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
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…”
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).
“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).
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.
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.”
Compare Elinor’s blue dress with these extant originals:
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.
They did wear simple evening gowns, although usually in embroidered muslin:
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.
The gown reminds me of many extant dresses, such as this one:
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.
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.
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).
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).
Just being a completionist.
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).
One of Jane Austen’s own pelisses survives:
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.
Again, I am a completionist!
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!
Okay, so yes it’s historically accurate to be dumpy, but I don’t have to like it:
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?
Elinor’s Lavender Day Dress
Lavender is good for half-mourning, so again, why doesn’t she wear this more??
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.
Spencers were usually high-necked, as the goal was to keep warm:
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!
Stay tuned next week when I discuss Marianne’s wardrobe and those pesky “robes”!