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!
Tightly curled hair = evil. Fanny Dashwood hopes you’ll starve in the hedgerows.
My cares are as light as a feather because I can kick you out of your home any time I wish. Cup of tea?
“She never has danced with a clergyman … and she never will!”
Not in a dress like this, mrow.
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).
Meddlesome older ladies wear crazy colors. And prints.
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!
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.
Poor dumb Bingley has no clue what fabulous bitches his sisters are.
Was he adopted? Maybe he was dropped as a baby?
Queen bee Caroline. Sari-fabric gown and a snake-like smile.
I’m terribly excited by the prospect of ruining your life.
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).
We do so love dashing your hopes and dreams. It makes us all giddy.
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???