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???
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!
Doh, I knew it was one of the snotty women w/Elizabeth & I couldn’t keep track of the names :(
To be fair, Mrs. Clay doesn’t leave much of an impression of her own.
Fanny in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility has THE BEST clothes. For real.
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.
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)
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 ;)
Oh, I forgot about it! (Guess who is going to rewatch it this weekend :D)
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.
I just watched Death Comes to Pemberley (it was really terrible) and the best dressed was Wickham’s sister for sure.
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).
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!).
This post is convincing me that I really want a Regency Bad Girl dress for Costume College.
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
Cousin of evil red hat of Fanny Dashwood makes a comeback on Lady Catherine de Burgh in Lost in Austen:
Scroll down about half way:
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.
They were called the ‘Marveleuse’, or something along those lines- I know that spelling is most definitely wrong, though – I read an old novel, ‘Dawn of Splendour’, or the like- & after the heroine survives the Revolution & imprisonment- befriending the future Josephine in the meantime – the author describes the outre & risque fashions & behaviour of these people; Josephine & the MC are among them – one of the famed ones, was a Spanish-born countess or something- & she wore a, uh, ‘suggestively placed’ brooch…
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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?
Jennifer Ehle was definitely made up to look more aged and homely. A few years later she appeared in the TV show The Blacklist and while she had certainly gotten older, she looked far better than in The King’s Speech.
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.
Yes! Regency-setting films are just like superhero universes–the villains always get the best costumes!
My major issue with Jane Austen is the way she equates good character with people who love to tramp long distances vs. bad people, who hate fresh air and exercise. It is a running theme. Walks= virtue. I find it annoying.
But she mocks this in S&S, where Marianne is constantly going on ill-timed walks (“there is some blue sky! let us chase it!” is one of the funniest lines from the 1995 movie) and winds up first with a broken ankle and then almost dead for her troubles.
I think the only virtuous long walk is when Elizabeth Bennett walks three miles to see Jane — and that’s only because she’s afraid Jane is dying but her parents won’t let her take the horse and carriage.
Not really. Fanny Price, for example, is both highly virtuous (and very meek, irritatingly) and highly delicate. She doesn’t walk or dance very much due to the fact that she tires so quickly. Horseback riding is the only kind of exercise that her body can handle for long periods, and even then, Maria Bertram, Julia Bertram, and Mary Crawford outshine her in it.
I always love to hate a Jane Austen bitch, but usually I find their costumes ostentatious and kind of gross. I simultaneously love Caroline’s bold oranges, and also want to punch her for them. Mary Crawford’s lace sleeves are dope but I think Clair Skinner Fanny Dash has my favourite Austen bitch wardrobe. I don’t hate the regency silhouettes or pastels, but I like purples of any shade indigo and sage greens, so Eleanor Tilney is my most envies wardrobe, but I’d like to steal Lucy Steeles’ white number with burgundy flowers off her smug little back.
Sorry, I disagree on this point. I love well made, accurate costumes, be it good or bad girl. I loved all the P & P 1995 costumes but do see room for improvement. The white dresses of the Regency/Empire period have a very special place in my heart. Although, having costumed some, I agree that other light shades are under used in movies, as are the fun with layered sleeves etc (another great P&P 95 detail they got right) And BTW in Jane Austen fanfic, often Caroline Bingley is known for wearing hideous orange.
The thing is that Austen’s heroines tend to be poor girls or younger spinster sisters without much money to buy the more fashionable silks and velvets, so they have to content themselves with simpler muslins and printed cottons. The mean girls, on the other hand, have the money to get couture dresses. (The 1995 P&P had a bit about this in the behind the scenes features.) The more historically accurate the film, the more likely it is that the heroine will be dressed in simple frocks without a lot of flair.
I agree that some films use the white dress to denote innocence (looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow), but in most cases it seems to be about the money issue.
I agree with previous commenter that it has more to do with how rich the character is, usually the villains are wealthier. Bright colours and interesting fabrics would be more expensive, it wouldn’t make sense for the Bennett’s to have the same style of clothing as the Bingley’s.