Fashion sense, and sensibility

On show. Curator of international fashion and textiles Roger Leong has recreated the culture and fashion of Jane Austen's time at the NGV. Photo: Aun Ngo

On show. Curator of international fashion and textiles Roger Leong has recreated the culture and fashion of Jane Austen's time at the NGV. Photo: Aun Ngo

A LOT has been discussed about the divine Miss J in the last couple of years, and it’s not the acerbic judge on America’s Next Top Model we’re referring to.

It’s Jane Austen, the woman who has made a name for herself within literary circles, who authored those classics you read when you were a child with titles such as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

In more recent times, she has invaded popular culture too, with movies like the Jane Austen Book Club.

But fashion?

Austen once wrote to her sister Cassandra in 1800, referring to what she was wearing: “I like the gown very much and my mother thinks it very ugly.”

At the National Gallery of Victoria, curator for international fashion and textiles Roger Leong has recreated the world of fashion in Austen’s time, in an exhibition called Persuasion: Fashion in the Age of Jane Austen.

“I’ve included a lot of fashion illustration from the period, 18th century through to the 1820s, just shortly after Austen herself died. And they show, in incredible detail, the way the clothes were worn, what sort of occasion they were worn for,’‘ Leong said.

“We’ve also included some paintings from the National Gallery’s collection, plus all sorts of decorative arts and furniture, which again really evoke the world of Jane Austen.”

Straight out of a novel - Printed cotton dresses the Dashwood sisters would have worn in Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Photo: Aun Ngo

Straight out of a novel - Printed cotton dresses the Dashwood sisters would have worn in Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Photo: Aun Ngo

Austen fans would immediately recognise the printed cotton dresses the Dashwood sisters would have worn in Sense and Sensibility, Elizabeth Bennet’s white muslin dresses, and the indulgent haute couture typical of the London soirees.

Womenswear in Austen’s lifetime evolved dramatically as a response to the era’s political upheaval, Leong said.

The outfit actor Colin Firth (Mr Darcy) wore in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. Photo: Aun Ngo

The outfit actor Colin Firth (Mr Darcy) wore in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. Photo: Aun Ngo

“When Austen was born, women wore…these very cumbersome silk gowns, with paneers holding the skirts out [and] very tight corsets cinching in the waist. But by the time she was an adult, women were wearing these beautiful white muslin dresses, cinched just under the bust in an empire line, the dresses draped very close to their body in a natural way,” he said.

And there’s menswear too, our favourite – a borrowed outfit worn by Mr Darcy from the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.

“It’s quite a faithful production of menswear from around 1810…and this really was the forerunner of the modern men’s suit. I mean the fact that it was even made from wool, and was tailored to fit very well, is exactly how some modern tailors work today,” Leong said.

The suit features a tailored coat, pantaloons, knee-high riding boots, and the long-sleeved white shirt worn by actor Colin Firth (who played Mr Darcy), whose famous lake scene in the series redefined the wet T-shirt look.

It’s a parade that might just redefine your fashion sense, and sensibility.

Persuasion: Fashion in the Age of Jane Austen runs from May 22 to November 8 at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne.

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