Jane Austen’s Wardrobe by Hilary Davidson is due to be published on 12 September 2023. Hilary Davidson – an expert on Regency fashion – delves into the clothing of one of the world’s great authors, providing unique and intimate insight into her everyday life and material world. Despite her acknowledged brilliance on the page, Jane Austen has all too often been accused of dowdiness in her appearance. Drawing on Austen’s 161 known letters, as well as her own surviving garments and accessories, this book assembles examples of the variety of clothes she would have possessed – from gowns and coats to shoes and undergarments – to tell a very different story.
In this blog post, part of our 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Hilary explores how the idea for the book developed, the thrill of chasing new discoveries, and how she pieced together the wardrobe of Jane Austen.
Article by Hilary Davidson
Authors of every ilk are asked: where do you get your ideas? Issues of narrative and plot are less relevant for non-fiction, but the ideas for a book must still emerge somehow. Sometimes they really do spring from nowhere, as happened with Jane Austen’s Wardrobe. The idea for this book dropped into my head fully formed as another question: why hasn’t anyone done a full study of Jane Austen’s wardrobe based on her letters? It’s not that the rich texts of the 161 surviving letters had never been used as sources on clothes, fashion, sewing, needlework and consumption. Many people have mined the epistles for information on these very topics – including, most recently, myself, in the book Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion, published with Yale University Press in 2019. It’s just that no-one had looked to identify every scrap and reference to build up a picture of what we can know Austen wore.
The question arrived in April 2020 as I was idly consulting said letters to check a reference. The COVID-19 global pandemic had begun recently, and I was sitting out the first British lockdown rather idyllically in a Welsh country cottage. Barely had I finished thinking the question when its (somewhat obvious) answer followed, which was that I was probably the best person to write a work going through Austen’s clothing and accessories in detail, given that I’d spent most of the previous six years exhaustively researching the dress cultures of her life and times for the first book.
Once I’d had these two ideas, the book unfolded immediately in my mind’s eye. It would be called Jane Austen’s Wardrobe and would take the format of a double page spread, one page with a quote from the letters and a text explanation, the other containing images of similar items to show what they might have looked like. I even went and mocked up a couple of pages to envisage it. Three and a half years later, the book is being published in this precise format.
People also talk about difficult second album syndrome, and the problems of following up a successful work with another one. Although its success is yet to be measured, the writing of Jane Austen’s Wardrobe, as I soon referred to it, was a comparative dream. It slipped out of my head easy as you like; words falling onto the screen in a happy flow. While I angsted and laboured and wrote and re-wrote and re-re-wrote Dress in the Age of Jane Austen, it turns out the upside of years of extensive research is expertise at the tip of one’s head when returning to the subject. This book also has a more general reader focus and was free of many of the burdens of proof to back up academic arguments and sources of the first one. It was very liberating.
Jane Austen’s Wardrobe was quick to think of; quick to be accepted; and quick to write over the year between May 2021 and 2022. The pleasure for me as the author, however, was in a sort of slowness. The first book had a massive scope, covering male and female Regency dress practices from the individual out to a global scale, and looking at the production and consumption processes that supported clothing and textiles. Jane Austen’s Wardrobe allowed me to dive in to one woman’s closet and play specific detective, hunting amongst offhand references for a clue to a certain gown’s colour or cut. I could luxuriate in the research joy of tracking down a fashion plate of a particular month and year to illustrate a lace cloak, a coquelicot ribbon or a pair of crape sleeves Austen once owned. Depth and detail substituted for scale and scope, and I enjoyed the contrast.
Historians delight in the archival chase. We send out our mental hounds amongst the documents and objects and scans and books and keyword searches and chance indexes and all the other apparata of research in the hope of catching the elusive foxes of our particular obsession, even if it’s the obsession of that moment or reference alone. Researching the clues Austen left helped satisfy my historical curiosity. What kind of textile was a white and yellow cloud? A definition not in the Oxford English Dictionary, for one thing. Who was Mrs Mussell of Bath, who made dark gowns well and light gowns badly? (I never did find out, alas). I had more luck with the two Miss Summers of Southampton who made Austen a bonnet and a gown, even though one was a Missus.
There were other discoveries waiting for me. It’s hard to find something new about Jane Austen and so the pleasure is greater when one does. I am most pleased with establishing the historical location of Grafton House. The warehouse is the place where Austen shopped with most surviving references. It’s been assumed to have existed in Grafton Street, Mayfair, where it meets Bond Street. Digging amongst sources revealed it was actually in Soho – but you’ll have to read the book to find out where! A close second is having two research strands come together when I realised that the ‘list shoes’ Austen wore home from a dance were made of the same woollen tape textile that puzzled me when encountered in a pair of slippers from a nineteenth-century archaeological site I consulted on. All in one page I gave the slippers their publishing debut, fully identified them, and showed Austen fans a great visual example for this odd reference.
Taking a larger view than the details of why a gown being washable meant it was made of cotton, or why her pink shoes didn’t have heels, what emerged overall from this book was a sense of Austen as a woman who kept her eye on fashion and put effort into being reasonably in style. She made her own decisions but shopped and altered clothing regularly with a relationship to the mode of her day in mind. I came away convinced Jane Austen enjoyed lovely clothes. This is more evidence adding to the recent, growing Austen scholarship counteracting the long shadow her brother Henry’s posthumous biographical notice created. The notion of sheltered, rural, modest, and retiring dear Aunt Jane retreats further every year, and I’m pleased to contrast ‘fashionable’ firmly with the ‘dowdy’ too often assumed, or attributed to her.
First reviewers of the Jane Austen’s Wardrobe proposal were understandably concerned that there wouldn’t be enough material to furnish a whole ‘wardrobe’ in a book. However, even the scant remaining letters, perhaps five per cent of Austen’s correspondence over her lifetime, was enough to furnish 32 gowns, 11 coats and wraps, 13 pieces of headwear, 15 accessories and trinkets, four pairs of shoes and many undergarments. I was privileged to be able to include her jewellery and dress accessories held at Jane Austen’s House, whose support has been essential. This is the first time all the dress Austenalia has been published together. I hope to have conveyed some of her pleasures and vexations in dealing with dress to the reader of this book, and to share in Jane Austen’s Wardrobe some of the beloved author’s very personal experience of getting and wearing clothes.
About the author:
Hilary Davidson is associate professor and chair of MA Fashion and Textile Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. She has curated, lectured, broadcast, and published extensively in her field and is author of Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion.
About the book:
Jane Austen’s Wardrobe
Hilary Davidson delves into the clothing of one of the world’s great authors, providing unique and intimate insight into her everyday life and material world
Also by Hilary Davidson:
Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts. Read the other posts in the series here: