Reviewed by Gayle MacGregor – Sewing Machine Girl
Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen
by Sarah Jane Downing
(Shire Library, ISBN-10: 0747807671)
This compact book examines British fashion history from 16th December 1775, when Jane Austen was born, to 1819, as seen through the eyes and words of Austen herself.
The book is a comprehensive overview of clothing worn by women, men and children of the upper and aspirational classes, as well as the social, political, and military influences on the fashions of the period.
Deeply informative, Fashion In The Time Of Jane Austen covers all aspects of the dress of the period, and the social mores and motivations that influenced the increasingly flimsy gowns we associate with the early 1800s. The final chapter perfectly examines the dramatic changes to society and their impact upon fashion post-the Battle of Waterloo, including the effects on the textile industry that heralded the start of the Industrial revolution.
But this a far cry from the dry and overly academic treatment this subject may have previously suffered from. Downing’s text is extremely authoritative, and her writing style is easily accessible and injected throughout with many wryly humorous asides and pertinent observations.
It is also full of well argued insights into social behaviours as dictated by the fashions of the time – much like Austen’s own work. I found it fascinating to discover that there may have been a correlation between the thin diaphanous fabrics of the period and a rise in the rate of consumption, which in turn led to a fad for what could best be termed ‘consumption chic’, complete with pale make-up and questionable chemical cosmetic enhancements!
With sumptuous colour and black and white images from the period, including portraits, sketches, and photographs of extant clothing examples, this compact account is a wonderful resource for costume and fashion design students and professionals alike.
It will also have a broader appeal to literary and social history enthusiasts, with numerous quotes from Austen’s books and letters that reinforce the author’s compelling arguments and astute observations. Highly recommended.