Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reader Question #9: Pride and Prejudice (2005) Costumes

This question came to me from Miss Elizabeth from The Country Handmaiden. Miss Elizabeth asks:

I had a question about regency fashion. I don't think so, but were sleeveless gowns historically accurate to the times? I saw an example on Miss Bingley in P&P 2005 at the dance and took a second look when I saw that dress. I know that movie definitely had some historically incorrect points about it so I wondered. It doesn't seem like it would be period correct. Also, did you notice that almost all of the ladies were dressed in white for the Bingleys' dance? Was white a particularly fashionable color?

As you all read this post, keep in mind that I've only seen half of Pride and Prejudice (2005) and clips from later parts of the movie. But I believe that this is the dress in question:

The short answer to this question is no, Miss Bingley's dress is not accurate for a lady at a ball during the Regency Era. However, there is a longer answer to explain why it is inaccurate.

From what I've read around, sleeveless Regency dresses did exist, but really only in paintings. Now, I can't cite the source where I read that from, but in everything I looked up about Regency fashion (pictures, sewing patterns, reading materials, etc.), I never found any fashion plates or pictures of sleeveless Regency dresses except this painting above (which you can see is just a portrait and not of a ball or someone receiving guests). And in my viewing of period dramas (which, for the most part, BBC and ITV are accurate when it comes to costumes),  I've never seen a sleeveless Regency dress except for one occurrence (unless a sleeveless jumper with a undershirt with sleeves counts). That one occurrence is Pride and Prejudice (2005), which already had accuracy issues with regards to fashion.

This is the petticoat that I made. 
Now, back to Miss Bingley's dress. From just looking at it, it looks like a Regency Era petticoat instead of a dress. In some ways, it looks similar to the Regency petticoat that I made a couple months back which is pictured at the right; just ignore the fact that my chemise sleeves are coming out the armholes (if you need to see a bigger picture of my petticoat, just click the picture of it). The difference is that my petticoat has wider shoulder straps than Miss Bingley (and probably some differences in constructions too, but we're just focusing on topical issues right now).

Now, if Miss Bingley wore her ball gown as a petticoat under a real Regency ball gown, that would be accurate. If Miss Bingley wore a sheer dress over her petticoat so that it was still visible, but not uncovered, that would be accurate. But there is no way Miss Bingley would be wearing something that would be considered underwear as a gown to a ball. Not one as fashionable, fastidious, and critical about other ladies' dresses as she is. It would be scandalous for her to wear something like that to a ball.

Now onto the subject of white at the ball.

A white Regency dress pictured next to Audrey
Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, which made the
"little black dress" popular.
I read an article quite a while ago at the Jane Austen Center's website called The Importance of Wearing White. In that article, it said that white was the equivalency of modern women's "little black dress": it was always fashionable in every season. In theory, a fashionable lady couldn't go wrong in the Regency era with wearing a white dress.

Of course, there were gowns in other colors besides white -- just like today there are dresses in other colors. But as a fashion staple of the Regency Era, the white Regency dress was the thing to wear, and, we can assume, a lot of women wore white Regency dresses as an everyday outfit.

In a lot of Regency movies, we see a lot of ladies wearing white, whether for day wear or evening wear. Jane Austen even makes a couple of references of ladies wearing white. Here is a segment from Northanger Abbey on wearing white:
"Mrs. Allen," said Catherine the next morning, "will there be any harm in my calling on Miss Tilney today? I shall not be easy till I have explained everything."
"Go, by all means, my dear; only put on a white gown; Miss Tilney always wears white." ~ Northanger Abbey, Chapter 12
Miss Tilney, who is known for being elegant and refined, always wears white. She would definitely be considered fashionable during the Regency Era.

But I'm getting a little off track here. Back to Pride and Prejudice (2005).

For a movie that was pretty inaccurate as far as Regency fashion went, this they were actually accurate on. It wouldn't be impossible that a lot of women dancing at Netherfield to be wearing white gowns. The only thing I question with all the women wearing white is what are the chances that every young woman going to Netherfield ball was wearing white? Like today, it's possible you could walk into a dance and see all the ladies wearing red or orange or green or blue, but what are the chances of that happening? So, while it isn't impossible for the young women to be wearing white, it does seem improbable. Unless Mr. Bingley put a dress code on the invitations ;-P

So, to sum everything up:

  • Miss Bingley's Netherfield Ball gown in Pride and Prejudice (2005) is inaccurate and resembles a petticoat more than a Regency ball gown.
  • White was a popular color in the Regency Era and the white Regency gown was a fashion staple.
What do you think of this post? Was it helpful to you? Do you have anything to add? Leave a comment!

Thank you, Miss Elizabeth, for sending in your question! If you have a question you would like to submit for me to do a post on, leave a comment. Just follow these guidelines. It can be about anything related to this blog: period dramas, blogging, reviews, etc. 

 God Bless,
God Bless, Miss Elizabeth Bennet


  1. There was another instance of a sleeveless ball gown in a Regency film - Miss Grey wears one in S&S 2008. Just thought I'd put that in

    1. Ah! That's right! I forgot all about that. I always thought that a little odd.

  2. Interesting post! I have actually read that many upper class women wore the French style of gowns which were sometimes quite scandalous compared to the English style often being very low cut and sheer.
    Also, I once read that it was actually proper for ball gowns to be white, so the fact that all the ladies at the ball are wearing white would actually be normal for a Regency ball.
    This version of the movie is not necessarily accurate for high fashion of the time, but it does a wonderful job of dressing the different classes which is very accurate. I love that the Bennet girls wear dresses that are a few years off, while Miss Bingley wears the most 'in' gowns. Not everyone would be wearing the very latest fashions:)

  3. This is the very first time that I visit your blog. I love it!
    Miss Bingley's dress always call my attention, she was the only girl in the ball with a sleeveless dress!
    Your post was really helpfull!

  4. I'm sure I remember reading somewhere that white and light colours stand out in the candlelit rooms. And that was one of the reasons younger women would wear them to be 'seen' by eligible young men. Plus its cheaper to accessorize a plain white dress that would have cost you money than buy several in different colours.
    I'm making myself a dress at the moment for jane austen festival and am finding plain white doesn't suit me so have now made one in cream with a print. I'm sure others back them had same issues.

  5. I always thought poorly of the P&P '05 costuming until I did a bit of the research. I do not in any way condone Caroline's styles (she, to me, is probably the most annoying personage ever to appear on screen), and I'm not a fan of what I call her "slips." However, I can see how it could be a French style as the script writers bumped the time period forward from 1813 to the late eighteenth century, during which time England was monstrously influenced by French fashion and whatnot. I think pushing the time period forward allowed them some liberties with the costumes, and it helped them not to mimic the 1995 version as much.

  6. I was reading some about the movie and read a quote from the directer that he chose fashion from the period when Jane first wrote the book First Impressions, not when it was published during the regency period which would explain why some of the costumes are not Regency fashions.

  7. "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" is not really a story from the Regency era, despite its publishing date. It was actually completed at the end of the 1790s. Jane Austen put it aside for several years, did a few revisions around 1809-1810, before it was finally published three years later. But according to John Halperin's article - http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number11/halperin.htm - it is mainly a tale of the late 1790s.

    1. I may have to respectfully disagree with you there. First Impressions was completed in the 1790s, but it was rewritten in the 1810s and became Pride and Prejudice. It might be possible that Jane Austen took what was First Impressions and updated it a little bit to fit the 1810s surroundings that she was in when she rewrote it (though I'm speculating here). What I've heard was that, even though Jane Austen never specified a date, P&P might have taken place around 1803 (something to do with a war England was in or something; can't remember the exact source I read that from). This website had some information on when Pride and Prejudice was set (even though the site is for a P&P sequel): http://www.marshaaltman.com/bookone.html

      Thanks for your comment!

  8. First Impressions was completed in the 1790s, but it was rewritten in the 1810s and became Pride and Prejudice.

    The rewrites were, at best, minor. And considering the fact that she maintained the storyline of Lydia's time with the militia in Brighton, her attempts to fit the "1810 surroundings" came to naught. The militia at Brighton was more of a phenomenon of the late 1790s, not the early 1810s.

    1. I was theorizing what Jane Austen may have done during revisions of First Impressions. Since there is no copy of First Impressions that survived to this date, I was guessing that she may have updated it a little bit. I cannot be certain, but it's just a guess; anything's possible. It could also be entirely possible that setting of Pride and Prejudice was in the early 1800s which is closer to the late 1790s theory you brought up than the 1810s theory. I'm guessing (and just guessing here) that there is probably historical evidence to support the different theories since there is so much debate to when Pride and Prejudice took place and no one has officially decided a time period or scholars unanimously agreeing on the time period so that it's generally accepted. In theory, no theory is right or wrong with what information we have, but we all have different ways of thinking about it. Some people say it takes place in the 1810s (like Republic of Pemberley http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/ppchron.html), some say in the 1790s (like John Halperin's article), and some in the middle.

      This was a very interesting debate. Thank you for bringing up the points that you brought up. :-)

  9. And does it really matter which era that a cinematic "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" is set. It's not a historical novel. And quite frankly, I see nothing wrong with the story being set anytime during the 18th or 19th centuries . . . or any other era.

  10. I am watching Pride & Prejudice and noticed that many of the ladies wore white at the ball. I was delighted to find an answer as to why. Thank you for your delightful blog! Vaile


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