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Modesty and the Regency Miss

Martha and I dined yesterday at Deane to meet the Powletts and Tom Chute, which we did not fail to do. Mrs. Powlett was at once expensively and nakedly dressed; we have had the satisfaction of estimating her lace and her muslins; and she said too little to afford us much other amusement. Jane Austen to Cassandra Steventon, January 8, 1801 Some authors (not to mention book covers) would have you believe that to dress in Regency style was to be overly immodest or even exposed. I beg to differ. The favorite fabric for a Regency gown was undeniably light-weight, being muslin-a very thin, soft cotton. Yet the Regency lady was no more exposed than she wanted to be. An amusing scene from the 1996 BBC Pride and Prejudice (Starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) occurs when Lydia has rushed into the hallway wearing only a chemise. The strait-laced Mr. Collins is forced to pass her on his way to the staircase and is, I believe, clearly scandalized. The scene is quite funny, and Lydia herself cannot stop laughing. But what did he find so shocking? Was it the amount of cleavage in plain sight? Hardly, for a perfectly respectable evening dress could reveal as much. It was more likely the idea of having seen a young lady in her “underclothing” which unsettled poor Mr. Collins. Half a century earlier, such a sight would likely not have brought the slightest blush to even the most prudish. During the 18th century,

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