“`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.
Two other reasons for the survival of so many white, tubular dresses from Jane Austen’s day are the ease of storing such a small, flexible garment and the superior needlework often done on such gowns. The white gown was easy to store because it was made of a soft, thin fabric just like what was used for the underwear of the day. What acted like the modern slip was a white or natural beige chemise: a thin cotton or linen undergarment that protected the dress from contact with sweat and prevented dresses from catching in the buttocks and legs and offered some concealment of the breasts and crotch. When the white dress first became fashionable in France in 1780s, it was called a “chemise gown” or “chemise dress” (or “chemise à la reine”–a chemise in the style of the queen) because it was basically made in the same style and fabric fibers of the chemise. What distinguished the chemise gown from an actual chemise was the fineness of the fabric and the subtle needlework upon it.
White Dress: Virtuous or Scandalous?
What was the reason for the popularity of the white gown, especially in the first decade of the nineteenth century? The white gown was associated with virtue: for centuries white, and white lily flowers in particular, had been associated with virgin purity and chastity. In addition, simple white cotton dresses were associated with idealized pastoral life: the most moral and happy people supposedly lived simply in the country off honest labor, such as sheep herding. This ideal is celebrated in both the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans and of the eighteenth-century Neoclassical writers, who saw themselves recreating the golden age of Augustus Caesar. The white dress, thus, enabled women to identify themselves with the lower classes and with virtuous restraint in dress.
When Fanny Price in Austen’s Mansfield Park worries she is overdressed for a dinner party in a white gown made for her to wear to her cousin’s wedding, she is told by her future husband, “A woman can never be too fine while she is all in white. No, I see no finery about you; nothing but what is perfectly proper. Your gown seems very pretty. I like these glossy spots.” Edmund’s reply stresses the idea of white as associated with virtuous restraint in dress. Yet, at the same time, he notes the “glossy spots,” which are likely cotton or chenille embroidered white work–in other words, hundreds of hand-sewn white embroidered spots on a white fabric. The white fabric was probably one of several very fine types of cotton available–mull, muslin, lawn, or gauze. Another possibility is the dress might be silk, “shot” with a more glossy thread, or even a silk net fabric, like tulle, covered with needle or bobbin lace. Less likely is the “glossy spots” were clusters of beads sewn onto the gown.
The speculation above on Fanny’s glossy-spotted white gown reveals the other major appeal of the white gown: its luxury. Paradoxically, while the white gown could suggest virtuous restraint on one hand, on the other hand, it could also suggest sexual promiscuity and high-class, conspicuous leisure.
“`That Mrs. Whitaker is a treasure! She was quite shocked when I asked her whether wine was allowed at the second table, and she has turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns.’” ~Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814
However, as the quote above suggests, a cheap domestic cotton or linen cloth dress, perhaps even with some wool or cotton embroidery trim, could be made by a poorer, lower-class woman to imitate the white finery of the rich. Austen’s Mrs. Whitaker turns away or fires the maids, not for the impracticality of their wearing white, but for their attempts to look as fashionable as the women for whom they work. In addition, depending on how thin the fabric of the maid’s gowns were or what the gowns were worn over, the dismissal of maids might also be due to being too sexy and, hence, too immoral.
In 1808, Jane Austen wrote her sister about a dinner party at which, “Mrs. Powlett was at once both expensively and nakedly dressed; we have had the satisfaction of estimating her Lace and Muslin.” Mrs. Powlett’s white muslin and lace gown was probably very sheer and worn over flesh-colored silk undergarments and stockings, to hint at her naked flesh beneath the dress.
The “naked” look was designed to imitate the clothing of the ancient world. The discovery of the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt, and Lord Elgin’s transfer of the Parthenon sculptures in 1803-12 from the Acropolis to London, all made dressing in white, clinging drapery popular. Although scholars were aware that ancient Greek clothing was often colorful and patterned, it was the many white marble statues that remained in the public’s mind as typical of “ancient costume.” Thomas Hope’s 1812 expanded Costumes of the Greeks and Romans (which was excerpted in women’s fashion journals of the time) notes in his introduction, “Where the human figure, instead of only being covered, is concealed by the garment, it no longer offers beauties superior to what the various articles of apparel might have displayed, collected in a mere bundle” (page xv). Hope’s comment shows the philosophy behind the “naked” look of thin, white gowns: dress should accentuate and reveal the superior beauties of the human body, not cover or conceal them.
In conclusion, the white dress could be seen as virtuous or scandalously naked; simple, republican lower-class dress or luxurious, costly, aristocratic fashion. This paradox is probably the reason that for some forty years (1780-1820), it was important for a woman of style to be a woman in white.
Our online gift shop has lovely white muslin gown available in all sizes! Click here to buy your own white cotton dress!
Cathy Decker has created the Regency Fashion Page which catalogs fashion plates from 1790-1820. These plates include full color photographs of the original plates as well as descriptive notes. Her page has been recommended by the History Channel.