Dress (Open robe and petticoat) (c. 1770)
silk taffeta brocade, cotton (bobbin lace)
(a) 142.4 cm (centre back) 32.2 cm (waist, flat) (robe) (b) 95.0 cm (centre back) 32.5 cm (waist, flat) (petticoat)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Jane Austen (1775–1817) seldom chronicled contemporary events in her novels, let alone the vagaries and details of fashion. Yet her life coincided with some of the most sweeping transformations in European history; most notably the Industrial Revolution, the American War of Independence, the formation of the Australian colonies, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The period also witnessed radical changes in the way people dressed.
When Jane Austen was born, women of fashion dressed in voluminous silk robes of formal splendour. The female form was constricted and exaggerated with boned corsetry, hoops or panniers. By the final years of the eighteenth-century, when Austen had written the three novels that were later published as Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Northanger Abbey (1818), women’s clothes had been streamlined into relatively unadorned gowns of diaphanous white muslin that fell close to the body’s natural contours. After more than a decade, as Austen was completing her later novels, Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), and Persuasion (1818), the author witnessed another shift in the tenor of fashionable dress, this time towards a more decorative aesthetic. In the years after Austen’s premature death, fuller-bodied silk fabrics were back in vogue and the feminine silhouette had returned to the exaggerated hourglass of Austen’s infant years.
Persuasion: Fashion in the Age of Jane Austen looks at the changes in fashion that occurred over Austen’s lifetime, with a focus on English women’s fashion during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Drawing on work from the National Gallery of Victoria’s holdings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fashion, prints and drawings, decorative arts and paintings, and complemented by key works from other Australian institutions and private collections, Persuasion broadly surveys the years from the 1770s to around 1830, one of the most dynamic periods in fashion.