“Our abuse of our gowns amuses but does not discourage me; I shall take mine to be made up next week, and the more I look at it the better it pleases me,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister. “My cloak came on Tuesday, and, though I expected a good deal, the beauty of the lace astonished me. It is too handsome to be worn — almost too handsome to be looked at.”
Although Austen’s novels almost all deal with the themes of self-knowledge, growing up, and the nature of romantic love, she was hardly above loving or thinking about fashion.
And neither are her readers today, from the directors who adapt her novels to her avid and obsessive fans. Now, though I’m more enamored of re-watching Austen adaptations than Marianne Dashwood is of handsome and dashing suitors, I cannot really claim to be a Regency fashionista. I can’t distinguish a Spencer from a pelisse, one bonnet’s trim from another’s, or determine what I’d do with a reticule.
But I do know which outfits from the many film adaptations do a concise job of advancing plot and characterization, and imprinting themselves on viewers’ memories. So, with help from several other Janeites, I’ve compiled an essential, if not exhaustive, guide to 20 iconic Austen adaptation ensembles.
Elinor’s apron, Sense and Sensibility (2005)
Emma Thomson’s Elinor Dashwood wears an apron in several key scenes. This reveals her pragmatic nature, and the fact that she’s more willing than her sister to face the dirty reality of their reduced circumstances. Bonus? Experts tell me it’s “period correct,” too.
Elizabeth Elliott’s Spencer and hat, Persuasion (1995)
Anne Elliot’s snobby, unpleasant older sister attains the height of fashion even as her marital prospects dim. One blogger saw her outfits up close in Bath and was blown away: “A Spencer that Elizabeth wore in the scene in Molland’s when Anne sees Captain Wentworth for the first time… was exquisite up close. Really nice fabric and the trim was lovely,” says Margaret B. Sullivan, author of Jane Austen Cover to Cover.
Marianne Dashwood’s romantic splendor, Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Marianne’s soft, pastel outfits, like the one above, are the favorites of many Janeites; they set off Kate Winslet’s blooming beauty so exquisitely that it all but predicted her period-dress (and undress) star turn in Titanic.
Mr. Darcy’s cravats, Pride and Prejudice (1995)
They help him do this:
Mrs. Bennet’s silly hats, Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Nothing is more appropriate for the hysteria, vanity and shallowness of the character than Mrs. Bennet’s fussy lace hats, which also serve to blanket her poor, poor nerves.
Mr. Wickham’s military finery, Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Mr. Wickham always looks dashing as a redcoat, but in Joe Wright’s 2005 version it’s clear from Rupert Friend’s legions of buttons in this outfit that his Wickham is particularly self-regarding, right up until the moment he’s been bribed to take Lydia Bennet to the altar.
Mrs. Philips’ party ensemble, Pride and Prejudice (1995)
No one thinks much about Mrs. Phillips, Mrs. Bennet’s other sister, whose parties in Meryton bring the girls into Mr. Wickham’s society, but she’s one of Austen’s delightful, well-drawn minor characters. And in this film, she’s dressed for the part as a hip counterpart to Mrs. Bennet.
“I didn’t care for any of Mrs. Bennet’s or Mrs. Gardiner’s gowns, but I really liked the red gown and red feathers wore by Mrs. Phillips at her first party. She looked very fashionable,” says Regency fashion expert Lisa Brown.
Colonel Brandon’s jaunty hat, Sense and Sensibility (2008)
This miniseries tried to emphasize the subtle ways in which Brandon and Marianne were actually well suited for each other. His stylish outfits (including the hat above), as well as his propensity to engage in duels of honor and mope over Marianne, show that he’s an aesthete and a romantic — not the dull older man she thinks he is.
Emma’s bow and arrow, Emma (1996)
The Gwyneth Paltrow Emma is a mere amusing trifle to true Janeites, and for GOOP haters it’s the film that launched the career of their bête noire. Yet neither group will soon forget the unsubtle way Emma’s efforts at archery symbolized her tenure as a failed cupid figure, wreaking romantic havoc in her village of Highbury.
Emma’s yellow dress, Emma (2009)
I’m going to venture to say this dress is “sprigged,” and in a sunny color like its heroine. It’s appropriate that Emma wears it first when she’s scheming on behalf of Harriet Smith and later when she and Mr. Knightley share their long-delayed first smooch.
Lizzy’s green (Spencer) jacket and hat combinations, Pride and Prejudice (1995)
In this adaptation, Lizzy’s outdoorsy, robust nature is emphasized by her frequent wearing of short jackets and bonnets in various earthy tones. Her outfits function as a sort of armor against all the unwanted marriage proposals and insufferable presumptions that come her way.
Captain Wentworth’s ravishing regalia, Persuasion (1995)
Ciaran Hinds’ Captain Wentworth is the essence of dignity. His stately uniforms — caps, epaulets and all — signify his transformation from a young man of no means to a proud captain who, despite his newfound stature, still can’t escape the first love who pierces his soul. Nor would we wish him to.
Caroline Bingley’s feathered hair accessories, Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Anna Chancellor owned the role of Caroline Bingley in this adaptation, and her costumes augmented the effect. “The feathered head wrap was perfectly haughty,” says Jaclyn Green-Stock, co-chair of the Jane Austen Society of New York’s Juvenilia group.
Anne Eliot’s plain green cloak, Persuasion (1995)
The softness and simplicity of this cloak reflects the character’s gentle nature, as well as her invisibility. When she wears it, she’s literally being left out in the cold as she watches her true love romance a younger woman. Costumers love this whole adaptation for the realism of scenes like this.
Lady Catherine’s enormous muff, Pride and Prejudice (1995)
The snobbiest person in the Austen canon deserves a massive muff when she pays calls to scold young ladies. “Lady Catherine’s huge ermine muff that she wears when she visits Longbourn is a great piece that I really like,” says Lisa Brown. “The swing of the long tassels when she is striding after Elizabeth is a great visual.”
Captain Wentworth’s smouldering suit, Persuasion (2007)
“This outfit from Persuasion 2007. It just speaks for itself,” says Green-Stock. I think I know what she means.
Mr. Knightley’s awkward vests and coats, Emma (2009) This deeply moving and funny Emma adaptation emphasizes Mr. Knightley’s mix of rigidity and pure goodness by dressing him in a series of dweeby vests that nonetheless make their wearer look handsome if you look twice (as Emma never does). And then there’s the below outfit:
Catherine Morland’s delicate dancing dress, Northanger Abbey (2008)
“Could there be a prettier dress than the one Catherine Morland wore to the Lower Rooms?” asks Green-Stock. “Though of course, Mr. Tilney could be right — it might fray.” Thanks to this outfit, Mr. Tilney, her dancing (and future life) partner, can amuse her and us with his muslin connoisseurship.
Mary Crawford’s inappropriate black dress, Mansfield Park (1997)
What is even happening with this goth number? Still, I can no longer think about Mary Crawford’s inappropriate behavior without picturing her in this outfit, which shows it captures something of her seductive nature.
Mr. Darcy’s wet T-shirt, Pride and Prejudice (1995)
This shirt worn by Colin Forth may be an overused icon without much meaning by now, but I’ll never tire of looking at it onscreen. And there’s a bonus: “The buff-colored, tight-fitting pantaloons he dons after the swim are to die for,” says Lisa Brown.