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.
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.
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.
But her shoulders are so visible!
Fine, but what about the Netherfield ball dress? She’s practically wearing spaghetti straps and those just weren’t invented yet!
But so much exposed at once? Bosom, arms, and shoulders! No, no, no!
I see your bosom, arms, and shoulders and raise you backs and legs!
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?