“A woman can never be too fine while she is all in white.”
So Edmund Bertram said to Fanny Price when complementing her on her dress, in a scene from Jane Austen’s 1814 novel, Mansfield Park. Now I understand the reason why.
A handful of decades before Austen published her book, the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were discovered after being covered for centuries by thick layers of ash, rock and debris from when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. Excavation finds there not only made them popular destinations on Continental grand tours, but also led to a fascination with classical Greek and Roman art and civilization. Since the ancient Greeks were thought to have worn white clothing, white dresses became the outfit of choice for the ladies of Austen’s day.
That’s what I discovered after taking COTA’s new #8 bus route to the Ohio State University campus. My mission was to see six Jane Austen-related objects from Ohio State’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and its Historic Costume & Textiles Collection.
As the 200th anniversary year of Austen’s death comes to a close, three first-edition Austen novels and two Austen-era dresses are on display in the first-floor Special Collections exhibit area of the Ohio State University’s Thompson Library through this Friday, December 15.
Since Austen chose to publish her novels anonymously during her lifetime, the author of each book was given as “A Lady.” However, when Northanger Abbey and were published jointly in 1818 after her death, Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, wrote the introduction and identified his sister as the author of those novels and her previous works. The introduction is displayed alongside first editions of Mansfield Park: A Novel in Three Volumes (London: Printed for T. Egerton, 1814) and Emma: A Novel in Three Volumes (London: Printed for John Murray, 1816).
Austen’s life spanned from 1775 to 1817, a period marked by change in politics, manufacturing, society and even fashion. Opulent garments were replaced by simpler ones preferred by the growing middle class. Dresses were either fashioned from plain white or floral patterned or “sprigged” muslin sold by British textile manufacturers who purchased cotton exported from the British East India Company. Gowns were often constructed in what was referred to as an Empire silhouette, in honor of French empress Josephine Bonaparte, who popularized the style.
The popular columnar silhouette is repeated in this day dress, circa 1797-1810, but it is made from a heavier, stiffer silk that would have been worn by a wealthier lady. It is complemented by a day cap, circa 1810-1820, like a married woman would have worn. Once a woman married, her hair was always covered, either by a bonnet when outside, or by a cap when indoors.
Another Austen-era dress is on view at Ohio State’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum as part of its Cartoon Couture exhibit. This cotton muslin day dress, circa 1800-1810, with another Greek-inspired silhouette, will be on display there through April 15, 2018.