TBT: Sense & Sensibility (1995): Elinor

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The 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen‘s Sense and Sensibility is, for me, one of the ultimate frock flicks. It’s one of a spate of films from the 1990s that made a strong attempt to achieve period accuracy. Its screenplay was thoughtfully adapted by Emma Thompson, and it was directed with care by Ang Lee. The performances — by Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, and more — are strong and pretty much everyone is well cast. Now, I will say I saw the film before reading the original novel, so Austen purists may have more bones to pick than I do. But for me, Sense and Sensibility is a film that feels like real life, with achievable heroines, small-scale drama, and an unassuming air that conveys what life could have been like in Regency England. I can’t count just how many times I’ve watched the film, and I’ve read Emma Thompson’s published screenplay and filming diaries several times. I no longer own the DVD, but when I did, I loved watching the film with Emma Thompson’s audio commentary (is that available anywhere for streaming? Someone let us all know, because it’s that good).

I’ve put off doing a real, thorough review of this film because while it’s not the flashiest, it’s so pivotal to me. So I’ve finally decided to break things up, looking at each main character individually, as well as some of the supporting characters in groups. Throughout, I’ll try to weave in both information about what the filmmakers were trying to achieve, as well as comparisons to real fashions of the era. I hope this will do justice to this wonderful film!

Austen’s novel was published in 1811, but she wrote an earlier draft somewhere around 1795-97. According to writer and literary critic Deirdre le Faye, the novel is set sometime between 1792 and 1797. According to Thompson’s script, the filmmakers have chosen the round year of 1800 in which to set the film – at least, the opening scene is March 1800.

The costumes were designed by the great Jenny Beavan and John Bright, both of whom have long and illustrious careers as costume designers, often credited together and working on Merchant/Ivory films. They have a particular knack for achieving a more historically accurate look than some. That’s not to say everything is spot on perfect, but that’s the direction in which they lean.

 

Women’s Fashion in 1800

Regency fashion timeline

Regency fashion timeline, courtesy https://mymodernmet.com/womens-fashion-history/

1800 is right when the “Regency” or “Empire” look becomes established. Over the course of the 1790s, women’s dresses narrowed and waistlines rose, and by 1796-97ish you get the underbust waistline typical of the era — although the skirts are generally fuller than you might imagine. By 1800, dress has streamlined, with narrower skirts. The desired look was “ancient” Greco-Roman, with lots of classical references integrated into dress.

Throughout the 18th century, there were increasing divisions in what we might call formalities of dress (dress for at home wear was the most casual, while court dress was the most, but there were gradations for things like walking dress or dinner dress). By the Regency, those were combining with a new attention to time-of-day (i.e. morning dress, afternoon dress). According to Sarah Jane Downing, author of Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen,

“There were still the demarcations of ‘full dress,’ half dress’ and ‘undress’ that ruled the propriety of fashion, and English etiquette was set almost like a trap to pull rank on newly moneyed arrivistes… ‘Undress’ or déshabillé referred to simpler gowns worn at home in the morning, often with a cap. Made of warmer, more practical materials, they would often be looser and more comfortable for sitting writing letters, sewing or read. ‘Half dress’ covered smarter more formal ensembles for activities such as afternoon promenades, visiting, or even trips to the opera. ‘Full dress’ was the most formal, the most ornate, and had the lowest décolletage. Worn for balls, Almack’s, the premier Pleasure Gardens, and the most luscious parties, it was also the correct wear for attending Court…”

Fashions of London and Paris - 1801 - Full dress

Full dress, Fashions of London and Paris, March 1801. Left: “Round dress of pink silk; over the train is worn a loose covering of black lace; full black lace sleeves; a handkerchief of black lace crossed over the bosom, and fastened with a gold clasp. Cap of pink crape, or muslin, ornamented with one large white ostrich feather.” Right: “Parisian robe of white muslin, trimmed all round with coquelicot and black velvet; the sleeves and bosom confined with velvet, and trimmed with lace. Turban of white muslin twisted carelessly, and finished with a very long end.”

Fashions of London and Paris - April 1801 - Full dress

Full dress, Fashions of London and Paris, April 1801. Left: “Morning dress of thick whitem uslin drawn close round the bosom with a frill, and trimmed all round with the same; long sleeves made full, and confined in their places with bands. Hat of white silk or chip, with a deep loose veil.” Right: “Full dress of fine white muslin; the bosom trimmed round with lace, and fastened on the shoulder with a gold button; the sleeves full, and trimmed with lace; the bottom of the train trimmed round with gold trimming. Cap of point lace, ornamented with gold; three white ostrich feathers on the left side. Gold necklace, &c.”

Fashions of London and Paris - April 1801 - Full dress

Full dress, Fashions of London and Paris, April 1801. Left: “Evening dress of flesh-coloured muslin, trimmed all round with black Vandykes, the bosom trimmed with broad black lace. The petticoat and under body of white sarcenet. Cap of white lace, with a deep border on one side; band of white satin and bugles round the front; white ostrich feathers.” Right: “Walking dress. The cape robe, made of thick white muslin, trimmed round the neck with lace; the sleeves long and very full. Bonnet of white silk, trimmed with orange-coloured ribands.”

As to the specifics of the styles, Downing notes:

  • “Gowns were décolleté even for day when the neckline might be ‘V’-shaped or square with a tucker”
  • “The round gown had bodice and skirt joined with a seam round the waistline, whereas open gowns were split at the front… allowing an underskirt of contrasting colour or fabric to show”

The Dashwoods are, of course, on a very limited budget, although until recently they were well off so they should have nicer clothes in their wardrobes. No one in Sense and Sensibility has a title, although the Jenningses are certainly rich. So we’d expect to see a lot of morning and half dress on the ladies.

Finally, you’ve got the issue of mourning dress. The Dashwood sisters’ father has just died at the beginning of the film.There’s lots of information available on court mourning — what was to be worn by courtiers when a monarch died. There are many articles online detailing some of the specifics, like these two at the Jane Austen Centre, which have some nice quotes from Austen herself. While new clothes might be needed,

“Most people remade mourning clothes from an existing wardrobe, adding new linings to cloaks and pelisses, covering existing bonnets with a new piece of crape, and dyeing old dresses” (Regency Mourning: An In-depth Look).

And,

“It was also possible to dye existing garments to a suitable shade for mourning and thereby extend your wardrobe with little expenditure” (Dressing for Mourning in the Regency).

Austen writes that she will be wearing crepe and bombazine, dull fabrics traditionally worn for mourning, presumably in black. There was a progression of colors as the period of mourning elapsed:

“Other colors which would have been worn during various stages of mourning were violet, lavender, and gray. These lighter colours would have been used during half-mourning—the time between the ‘slighting’ of all-black (though white trim was acceptable) and that of resuming current fashions and colours” (Dressing for Mourning in the Regency).

Fashionable mourning dresses, Ladies Museum, 1805

Fashionable mourning dresses, Ladies Museum, 1805.

 

Costuming Elinor Dashwood

Elinor is the “sense” of the novel’s title, as in what we modernly would call “sensible” or practical. In the book, she’s older than emotional Marianne but not by much. In this adaptation, Thompson was around 36, and so the character is more “on the shelf” than originally planned. The family has money and a grand house, but with the death of their father their circumstances are massively reduced, so much so that they can only retain two servants in their new home, a small cottage in rural England. She does spend some time in London at the home of the well-to-do Mrs. Jennings, but as we’ll see, that doesn’t lead to any changes in her wardrobe as she continues to wear gowns seen earlier in the film. According to an article at the LA Times, “the utterly sensible Eleanor accessorizes only with a long gold chain and a straw hat” (Fashion/Screen Style: Grecian Formula).

I do love how much they give all the characters a wardrobe, which befits their financial situation and just plain real life.

Moving roughly in order of how costumes are introduced in the film:

Elinor’s Blue Day Dress

Elinor’s most frequently worn day dress is this blue number, and it’s my least favorite as the narrow neckline makes her look dowdy and spinstery — although that’s probably the point. The fabric is lightweight, probably cotton muslin, which was the fabric of the period. According to Downing, “The simple democratic muslin had become the mainstay of fashion, and with the triumph of industralisation, was affordable to anyone.” The dark color would be both very practical — and suitable for mourning. According to the LA Times, “Because they are in mourning, the Dashwood daughters wear white dresses accompanied with black gauze shawls or dark dresses” (Fashion/Screen Style: Grecian Formula). Elinor generally wears a plain white cotton fichu tucked into her neckline, and few accessories — sometimes a shawl for outdoors.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

The gown has gathers across the center front bust; the skirt is gathered at the waistline, but there’s a smooth section at the center front. Here the color is very greyed out.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

The sleeves are gathered into a slight puff on top.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

This coloring is much nicer! The main thing Elinor is lacking is a cap, but I imagine the filmmakers thought caps would make the younger ladies look dowdy.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

In back, the gown has the narrow shoulders and diamond-shaped pieces typical of this era.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Thompson appears to be wearing a small pad at her center back, which was worn historically to keep the gown filled out there and to drape it away from the body | © Columbia

According to Hilary Davidson’s Dress in the Age of Jane Austen,

“A distinctive feature of late Regency silhouettes was a rounded back… A small bustle pad, inside or outside the petticoat, rounded the skirt at the back to increase its curves and the contrast of the bend. The padding had been popular before 1800, and by about 1810 it returned.”

Fashions of London and Paris - Sept 1798

Here you can see that the back silhouette doesn’t spring out from the back waistline, but it definitely drapes away from the small of the back. Fashions of London and Paris, September 1798.

Compare Elinor’s blue dress with these extant originals:

Dress, American, 1804-14, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This has a similar neckline and sleeves, and minimal gathers in the bodice front. The back is different, being gathered on drawstrings. Dress, American, 1804-14, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dress, 1800-05, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The back of this gown is cut analogously to Elinor’s style. Dress, 1800-05, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elinor’s Green Evening Gown

This green and gold evening dress is one of Elinor’s two fancy dresses. She wears it to dinner at Norland Park (the home they have to leave), to a meal at the Jenningses, and again to an evening party at the Jenningses (where Lucy makes her confession).

Now, would the Dashwood sisters be out of mourning already? Although the color here is darker, it’s certainly not black, and I question why the sisters wouldn’t have at least dyed one evening dress.

The fabric is matte, so I’m guessing it’s not silk. The trimming is what makes it rich, with a gold jacquard braid at the neckline, waist, and sleeves; I think the same trim forms the bows at center front and on each sleeve. She generally wears it with a long gold necklace.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

They’ve added a second row of trim around the neckline, just around the bust.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

The sleeves are very simple – no puffiness – which suits her character. She’s not fussy!

1995 Sense & Sensibility

It’s rich but not ostentatious; elegant without being overly young.

They did wear simple evening gowns, although usually in embroidered muslin:

Evening dress, 1810–12, American or European, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Evening dress, 1810–12, American or European, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dress, 1804–14, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sparkly dresses tended to include skirt trimmings too, but the plainer style suits Elinor’s character. Dress, 1804–14, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Elinor’s White Day Dress

Probably my favorite dress is this white sheer cotton gown. It just SO perfectly captures that Regency look; three-quarter sleeves are always flattering; and its train gives it that Grecian column look.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

She sometimes adds a black bow at the bust center front.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

The bodice has more gathers than the blue gown, which is flattering, and the neckline is rounder.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Just a perfect sweep of whiteness.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Notice how the waistline rises slightly in back, which adds to the elegant sweep of the skirt.

The gown reminds me of many extant dresses, such as this one:

Gown, 1797-1805, Great Britain, Victoria & Albert Museum.

Gown, 1797-1805, Great Britain, Victoria & Albert Museum.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

I love how sheer the gown is, and you can see her bodiced petticoat underneath in back.

Although we modernly think of a “petticoat” as a skirt, in this era it often had an attached bodice, which makes sense given the waist placement.

Petticoat, early 19th century, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Check out this “bodiced” petticoat. Petticoat, early 19th century, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Elinor’s Windowpane Day Dress

Black and white silk fabric — it has that lovely sheen — cut very similarly to the white cotton dress above. The sheer black shawl is a nod to mourning, as is the black and white. At this point, I’m accepting the filmmakers’ idea that black and white is okay for mourning, although I have my questions.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

It’s got the glow and rustle of silk.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Again you can see the back pad.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

LOVE that seated silhouette!

1995 Sense & Sensibility

The train gives it such an elegant sweep for walking.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Notice how far in towards the shoulder blades the sleeve head goes in back. That’s very appropriate for the period!

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Elinor’s Riding Habit

“Providing a more practical yet still fashionable ensemble, the riding habit frequently enjoyed male styling, taking its inspiration from the gentleman’s greatcoat towards the end of the eighteenth century… Usually made from woolen [fabrics]” (Downing).

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Every Time I watch this scene, I stare at Elinor’s bangs doing stupid things with her hat. The habit itself is fine, if a bit dated with its natural waistline.

Elinor’s Blue Evening Dress

This gown is very similar to her green one, although I find it less successful. I think it’s mostly because the main scene we see it in, the London ball, Elinor’s chest looks… limp. According to Thompson’s published filming diary,

“I’ve lost weight and my evening dress feels loose. Pulled boobs up as far as they’d go but they’re still disappointing” (Emma Thompson, The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay & Diaries: Bringing Jane Austen’s Novel to Film).

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Similar trimlines to the green dress.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

The center front closure is a bit weird, too. Usually dresses like this would close center back, OR have a flap that folds up from the waistline and covers a hidden underclosure. Thompson mentions being sewn into this dress in the filming diaries, by the way.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

The sleeve has some puff to it.

1995 Sense & Sensibility 1995 Sense & Sensibility

 

Elinor’s Nightgown

Just being a completionist.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Elinor’s Brown Pelisse

Outerwear! It’s part of what makes historical film costumes look real. I wish there were more of it in the film — in my experience, there just aren’t that many warm days in England. However, what we’ve got is lovely.

The pelisse was a full-length coat:

“Like a coat, it was an over garment that could be added for warmth on cold days, cut with a high waist and skirt to follow the line of the gown it was worn with” (Downing).

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Note the cross-over front and velvet collar and cuffs.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

I love the skirt pleating and the button accents.

One of Jane Austen’s own pelisses survives:

‘Jane Austen’s’ pelisse coat, 1812–1814. Winchester: Hampshire Museums Service, HMCMS:C1993.100

‘Jane Austen’s’ pelisse coat, 1812–1814. Winchester: Hampshire Museums Service, HMCMS:C1993.100. Read historian Hilary Davidson’s account of reconstructing the original!

Elinor’s Striped Robe

I’m going to get more into the whole “robe” thing when I discuss Marianne’s wardrobe. For now, just know that it’s pleated in front, with three-quarter sleeves, and has narrower bodice pieces that close the robe in front.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Worn over her white cotton dress?

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Looks like there’s four pleats along the side there.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

I think those are buttons at the center front.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

The robe is cut without a waist seam; pleats are what fit it to the body.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Elinor’s Apron

Again, I am a completionist!

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Elinor’s Checked Day Dress

AKA her “zzzz wha’?” dress. Okay, so it’s historically accurate, but it makes her look like Holly Hobby. It’s interesting that they chose it for her “finally getting together with Edward” scene — she’s at her dumpiest, but he still loves her!

1995 Sense & Sensibility

The fabric is a check of pale blue and white, with a darker line in there.

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Cross-over front with stupid ruffle. Is that apron pinned or tied on?

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Dumpy dress can be worn with two different styles of apron!

1995 Sense & Sensibility 1995 Sense & Sensibility

Okay, so yes it’s historically accurate to be dumpy, but I don’t have to like it:

Morning dress, 1810-20, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Morning dress, 1810-20, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Elinor’s Floral Day Dress

Why doesn’t she wear this more? It’s a brownish-purple floral print cotton, otherwise similar to her other dresses. Maybe she’s lightening up from mourning?

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Also why does the skirt front panel hang so weirdly? I feel like they made the skirt front to be wrap over strangely or something…

1995 Sense & Sensibility

Otherwise it’s cut like all her other day dresses, from what I can tell.

Elinor’s Lavender Day Dress

Lavender is good for half-mourning, so again, why doesn’t she wear this more??

Sense & Sensibility (1995)

Maybe the color is too flattering on her?

1995 Sense & Sensibility

There’s a patterned band around the sleeve cuff, and a little bit of the same poking out at the waist side front.

Elinor’s Purple Spencer

“The Spencer became the most fashionable solution for keeping warm… It translated to women’s wear, coming into fashion in the 1790s as a short fitted jacket only as long as the bodice, usually with long fitted sleeves and high collar. Typically made of woollen cloth, or possibly, silk or velvet, it was almost always a strong colour, in contrast to the white skirt of the gown beneath…” (Downing).

Underneath, Elinor is wearing the floral day dress.

1995 Sense & Sensibility 1995 Sense & Sensibility

Spencers were usually high-necked, as the goal was to keep warm:

Spencer, ca. 1800, Great Britain, Victoria & Albert Museum.

Spencer, ca. 1800, Great Britain, Victoria & Albert Museum.

Elinor’s Hat

I will discuss hats more when I get into Mrs. Dashwood’s wardrobe. Just know that the film could have used a lot more of them (but we know, filmmakers hate them for shading actors’ faces), and many (all?) of the hats in this film were made by the supremely talented Mela Hoyt-Heydon, who at some point we hope to interview!

1995 Sense & Sensibility

The warm color is nice on Thompson, and it’s very unflashy which is Elinor.

1995 Sense & Sensibility 1995 Sense & Sensibility

Stay tuned next week when I discuss Marianne’s wardrobe and those pesky “robes”!

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

12 Responses

  1. Roxana

    Ruskin later tried to marry another teenager suggesting he may have been an ephebephile, attracted to pubescents. The parents wrote to Effie and on her advice broke off the engagement.
    At least poor Effie got a happy ending with Millais.

  2. Kristina

    “…pretty much everyone is well cast.”

    Really? I get that these are mostly well-liked actors, but their ages are all over the place. Elinor and Marianne are supposed to be only a couple of years apart, not 16. Brandon is supposed to be around 18 years older than Marianne, not 30. In this movie, the actor playing Mr. Henry Dashwood (the dying man) is not much older than the actor playing John Dashwood.

    The costuming is not terrible, and is much better than we see in a lot of Austen adaptations, but there are plenty of problems: the bust silouettes of Thompson and Winslet are off, Thompson’s hair twists and bangs are off, Rickman’s hairdo and dye job are wrong, the colors are off (in the early Regency, there were a LOT more white gowns than we see here), Thompson is wearing obvious eyeshadow, etc.

  3. Kady Bourn

    Kendra, I absolutely love your commentary about this version of “Sense and Sensibility.” I think this might have been the film that ignited my love for all things Austen. I, too, watched before reading the book. I had tried to get through “Pride and Prejudice” in high school, and got bogged down in the idiocy of Elizabeth taking a turn around the drawing room with one of the awful sisters. I didn’t understand that Elizabeth also thought that was a pretty idiotic activity too. I had read “Persuasion” in college as part of a grad-level history class where we explored whether the new concepts of womanhood (just before the Victorian era) were something that women embraced or whether that was thrust upon women. But “Sense and Sensibility” stirred my heart. My favorite Alan Rickman role. I once had a potential romantic interest (didn’t pan out) who flirted with me by calling me “Elinor Dashwood.” I mean, be still my heart!

  4. Lily Lotus Rose

    Ditto to Kendra and Kady. This movie was one of my early entrees into Austen from the (mostly) halcyon days of 90s adaptations. Like both of you, I saw the movie before reading the book and thus retroactively forgave any tweaks to the story. (In fact my first set of Austen books was a Sense and Sensibility movie tie-in 4-pack of S and S, P and P, Emma, and Persuasion. I still have those yellowing and falling apart books on shelf, and they are greatly cherished.) In my view the movie gets top marks all around, especially the cast–which was phenomenal! Can’t wait until I can become a Patreon supporter and get access to even more amazing content!

  5. Frannie Germeshausen

    “Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad.” Swoon. Still missing Alan Rickman.

  6. B. Durbin

    While Emma Thompson was too old for the role, you can easily knock a decade off her character age easily. People aged hard in the era before vaccines and antibiotics (and good nutrition, too, let’s not forget that.) These days, if you’re performing Pirates of Penzance, set decades later, you can’t cast Ruth—a very aged 47—with anyone under 60, it seems like. And my Nana was old in her 60s a way that my mom isn’t in her late 70s. That’s not just childhood memory, that’s from looking at pictures at comparable ages.

    So perhaps 26, like Anne Eliot. Still very much on the shelf, but not as much as her true age would have made her.

  7. Amanda

    I’m so fond of this movie, and I enjoyed Emma Thompson’s screenplay and shooting diaries too–though I find it intriguing that she scarcely mentions Greg Wise, even though they must have been falling in love during the shooting. I also remember that there was a scene in the screenplay of the servants plunging clothes into black dye when the house went into mourning. I suspect the producers decided they’d rather not go in such a somber direction for the costumes.

  8. Sandra

    I love this film, and I love the work you all do at FrockFlicks! I’m only commenting because it made me spend several minutes looking at the drawings and wondering what was going on (“in what universe/browser settings is that gown ‘flesh-colored’?”), but I think the legends for the two “April 1801” fashion drawings have been switched around. Doesn’t detract a whit from the wonderful article that helped me relive an old favorite.

  9. sgac

    Is that very long gold chain draped almost flapper style historically accurate? It seems an odd choice to me.