Style Saturday- Caroline Bingley’s Gowns

style saturday

Be honest. Either you or someone you have known has criticized Caroline Bingley’s gowns in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation. They look shocking to our modern sensibilities–even more so when paired with gowns which fit the aesthetic of the period better. But are they really so inaccurate? I’ll be going over the Meryton Assembly and Netherfield ball gowns, both featured below.

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First of all, it’s hard to establish a specific timeline for the 2005 production. I’ve read that the director wanted it placed nearly ten years earlier than the book’s published date of 1813. Critics usually place the events of the book from 1811-1812. However, that is not perfect as there are a few dates which do not match up perfectly in any year. We know Jane Austen began writing the first draft (titled then as First Impressions) in 1796. Personally, the difficulty with dating the work doesn’t bother me. It’s fiction and it must have been nearly impossible to keep track of dates.

The dating only matters for this post in the fact that after 1795, the fashion world adopted a very different silhouette. France had a brutal revolution to change its political regime and this was reflected in clothing as well.

Caroline’s gowns seem shocking compared to what we think of for the era and compared to other ladies her age in the film. Below is the first hit I got when I googled “regency era gown,” as well as Charlotte, Elizabeth, and Jane at the Meryton Assembly.

By comparison, Caroline’s gowns practically look like something a stripper would wear. However, did the production team really leave history so far behind?

First, let’s consider how thin Caroline’s gown is at the Assembly. You can see the outline of her corset (which is not period correct but we can worry about that another time) and her shoulders and arms.

The 1798 portrait attributed to Louis-Leopold Boilly on the right shows how thin a single layer of muslin is. No wonder Mr. Woodhouse worried for Harriet Smith’s health in the portrait Emma painted of her friend. It was common in the era to see the chemise and/or petticoat underneath the gown. It’s worth mentioning that I don’t see anyone slut-shaming Elizabeth Bennet of the 1995 production for her thin fabric.

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Where is her petticoat? That’s the end of her chemise I see and then *gasp* leg!

Nor is Caroline the only one to wear such thin fabric in the production:

Ok, so thin, flimsy fabric was acceptable. What about the fact that the sleeves are barely there? If the portraits I’ve included aren’t convincing enough, here are fashion plates of the era.

fashion plates sleeves

But her shoulders are so visible!

fashion plates_shoulders

Fine, but what about the Netherfield ball dress? She’s practically wearing spaghetti straps and those just weren’t invented yet!

fashion plates_straps.jpg

But so much exposed at once? Bosom, arms, and shoulders! No, no, no!

fashion plates bosom

I see your bosom, arms, and shoulders and raise you backs and legs!

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Have I found evidence of a thin strapped ball gown from the Regency era. No, I haven’t. However, now that I’ve looked at the portraits and fashion plates of the era and I see the wide variety of acceptable sihlouettes and also just how much skin was exposed, I don’t think they took an extreme liberty. It shows very clearly how different Caroline Bingley’s sense of fashion and style–owning to her London life–is from the Bennets of Longbourn. The first gown seems to fit the era perfectly and yet is still just as astonishingly different from her peers. At the Netherfield ball, the Bennet girls seem to fit the Regency “norm” better: white on white, high waist, puffy sleeves. Yet, Caroline has to look even more extremely different. If she had shown up wearing something just like she wore to the Meryton Assembly not only would it have not enunciated the differences in her status, education, and experiences but it could easily be mistaken for the same gown. I’m SURE Caroline Bingley would NEVER do that, especially in a place like Meryton where she must always look and feel superior.

Other productions do this with MORE. More trimmings, more fabric, lavish fabrics, more jewelry, more headpieces etc., etc. That is accurate to the era. However, so is the idea of sensual simplicity. In fact, that was the entire point of the neo-classical revival.

If Caroline Bingley is the foil to Elizabeth Bennet, then consider what values Mr. Darcy must possess to turn her down and fall for Elizabeth instead. Was it all just turning down Caroline’s wealth and accomplishments? Or was it turning down pretend passions wrapped in pretension while Elizabeth’s earthy and natural charm pulled on his heart? By giving Caroline the more alluring and thin fabrics thereby making her the more overtly sexual being, the production exposes that Darcy’s feelings for Elizabeth run much deeper than physical desire. If half an inch less on a shoulder strap exposes that, then I am all for it.

What do you think? Are you willing to give Caroline’s gowns a pass now or do you remain unconvinced?

5 thoughts on “Style Saturday- Caroline Bingley’s Gowns

  1. Caroline Bingley’s gowns didn’t bother me. Elizabeth in the 1995 P&P and the 1980 did make me wonder a little bit with all the boobs that were showing. Then I looked at my Pinterest page for 1790-1830 and some of the gowns were cut rather low. The sheer fabrics were something that the satirists had a field day with especially when the wind blew and the woman’s lower body was more than a little outlined, somewhat like Ehle’s gown. The images of chemises from the 1800’s were fairly long though not all the way down to the hem of the dress. They looked to be at least to the knees. So I’m wondering what Ehle was wearing under that gown. Unless that was another of Davies’ attempts to make P&P a little more sexy. What do you think, Rose? 🙂

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    1. Oh, I blame Davies. Although, I’m not sure he had much say in costuming other than to tell the costumer to “sex it up.” He sexes everything up, even my beloved Northanger Abbey has sexed up scenes. Side note: they weren’t on my first DVD. If they had been, I might not have liked the production so much but by the time I had to buy a new DVD it was already a favorite so I just roll my eyes or fast forward. Anyway, it’s one reason I haven’t watched Sanditon yet. Don’t even get me started on the opening of his Sense and Sensibility…

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      1. Isn’t it irritating that they just can’t leave it alone? They have to mess with it. 😦

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    2. Regarding the see-through gowns: portraits and fashion plates also show how thin the material is. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I think wearing them without other layers is, such as the satirists you mention. Even petticoats often had straps and material over the bosom. An example of a more modest gown that you can see evidence of the chemise through would be Elizabeth’s brown gown.

      You can see in the sunlight where the material is thin and the chemise provides additional layering.

      Re: 1995 bosoms. The amount of cleavage shown for daytime is startling and I do think it is AD’s fault. They need a tuck!

      Jennifer Ehle’s gown while walking at Pemberley shocks me more than anything, though. Chemises were typically past the knees to start with and this is above. She has no petticoats. Remember they didn’t wear underwear in this age. She seems frightfully exposed!

      I have heard that some flesh colored type hose that went all the way up was developed for these sorts of gowns but I still can’t imagine that they were worn so blatantly with zero petticoats. It caused a scandal in London when Lady Caroline Lamb “wet her dress” to make it more transparent at a ball. She was not the only one to do so. But the thing is that she was already known to be having an affair and playing fast and lose with Regency rules. She was the top of Society. Elizabeth is not such a fashion plate. Why would she be dressed this way other than to expose more than is seemly to Darcy. Do you think Caroline Bingley would have hesitated to bring up Elizabeth dressing in that way? It just astonishes me how little dislike that dress gets in the community when it seems like such a travesty to me. Especially when this is the section of the series when Lydia elopes with Wickham. Elizabeth is supposed to be the opposite of Lydia throughout the book and to see her dressed in that way is such a let down for me. I’ve wracked my mind to think of some deep meaning behind the clothing and all I can see is that Davies wanted it to be sexy.

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  2. I agree. During the day I think they were more modest but showed more boob at night at dances. The scene with Ehle may have been overlooked because she was walking, and it may not have been as blatant as the still shot which shows just about everything. When I watch all of the 1995, I’ll watch for that scene. Joe Wright used a lot of symbolism in the 2005 and even had them get more casual but it doesn’t rub me the wrong way in the manner of Sanditon’s nude scene or Davies playing with the 1995. I can just picture Jane Austen rolling over in her grave in vexation at Davies.

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