’t even generally have to mention “1995” for them to know which version you’re talking about: COLIN FIRTH. JENNIFER EHLE. The version that takes its time telling the story, and tells the story RIGHT (no pigs here).
Of course, the fact that the 1995 production has really nice costumes helps. Designed by Dinah Collin, they’re pretty darn true to the Regency era (with some exceptions, which we’ll discuss). They’re also well designed and well made from a story/character standpoint as well.
So in honor of the 20th anniversary of the only Pride and Prejudice that needs mentioning, let’s look back at the costumes: what was the design process, how were the costumes made, and how did they work in the finished product?
Designing for Pride and Prejudice
Dinah Collin started her research by looking at surviving garments, fashion plates, and other material in museum collections across the United Kingdom and even Rome. She aimed to get the overall look of the period correct, but, she said, “I don’t think it’s essential to be slavishly historically correct to the letter. I like to find that step between them and us, translating between the two flavours. It has to appeal to people in the modern day” (“Silk and Sensuality,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 6, 1996).
For example, although Colin Firth’s wardrobe was accurate, “pieces were selected that looked like clothes that could be bought in the modern era” (Designing the Costumes, Pride and Prejudice, BBC). (Apparently this was successful, as the designer received many letters from men asking where they could purchase Darcy’s linen coat! [“Silk and Sensuality”]).
One of Collin’s big emphases was making sure that the actors looked like real people wearing real clothes. “She didn’t want them to seem stiff and ill at ease in the costumes” (Designing the Costumes). Collin says that her aim with Colin Firth and the other male characters was to create something that felt like “jeans and a T-shirt.”
Distinguishing Pride and Prejudice‘s Characters
Any film/TV production has to think about characterization. The costumes aren’t just supposed to (hopefully) look like they’re of the time, place, and station of the character. They have to serve as a short-hand to help the audience understand the different characters’ personalities and motivations. This version of Pride and Prejudice did a very good job at basing the costumes in the era, but then tweaking them for purposes of characterization.
One of the biggest character contrasts needed to be between the uber-rich, London-based Bingley sisters (Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst) and the still-well-off, but less-so, and country-based Bennet sisters. Designer Collin acknowledges that the Bingley sisters would, historically, have most likely worn the white muslin dresses that were incredibly fashionable in the period. However, she needed a visual shorthand to differentiate the two groups, so the Bingley sisters were dressed in bright colored silk gowns with lots of embellishment. Collin said, “The extent of their adornment needed therefore to be greater. I did this with bright yellow and cerise pink silks, feathers and brooches” (“Silk and Sensuality”).
In the video Pride and Prejudice 15 Years Later (which is definitely worth a watch!), Collin specifically mentions this orange dress worn by Caroline. She was worried that it was too bright, but felt that on screen, it was perfect.
Meanwhile, the Bennet daughters were dressed in light-colored cotton dresses with minimal bling, which to the modern eye reads more “country.”
The director of the series, Simon Langton, was influential in this decision. He said, “I wanted pale colors or creamy whites for the girls, to reflect both their zest and innocence. This meant that we could keep the darker, richer colors and exotic fabrics for characters like the Bingley sisters or Lady Catherine De Bourgh” (Pride and Prejudice: 1995, JaneAusten.co.uk).
Looking at specific characters, Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) was dressed in earth tones to emphasize “her practicality and active nature” (Designing the Costumes). Collin wrote, “I chose colours that had an earthiness to them — a lot of browns, for example; I particularly liked her in a curry colour… Overall I wanted a nice, straightforward look that was pretty but not fussy” (The Making of Pride and Prejudice).
When it came time to making the pièce de résistance, Elizabeth’s wedding dress, Collin was careful to make sure that her dress was believable given the Bennet’s station (although something tells me Darcy kicked in a bit of money towards this dress): “We checked archives and visited museums to find out exactly what a girl would have worn. If their family was short of cash, a bride would often wear her best dress, but if you could afford it you had a white wedding dress specially made” (“Something Old, Something New; Preview of Two TV Weddings,” Daily Mirror, October 28, 1995).
For Mr. Darcy, the emphasis was on dark colors (particularly dark green and gray), leaving warmer colors for Mr. Bingley. Colin Firth specifically requested to look “saturnine” (The Making of Pride and Prejudice).
Making Pride and Prejudice‘s Costumes
Sourcing the Fabric
Collin researched period fabrics at the Manchester Galleries (Pride and Prejudice 15 Years Later). She started by looking at purchasing Indian fabrics, as their designs are often similar to those used in the period. “I had some very good Indian suppliers with traditionally based, very fine materials. The printed fabrics needed to be very, very fine. Saris were very useful, particularly a white wedding sari” (“Silk and Sensuality”). But in general, most of the Indian fabrics had prints that were too recognizably modern, so she had fabrics custom-printed by a friend’s daughter at her college (Pride and Prejudice 15 Years Later). Collins wrote, “…We didn’t want to make them too simple, which would have been a shame for characters like Mrs Bennet, for whom we wanted more feathery prints. So we went through absolute torture before they came out properly” (The Making of Pride and Prejudice). The custom fabrics were screen-printed, which meant that they couldn’t be ironed!
Making the Costumes
Almost everything had to be made for the production, given that there were few film/TV costumes of the Regency era available for rental (and it’s certainly not an era in which you can do vintage!). One exception was the men’s uniform jackets, which were sourced from Italy, as there wasn’t time to create them in-house (Pride and Prejudice 15 Years Later).
Although few (if no) rental costumes were used, Cosprop’s costuming making facilities were where the Pride and Prejudice costumes were made. Collins wrote, “The great advantage of Cosprop, our costumier, is that you can draw on a tremendous amount of expertise all in one place, as they employ thirty-five highly skilled people” (The Making of Pride and Prejudice). The production chose for the “new to hire” option, which meant that after the filming of the series, the costumes would go into Cosprop’s rental stock.
Collin and her team had about two months to make the costumes before shooting began. In the end, costumes and wigs cost more than £10,000 a day (“Price and Prejudice,” Daily Mirror, September 25, 1995).
Hair and Accessories
Many of the actors, including Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth, wore wigs. The main female stars had their wigs custom-made, while the rest came from the BBC’s stock (Pride and Prejudice: 1995, JaneAusten.co.uk). The hair and make-up design was done by Caroline Noble, and the custom-made wigs were done by Ray Marsten.
Shoes were copied from extant originals (Pride and Prejudice 15 Years Later).
The Finished Result
Filming Pride and Prejudice (1995)
One of the more interesting aspects of the production is that the actors playing the Bennet sisters were able to treat their daytime costumes as a wardrobe. I’m sure there must have been continuity concerns, but beyond that, supposedly the actresses were able to wear whichever dressed they preferred for a given scene. Jennifer Ehle said, “There was one little dress that I used to wear a lot – just as today you would pull on a favorite pair of Levi’s or a well worn T-shirt. You don’t often get the chance to have a choice like that, and I was very grateful. My daily mix and match became part of the pleasure of making the series” (Pride and Prejudice: 1995, JaneAusten.co.uk).
Historical Accuracy of Pride and Prejudice (1995)
So far, I’ve mostly focused on costume designer Dinah Collin’s vision for the costumes. To what degree do they align with the historical period?
In general, Collin and her team get the Regency era right: — Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, so it’s usually assumed to be set between 1810-13 (although the pig version harkens back to the period of Austen’s first draft in the 1790s). There are a few elements that aren’t quite precise for the period. Cassidy of Mimic of Modes has a good run-down on these, including low-necklines worn for daytime, a somewhat incorrect bust/corset shape, necklines that are the wrong shape, and fashion-forward hairstyles. I’d like to elaborate on a few of those, and talk about some of the things that they DID do right — all while acknowledging that I am FAR from a Regency expert, so please chime if you have thoughts/knowledge!
Aside from the “rich people in bright-colored silks, less-rich people in light-colored cottons,” one of the biggest deviations (although not THAT big, as we’ll see) is in terms of daywear necklines. Most of the characters, particularly the Bennet sisters, wear low necklines for “morning dress” (which in the period translated to morning and early afternoon). In the period, morning dress was almost always high-necked, or low-necked and filled in with a chemisette (a white, ruffly, sheer dickie).
That being said, while something like 90% of the Bennet sisters’s day dresses have low necks, there ARE times when they wear chemisettes to fill in the neckline:
The necklines were clearly an issue of characterization, because there’s one Bennet sister who actually wears high-necked morning gowns most of the time: Mary. Clearly she’s supposed to look dowdy, which, yeah, it’s not a great look by modern standards. She joins Maria Lucas (who is young) and Mrs. Gardiner (older) in wearing much more accurate high-necked gowns. None of these characters are in any way competition for Elizabeth, Jane, Kitty, or Lydia, and the necklines help in that.
Mrs. Gardiner, in particular, dresses in a very historically accurate style. She has more money than the Bennets, and lives in cosmopolitan London (even if it’s Cheapside), but I think the fact that she’s an older lady plays a large part in why she gets so covered up.
“Dear Georgiana,” Mr. Darcy’s younger sister, is another character who (while sporting the low necklines) also looks very “of the period”:
Next let’s look at outerwear. The Bennet sisters generally wear spencers, a short, waist-length jacket. These are very much of the period, except that they too sometimes have a low neckline, which generally catches my eye as “wrong.” However, I did some poking around and found at least one Regency fashion plate showing a low-necked walking dress (below), so my eye is clearly (somewhat) wrong!
An excellent compromise was made when Dinah Collin put many of the characters — particularly Elizabeth — in technically high-necked spencers that were worn open. As someone who hates a bottom-of-the-throat neckline, these are pretty AND historically accurate.
The filming took place over many months in order to be able to show different seasons. And, indeed, in the fall/winter scenes, many of the characters wear higher-necked spencers or pelisses (long coats):
One ensemble that I particularly like, even if it’s not perfectly accurate, is the one that Elizabeth wears while walking (in summer) with Col. Fitzwilliam at Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s house. She’s wearing a low-necked morning gown, but adds a narrow shawl which makes her look more covered up for outdoors:
Now let’s switch gears and talk evening wear. In general, I think the film does a great job here. The Bennet sisters look pretty much just-stepped-out-of-a-fashion-plate. (On a side note, the fashion plate below is a good example of the unique Regency bust silhouette — high and separated — that the film did not do).
The Bingley sisters stick with their bright-colored silk look for evening wear. Of course, such styles are period-accurate, it’s just unlikely that someone would stick so firmly into the bright-color camp (and not dabble in the white-cotton camp).
These cross-over evening bodices are right out of the period:
And I liked that some of the evening dresses had longer sleeves, a definite option for non-ball evening wear:
One last, little thing to point out — I liked how in the scene showing Elizabeth picturing Mr. Bingley hooking up with Georgiana Darcy, Georgiana is wearing a dress with a standing, Renaissance ruff-esque collar. This is a good foreshadowing of a late 1810s/early 1820s trend for Renaissance revival:
Now, let’s look briefly at men’s wear. In general, to my semi-educated eye, the guys look great. I love the HIGH HIGH collars on Regency men’s wear, and I like that they have the guys in knee-length breeches for more formal occasions (the older guys tend to wear these all the time):
Then for daytime, the younger gents wear ankle-length trousers, a new style that was indeed coming into fashion in this period:
And I’m sorry, but let’s look at that last picture of Mr. Darcy again:
What do you think of the costuming in Pride and Prejudice (1995)? What’s your favorite outfit?