The Fashion of Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice is one of the most captivating romance novels of all time. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have enchanted readers for generations, and their journey to find love introduces new hopeless romantics to Jane Austen every day. Pride and Prejudice will be 204 years old this January, so why not throw a “birthday” party? Get out the card tables and the finger sandwiches, and don some Regency-inspired clothes!
Wait- what even is the Regency period, and what did people wear?
The Regency period lasted from 1811 to 1820. It’s called “regency” because King George III was deemed mentally unfit to rule, so, in 1811, George’s son ruled as a proxy, or prince regent, until he was crowned King George IV after his father’s death in 1820.
As to what people wore, there was naturally a lot of variation based on social class, reputation, and occupation. Most people didn’t dress as well ostentatiously as the rulers. Even among the main characters of the novel, there would have been a significant difference in dress. The Bennets (Elizabeth’s family, if you don’t remember) were a reputable middle-class family, but they certainly weren’t rich. In fact, they were almost poor and really struggled to give their daughters competitive and respectable dowries.
A middle-class woman like Elizabeth would have worn a long muslin gown with an Empire waistline in white or pastel. This dress would have been for casual use and was a marked improvement upon the old cumbersome gowns of the past.
At parties and balls, it was crucial for people to dress in their finest, because everyone, from potential suitors to potential business partners, would make snap judgments of your wealth, blood, and personality based solely on your attire. The Bennet girls would have worn hair ornaments, painted fans, shawls, and jewelry. Their full-length gowns would have been made of silk, had a low neckline and puffy sleeves, and been adorned with ribbons, ruffles, and other decorations. As poor as the Bennets were, they would have did everything they could to buy fashionable dresses for their daughters, as attire alone could win or lose her a match.
But what would the men, such as the dashing Mr. Darcy, have worn? Their shirts would have been made from muslin and would have buttons half way down. The collar would touch the chin, and the sleeves would have ruffles. Over that, he’d have a waistcoat (like a vest),and over that, he’d have a tailcoat. For bottoms, they had the choice of breeches, trousers, or pantaloons. For accessories, he could don a cravat (the complexity of the knots would show the skill of a man’s valet- and thus his wealth), hats, gloves, canes, and pocketwatches.
Men’s clothing was not as complex as women’s clothing, and a few extra ruffles and a nicer fabric could instantly make his outfit fit for a ball.
Now that you know the basics, to give you a better idea of how you should dress for this Pride and Prejudice party, I give you some of the original illustrations by Hugh Thomson.
Yes, Pride and Prejudice was illustrated when it first came out! In fact, there were several illustrators who drew for the earliest editions (Hugh Thomson being the original and most famous). Modern editions have removed most or all of the illustrations to save page space (and also because they’re printed by sad and boring people). The pictures really add a lot of personality and humor to the characters, and it’s a shame to not have them. As a special treat at your party, amaze everyone with an edition that has the Hugh Thomson illustrations, as it is the closest to what Ms. Austen herself wanted. You’ll have to get a used copy or ebook, as they don’t print the illustrated versions anymore. It took a couple weeks, lots of research, and a short negotiation with an Amazon seller to find mine.
To save you the trouble of researching, Dover Classics (not Dover Thrift- an easy error to make as the other version is far more available) has a very nice hardcover edition with all the original illustrations.
So go have fun, and fall in love!
Written by: Rachel Manning