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.



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.

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!

fashion plates backs.jpg

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?

Ball gown update!

Last weekend I was looking for new housing as we’re moving out of state in the next 4-6 weeks. I had planned to do a good bit of reading and writing but had a mild case of food poisoning Friday night. Instead I browsed more fashion plates. The Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Assembly in October is on my mind. Because if we move on October 1 then we’ll only be in the new place for a few days before leaving for AGM.

I posted before, that I want to use parts from my wedding gown. Well…it’s been almost 11 years. And the New Year’s plans to diet and exercise were not followed through. So, the dress is too small. When I looked up ways to fix that laced bodices were recommended. I hadn’t thought that was a Regency fashion element, but I found some! I chose only English gowns from 1811-1813.

Ackermann's_August 1811 afternoon dress_lady's monthly museum_may1812 ball gown_la belle assemblee_august 1812 evening dress_acermann's_may 1813 evening dress_la belle assemblee_june 1812 vauxhall vittoria fete dress_la belle assemblee_july 1813

I am still thinking about what to do with the sleeves but I found some more inspiration pics. Some are slightly off the shoulder (and the same as pics above) and one even looks like it would have a bare underarm.

vauxhall vittoria fete dress_la belle assemblee_july 1813 full dress_ackermann's_july 1813 evening dress_la belle assemblee_june 1812_off shoulder evening dress_la belle assemblee_june 1812 evening dress_la belle assemblee_december 1812Ackermann's_August 1812_sleeve

The gown in it’s original state also has a side swept “apron” and since it’s so much white, I may look for some colored silk or netting to do a similar overlay with. The bonus being that I don’t have to buy a large piece of it.

evening dress_la belle assemblee_june 1812_off shoulder evening dress_la belle assemblee_jan 1813 evening dress_la belle assemblee_december 1812 evening dress_acermann's_may 1813 Ackermann's_August 1811

I just find this pic interesting. In case you need a peplum!

evening dress_la belle assemblee_jan 1812

And, while October is not very cold, I wore a faux fur wrap for my December wedding and I think I may wear it briefly here as well. Just because I can.

opera_mirror of the graces_jan 1811

Again, these pics are only from 1811-1813 and you  can see the waist lines are all over the place. Check out my first post for more plates spanning the era as I discuss that and other image myths about Regency gowns.

Regency ball gown from a wedding dress??!!

Last night I took an old button up shirt that was too small and cut holes on the opposite side and tried out the corset front. I think it looks good! I’m going to do a mock up from things I either already have or thrift store pieces before I cut into the dress though. I’ll update again soon!