“`Mrs. Allen,’ said Catherine the next morning, will there be any harm in my calling on Miss Tilney today? I shall not be easy till I have explained everything.’
`Go, by all means, my dear; only put on a white gown; Miss Tilney always wears white.’”
Northanger Abbey, 1818
White Gowns in Austen’s Novels
Why does Jane Austen’s Miss Tilney always wear white? The simple, tubular white gown was for the women of Austen’s day what the little black dress is today: a fashion basic for every season, every year. In the early years of the nineteenth century, a white gown was the important clothing item for any woman who wanted to be stylish. From her letters, we know Austen herself owned white gowns. Fashion plates, like the one below, commonly feature white gowns for day and evening wear from 1790-1820. When the shape of dresses in the 1820s became an hourglass, rather than a tube, many of the stylish, white gowns of earlier years could not be modified to match the new style and were stored away. Thus, according to Jane Ashford’s The Art of Dress (1996), a fairly large number of these white gowns still exist and can be seen in museum collections around the world (page 179). In the last five years, several of these white gowns have even been offered for sale on the internet by various sites specializing in historical textiles and clothing.