Jane Austen is considered one of the greatest English language writers ever, in the same league as Shakespeare. In order to competently review the various film adaptations of her books, one must have some understanding of the times in which she lived. There is an entire genre of romance novels that take their cue from the works of Austen.
The English Regency period is described as a transitional period between the Georgian and Victorian eras. Apart from its political significance, it was characterized by distinctive styles in fashion, literature, and architecture. A proper Regency novel is as rich in sociological and historical detail as any good science fiction is comprised of science and technology.
When these works are adapted to a visual medium like film, this attention to detail is even more important. Emma can morph into Clueless. The story is the same, but Clueless is not a Regency. Pride and Prejudice is a timeless story that can be set in any era or location. But, if detail is not paid to fashion, manners, and décor, it is not a Regency. Attention to historic detail calls for specific dress, manners, furniture, decor, and activities. Because of the historical record we have names, dates, and events. In order to be considered Regency, names, dates and events may be manipulated, but will always have a grain of truth.
The first most important rule for any writer is write what you know. The first Regency period novels were penned by Jane Austen, who created the genre, and literally wrote what she knew. Jane Austen, born in 1775, lived through a period of major political and social change in Europe. The American Revolution was England’s version of Vietnam, a very unpopular war promoted by politicians who took advantage of the fact that King George III was suffering from a very rare genetic disease called porphyria, which mimicked several different mental illnesses. The years immediately following Austen’s birth were also the final moments of the Georgian era. The fashions and behavior of that era grew so extreme they became the object of ridicule.
Georgian Fashions and Manners
This is the era of Queen Marie Antoinette, and the beginning of the end of the French monarchy. Fashion became so extreme men no longer resembled men, adopting the appearance of something akin to a china doll, with faces painted white and accented with bright rouge, white powdered wigs, and lush satins and laces. They wore pumps with brilliant buckles and heels on them. Women were even more extreme with massive hair creations that took hours to fix and were often thirty inches high, coated with flour, and became home to lice and mice. Dresses were extremely low cut, revealing most or even all of the breast and fit over hoops called panniers, and could be up to three feet wide on each side. Underwear did not exist.
Both men and women of all social stations completely rejected the idea of bathing as they considered it unhealthy. Most would bathe perhaps once or twice a year. To cover their body odor they wore extreme amounts of perfume. In France, the use of perfume became so offensive that Louis XVI decreed everyone wear the same perfume, changing fragrances daily. In England the use of floured hair became so outlandish, Parliament actually banned it.
Fashion often reflects behavior and morality. The late Georgian period was one of flagrant immorality and a time of hedonistic revelry. Aristocratic women, including girls in their mid to late teens, would have many lovers. Parties started late in the evening and lasted all night. Copious amounts of wine would be consumed at parties which would feature bawdy entertainment, massive amounts of gambling and card play, and any number of opportunities for romantic liaisons.
The perfect film examples of this time period are the Glenn Close version of Dangerous Liaisons and the award-winning Amadeus. Contrast those to the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. They are two completely different ages, just a few years apart.
The Revolutionary Period
All of this came to an end, literally, beginning in 1789 and cumulating in 1793-1794 with the Reign of Terror when aristocrats, including the King and Queen of France, were arrested and executed by guillotine. Even during the upheaval of social revolution, France was in the forefront of fashion. In a complete repudiation of Georgian extremes of hedonism, an era of classical innocence was created. The first signs of a change began in 1790 when the extreme hairstyles disappeared and women adopted very simple natural styles that resembled classical Greek or Roman statuary.
The correct term is Empire. Beginning in the late 1790s, women would take a simple chemise shift and gather it under the breasts and tie it in the back. In stark contrast to the elaborate fabrics of the Georgian period, very light sheer fabrics were used. The modern teddy took the place of the corset, and pantaloons, made of a light stocking material and worn from the waste to the knee, became a permanent fixture in any proper woman’s wardrobe.
In 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor. His beloved Josephine looked her very best in the Empire style. Napoleon became a champion of the new simple Empire styles. Women being women and fashion being fashion, whatever the French were wearing, fashionable women everywhere were wearing. In France the style was (and is) called Empire. Because England would soon be involved in the European "world war" to stop Napoleon’s expanding empire, the same fashions in England were called Regency.
The Regency Era
Technically the period from 1800 to 1837 is considered Late Georgian, but the years from 1800-1825 are considered Regency because George III’s son, later George IV, was made Regent, ruling in place of his ailing father. The years from 1800 to 1825 are famous for their neo-classical approach to music, fashion, art and décor.
In England the era spawned a golden age of poetry. Lord Byron became the "rock star" of his era. Mozart gave way to the passion of Beethoven. Décor, inspired by the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome inspired an entirely new simplified look rich with pinks, pastels, and delicate wallpapers. The bawdy became demure. The undisciplined promiscuous teenaged girl became chaste and virginal, her reputation guarded by parents and society. The undisciplined ignorance of the Georgian child of either gender gave way to a renaissance of learning. More importantly, the melodramatic writings of Mrs. Radcliffe gave rise to the purely Regency creation of Frankenstein. Inspired by the writing of Mrs. Radcliffe, Jane Austen gave birth to the modern novel.
Not only did fashions change in the extreme, but so did behavior. Baths were required weekly for those in the lower aristocracy. Wealthier individuals were required to bathe daily. Fresh, clean clothing was also required. Perfume was used sparingly. Men who dressed the dandy in paint and lace became the object of laughter. The modern macho man was beginning to take shape. The ruling alpha male in the Regency world was the "Corinthian". He was a gambler, a protector of innocence and virtue, and always stoic. His attire was always black, very much a fashionable form of uniform consisting of a clean white shirt, tie, and clean collar. His trousers, jacket, boots, great coat and hat were almost always black.
There were strict rules of fashion during the Regency period for women as well. If a film adaptation of Jane Austen is to be successful, it must follow these rules. A young women, usually in her late teens would be out in society, introduced in grand fashion if her parents had the financial and social status necessary to propel her into a "good" (i.e. financially and socially appropriate) match. Until she reached her middle twenties or was married, a young women wore either white or pastels. Once married or once expectations were dashed and marriage was a dream of the past, a woman could wear darker colors. Mourning required a full year of unrelieved black, then gray, then purple, then lavender, then a woman could return to her regular colors.
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood wears darker shades of blue, telling us she has reached her mid-twenties and will probably remain a spinster. Her mother's wardrobe gradually changed from the black of mourning to lighter shades of lavender. Emma, the ingénue, wears whites and pastels, signaling not only is she financially well off but quite marriageable. Catherine Morland’s wardrobe in Northanger Abbey is gifted to her by a doting neighbor who thinks of her as the daughter she never had. She wears pastels and fabrics that suggest she has a fortune, which she does not.
The Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice are all clad in very simple pastels signaling they are marriageable but not wealthy. Mr. Darcy's aunt is clad in a blend of late Georgian and Regency, expressing her independence and dominance in both character and social position. Persuasion's Anne Elliot, now a spinster with no expectations, fortune, or hope of marriage, wears exactly what she pleases in the way of color. The various members of her family dress according to their age and station in life. In the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, director Joe Wright’s muddled approach to costume is so deplorable, it is the perfect example of what a Regency is not.
In Part II of this article, we'll take a look at some of the film adaptations of Austen's work.