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?

Music Monday- A Postcard to Henry Purcell

Frequently while writing, I will listen to the soundtrack of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation. I adore it! I also recently bought the sheet music to the soundtrack so I can muddle my way through some passages with my own inventive sense of rhythm. Maybe one day I’ll take formal piano classes.

A few years ago while editing Letters from the Heart, a beta had commented that she thought Elizabeth and Jane would refer to men only as Mr. __. I spent a great deal of time looking through Pride and Prejudice to discover that Elizabeth and Jane frequently dropped the Mr. once they knew a gentleman well–the same way that Kitty and Lydia did. In consulting other Austen books and works of the time, I became convinced there was not an impropriety in doing so when not speaking to his face. Hence, it was different than Caroline Bingley calling Elizabeth by the pet name Eliza. I imagine it’s the way we might call the leader of a country by his or her surname amongst our friends but if we ever encountered the person we would use a formal address.

I also discovered something most interesting. Elizabeth’s usage of Darcy vs. Mr. Darcy reminded me of a dance. They would seem to understand one another a little better and she called him Darcy in conversation to others. Then, they would have another misunderstanding and suddenly he was MR. Darcy again. There was such a push-pull effect about it.

Around this time I was falling in love with the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and I think the song during the Netherfield ball, A Postcard to Henry Purcell, along with the choreography of the dance, perfectly captures the back and forth that is Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship.

Henry Purcell was a baroque composer and lived 1659-1695. The piece on the soundtrack is a nod at his style of composing. And yes, I know baroque would have been terribly out of fashion by the Regency period. However, all adaptations make this error. The only one I have seen which does not is the 2009 Emma. Instead, it includes an original number of “Jenny’s Market.”

Despite it not being period correct, I think the music serves the film brilliantly in this scene and applaud Dario Marianelli for his fantastic score.