The costume of fashion in the Regency Era reveals a great deal about the culture of the time. The fashion in Pride and Prejudice is particularly representative of the fashion prevalent in the Regency, and the fashion choices of the characters reveal significant information about the social cues of the time. The social background of Regency England as presented by Jane Austen was very stratified based on wealth, parental, and marital history (Murray, 17). The fashion choices of the characters, as well as their methods of dancing and courtship where the fashion elements are heightened, help to reveal their social standing, and the implications of social pressures on the actions of individuals at the time. Fashion is a vital element in conveying the culture of a specific period, and Jane Austen has demonstrated this effectively in Pride and Prejudice. By examining the cultural and historical elements of the Regency era in England, it is clear that fashion acted as an indicator of status and intent in Pride and Prejudice.
In interpreting Austen’s novel, many scholars have noted the theme of status as primary to the novel. As a female writer, Austen was particularly able to use the available social cues of fashion and adornment to make generalizations on status and reveal the purpose of her characters’ decisions. Austen uses fashion to indicate status and intention, as many other female novelists, such as Charlotte Bronte, succeeded in doing (Sichel, 75). As a female writer experiencing Regency England, Austen was particularly able to use fashion and costume as literary devices, which were prevalent in the period as social tools (Murray, 23). This enables readers to gain insight into the history and culture of the time, and use fashion and the portrayals of Regency England to better understand the social implications of individual choices.
Austen published her novels during the core of the Regency era, from 1811 to 1817 (MacDonald, G. and MacDonald, A, 35). In both contemporary portrayals and those current to the time, the works showcase decent manners and civility among individuals. These features are especially present in the costumes that the characters wore in Pride and Prejudice, and the prevailing styles in terms of fashion. Additionally, her authentic characters determine and reference the concept of self-knowledge, and self-awareness reveals a broader concern during the Regency era. With regards to fashion, manners, and the concept of civility, the female characters in the novel are especially self-reflective. In this case, Elizabeth Bennett, who is established as the ‘idol’ of the novel, undergoes a tremendously emotional journey of self-knowledge in an effort to realize a period of genuine contentment, determined by her ability to successfully integrate into society. Goode in particular argues that the “display of wealth and status” as it is presented in the novel have no significance in modern times (Goode, 18-19). However, these arguments ignore the presence of fashion and its relevance in transcending time to indicate larger social problems, in particular the stratification of society based on understanding of complex and often problematic social cues. The fashion present, as well as the manners of the characters in Pride and Prejudice, display a larger commentary on the problem of categorizing individuals based on superficial understandings. The Netherfeld Ball in especially critical in providing insights into the fashion and costumes in the novel, and demonstrate greater issues of social stratification in the Regency Era. It is precisely by acting as a display of wealth and status that the Netherfeld Ball serves an important role in the novel, in which readers are enlightened on key issues of dance and etiquette that reveal the novel’s important themes.
By examining the dance and etiquette present during the Netherfeld Ball, we can determine the extent to which fashion and individual display effects the characters in Pride and Prejudice. In the scene, Mr. Bingey and his sisters are eacger to receive “an invitation of the long expected ball” (Austen 76). Balls of this type are especially important in the lives of the characters because they determine status in a public forum. Consequently, as the Bennett girls dance with their respective suitors the audience is given a first-hand reflection of the social setting that persists throughout the duration of the novel. Additionally, Austen employs the severe regulations of social etiquette present during the Regency through dancing to mirror Elizabeth Bennett’s feelings towards Wickham, Darcy, and (somewhat half-heartedly) to Collins. As a part of the ceremony of courtship, a midnight feast is held. At this point, the elegant costumes worn by the characters are highlighted by the full moon (Austen, 82). During this section of the novel, Austen uses the costumes to indicate not only the status of the individuals, but their ultimate ranking in terms of marriage and success which becomes the later focus of the novel.
As illustrated in the novel, the Netherfeld Ball plays a profound role in portraying sophisticated costumes. These descriptions form key inspiration in the design of the elegant costumes shown in later events, and their presence indicates status and character purpose. By examining the role of fashion in Regency England among people of the social status indicated in Pride and Prejudice, we can connect greater social themes of the period to the characters in the novel.
The duration between 1795 to the late 1820s, encompassing all of Austen’s adult life as well as the period of the novels, indicate significant connections between status and choices in women’s clothing. This was found primarily in European nations, which were motivated by the Catholic and Protestant morals codified into social behaviors. These clothing styles were “neither corseted nor tightly fitted from the waist upwards; nor were the skirts hooped, crinolined, or busted in the bottom parts, not to be immensely full-skirted (Cunnington, 14).
Some critics indicate that the women’s costumes in the Regency era as employed by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice were not “decent” as likened to those in the Victorian period (Cunnington, 36). Other authors during the time, including Mrs. Gaskel and Charlotte Bronte who also wrote on Victorian culture, claimed to be displeased by what they term as the “scanty petticoats” of the Regency period (Hemphill, 44). However, because times had changed and the Regency period sought to express different opinions, this view was neglected as the fashion styles of the Regency were thought to be less taxing. It is also helpful to note that these costumes have relevance in the contemporary world as they influenced later designers, particularly Coco Chanel who championed comfort and cited the Regency as influential in her own fashion choices in later times (Republic of Pemberley).
The basic patterns and designs of the women’s clothing styles during the Regency were not expressly anti-functional, as a woman of sufficient status could regularly decide to wear clothing which was not restrictive to her movements, enabling scenes such as the dancing and courtship of the Netherfeld Ball. Additionally, the greater social rules concerning modesty and display as evidenced during the Victorian period and throughout the eighteenth century were still observed, and the Regency combined social rules with practicality in women’s clothing (Republic of Pemberley). The Regency fashion styles, as shown in later sections of the article, still prioritized the idea of elaboration and adornment, and unreasonable fashion extremes were still present.
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