Pride and Prejudice 1995: The Little Things

I did threaten to write about the Ehle/Firth Pride and Prejudice, and since I'm in a writing mood without a topic I decided to make good. Regency adaptations tend to go for an overall accurate look, interpreting age and income within the confines of realistic silhouettes and colors, and so they avoid the scrutiny and reputation that a more obviously artistic and unrealistic production garners. But just as this version of P&P is not entirely faithful in every respect (e.g. the added Darcy-perspective scenes, the actors nearly all being significantly older than their characters - perhaps the most egregious example being Julia Sawalha in her late twenties playing teenage Lydia), Dinah Hill's costuming is not entirely accurate - mainly in ways that make the period more appealing to modern tastes.

The exact date when the story is set is never given; generally, the movie's taken to be set in 1813, when the book was published. I'm not going to go into the full story of English dress in the early 19th century because I'm planning a post on that later this year for the Historical Sew Monthly - specifically, what really went on with English and French dress during the Napoleonic Wars? - but I would say that that's reasonable. 1811 to about 1816 as a range.

Morning Dress

All caps from cap-that; could not resist using this one
During the Neoclassical transition period, both English and French fashion plates show many women in shorter sleeves and lower necklines when in morning walking dress. The transition into medieval/Renaissance-inspired clothing brought about a different standard, one where morning dress was required to cover the arms and usually the chest.

From La Belle Assemblée, for November 1813
("Morning dress" has a different meaning in the early part of the century than it does in the later Victorian period: during the Regency, the midday dinner was being pushed to the middle or end of the afternoon, and therefore so was the end of the morning. During and after dinner full or half dress was worn. Dress worn in the "morning" could be an extremely informal deshabille as in the Victorian era, or it could be the ordinary clothes worn for visiting, walking, or shopping. See Jane Austen and Food for more discussion of mealtimes!)

In the scene captured above, Mrs. Bennet and Mary are in morning dress, while Kitty and Lydia are in some version of evening dress - Kitty's is plausible for a less formal gown, but I don't think anyone would have made evening dress with a print like Lydia's. While there are scenes that feature chemisettes and fichus, there are numerous outfits where necklines are just too low and bare for morning dress, mostly for Elizabeth. Of the Bennet girls, only Mary tends to wear gowns that come up to her neck without a chemisette, and overall these high-necked gowns (unattractive to a modern eye) are worn by characters who are either unsympathetic, like Mrs. Hurst, or somehow at odds with Elizabeth, like Charlotte after her marriage. Though this is all less obvious than P&P05, it's still an example of artistic inaccuracy used deliberately to illustrate characterization.


He has threatened to dance with us all.
Unlike many period dramas, this one never gives us a very good view of the corsets: the best we get is this scene, where it's hidden by Lydia's bodiced petticoat. It's not worn over a chemise (not accurate) and may or may not have straps, but it also seems, based on the way the petticoat lays over it, that the shaping in the bust is done with gussets (accurate). My quarrel with the corsetry is that the shape created is essentially a historicized version of what's considered sexy now - breasts pushed together to form maximum cleavage. At the same time, other characters appear not to have any bust support at all.

Charlotte Sparrow, William Owen, ca. 1815; Staffordshire County Buildings Picture Collection PCF 6
The shape that portraits and fashion plates of the era show is bizarre to our eyes, with the breasts lifted high and separated. Extant corsets of the period generally show a large gap between the gusseted cups, the straps having to attach in front as far to the sides as possible - one corset that will appear in my upcoming book Regency Women's Dress actually has to have the straps attach to the cups themselves as they're so wide-set. Regency standards of beauty didn't favor the cleavage of two breasts being pushed together: they preferred a smooth, broad bosom. I'm not sure if any films properly represent the fashionable Regency shape - like an accurately frilly picture of the early 1920s, it's just too far from what the audience expects to see.


Another small but frequently recurring issue are the shapes of the necklines on very many dresses, especially Elizabeth's.

During the Regency, there were two common necklines: cut-in and constructed. The cut-in neckline was, like Elizabeth's above, a curve cut into the front of the bodice; the constructed neckline was created by adding straps to a rectangular bodice front. The cut-in neckline was more common in the 1810s and 1820s, while the constructed neckline was more common in the 1800s and 1810s. And here is the most important aspect: the cut-in neckline was usually shallow and wide, the constructed neckline deeper (but also wide).

This ahistorically deep cut-in neckline has become very commonly used in Regency-set period drama, sometimes a little shallower or more pointed than this. I should note that a rounded, deeper neckline is characteristic of the Neoclassical period - but this is because the front-closing drawstrings very frequently used at that time created it. Once the front closure was lost in the early 1800s, this shape fell out of favor. The desirable silhouette was broad through the shoulders and long and narrow in the body and legs, with a very high bust, and the deep cut-in neckline de-emphasizes the width and height of the bodice.

Elizabeth's dresses all have this neckline, and in general all seem to be made from the same pattern: the bodice gathered slightly at the bottom of the neckline and more at the waist, that waist being just a bit below the bottom of the bust. (This gathering is not, strictly speaking, inaccurate, but it was more common for cut-in necklines to go along with darts around 1813. I'm also not sure I've ever seen a gathered cut-in neckline around this time, either - there are 1820s examples, however.) While most dresses of this era do have a great number of similarities in construction, I don't believe it would be normal to have all of one's dresses made on the same exact lines. For one thing, people would not purchase and get rid of all of their clothing at one time - just as today, they would gradually replace clothing as it wore out or became out of date, and a dressmaker would be unlikely to duplicate a gown she'd made a year ago exactly. Gathers would change to darts, a neckline would be a different shape or height, skirts would have more or less fullness, etc. A woman wouldn't own only back-buttoning gowns, as Elizabeth does, but would have some that gather on ties, lace, or fasten with hooks.


My last point is more general than specific. One thing that stands out to me is the volume of curls around many characters' faces.

Elizabeth always has a thick mass of curls on either side of her face, from a few inches away from her center part descending almost to her jawline. Jane's curls are similar but much shorter and more defined; Mary has only a few very small ones, as does Kitty; Lydia, like Mary, tends to part her hair on the side, but has many long curls all around her head and incorporated into her hairstyle. Their mother has two very large and very regular bunches of short curls, and Charlotte tends never to have any curls at all. Caroline has a hairstyle very similar to Elizabeth's (as does Anne de Burgh) although her curls are more like waves, and Mrs. Hurst has single short curls placed all around her forehead.

Eliza Augusta Falconet Middleton, Nicholas-François Dun, ca. 1812; Gibbes Museum of Art 1960.10.4
Two bunches of curls hanging on either side of the face are actually more typical of the end of the 1810s and the 1820s through to the 1830s. Even after the period of Neoclassical influence, very short curls that appeared artlessly placed around the face were preferred. Another option was a very few distinct curls on either side of the face, often arranged to be slightly asymmetrical in some way. Mrs. Hurst's and Jane's curls are the most accurate, being sparser and shorter, as are Georgiana's and Kitty's. Mary's and Lydia's asymmetry is period-accurate, although Lydia's long curls are more typical of some years before, during the beginning of the transition into 16th and 17th century influence. Mrs. Bennet's hairstyle, however, is from after the action takes place: it's more typical of the 1820s. Elizabeth and Caroline also have later hairstyles.

It's very common in movie costuming to dress older or more conservative characters in older styles, often exaggeratedly so, in order to emphasize the disconnect between them and the main characters. Sometimes wealthier or more fashion-conscious characters wear clothing which would not come into fashion for several years to make them stand out. The interesting thing about this case is that the actual dates of the hairstyles are not relevant in the costuming: it is just about the effect. Mrs. Bennet's hair looks dowdy, despite being too fashion-forward - and styles with no or few curls, actually appropriate for 1813 or a little earlier, appear childish and unsophisticated. (Mrs. Hurst's, I would say, is meant to look conspicuously dressed.) Elizabeth's hairstyle works as an attractive balance between dowdy, childish, and fussy in terms of its visual effect - youthfully natural - without its actual date being relevant to its interpretation.

The 1995 Pride & Prejudice is remembered as a highly accurate production, and so it should be: there are some costumes that are very good, and a lot of attention to detail throughout the production. But it's not without its flaws, and it's important not to let its visuals supersede extant garments and other primary sources when researching.


  1. Very interesting - I always enjoy your analyses, and especially this is one as it's one of my favorite historical movies. I very much look forward to the publication of your book!

    1. Thank you! I always worry about riding the line between "here's something you might not have known" and "I'm just busting on this movie because it's wrong", so it's nice to know that I'm hitting the target.

  2. Wow, this is a great post! It's so frustrating to see this miniseries (along with several other very well-known Austen adaptations, like the 1995 Sense and Sensibility) continually held up as the standard against which all other Austen films must be judged. Yes, it is accurate in some ways, but it is far from perfect. I think the costuming in the 1995 Persuasion adaptation deserves more attention; apart from the little historical "goof" of Captain Wentworth wearing his uniform nearly all the time, it is probably closer to complete accuracy than any Austen film that has been made so far.

    1. Thanks! There were actually a few other things I wanted to mention - basically aspects of costumes of Elizabeth's that look good to modern eyes and/or read as "sensible", like her elbow sleeves - but felt the general points were better than "this specific costume is wrong, and this one, and this other one ..."

      Persuasion is very good. It has some of the same neckline issues, some confusion over when it's set/artistically exaggerated old-fashionedness, and I'm not sure there are extant coats and waistcoats in matching florals (but it's PERFECT) - but the details are so well done. So many films bang out a lot of dresses along the same lines in very different prints, and don't put any trim on them, but the gowns in Persuasion have fancy sleeves, fine laces, delicate trim, etc. as actual dresses would have been. They're just well-made in a way that other movies' costumes aren't and actual clothing is. (Am I now planning a bunch of Regency movie costume analyses/reviews? Yes, I think so.)

    2. Because so many gowns and other articles of clothing have been reused in "Regency" films (, it is actually quite easy to see why the same kinds of artistic inaccuracies in costume - including those in necklines, the distinction between morning and evening dress, gown patterns, and corsetry - continually appear. So maybe further Regency film analyses might not be so interesting, after all?

      Of course, productions with decent costume budgets obviously do not need to reuse gowns from older films, so most inaccuracies in those are probably completely intentional. But if filmmakers cannot afford to have many new gowns made for a film, they must work with what is already available - and, as we have seen, much of that is not perfectly accurate.

      I am a bit curious about Persuasion. I confess that it has always struck me as one of the most accurate in terms of the costuming, but obviously I am not an expert, and it seems that I have overlooked some of the inaccuracies that you mention. I do notice that Mrs. Musgrove's gowns tend to resemble fashions from 25 to 30 years earlier than the film is set.

    3. There is a lot of recycling, but generally speaking, costumes tend to get made for leads in a production, then put in a closet to be drawn from for a minor character, and then it's handed down to extras. (The newer Persuasion and Death Comes to Pemberley break this rule a lot.) Which makes sense - you want your leads to be wearing costumes that fit them well and suit what you're trying to do with them, while you can just tell the dressers to get out ballgowns, pelisses, etc. for extras or the Musgrove sisters or whoever for the coming scenes.

      At any rate, I don't focus much on specific garments in movies except to say why a certain inaccuracy was likely chosen. Even when a costume is re-used on a main character, the designers have choices from an extensive costume closet and are not literally forced to throw that particular garment on the actor. There's still something informing the choice, perhaps based on color or cut. (And if I haven't already pointed out what's wrong with it in a previous review, I might as well do it even if it was originally used in a 1980s production, because the point of discussing inaccuracies isn't to blame the designer for a lack of knowledge. It's to help costumers be aware of what they may be internalizing.)

    4. All of those are good points. It's interesting to consider how film and television have shaped our views of history. By the way, what is your general opinion of the costumes in the 1996 A&E Emma (also known as the Kate Beckinsale version)? Most of Kate Beckinsale's gowns are very good, IMO, even though many of them seem to have been made from one basic pattern. The trim on her evening gowns, in particular, is exquisite. Also, her corset appears to lift and separate her breasts in a way that I don't see in very many Austen adaptations. To be completely accurate, perhaps the breasts should be even higher and farther apart than they are, but, on the whole, I think the effect is quite similar to what we see in Regency era portraits. IMO, Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax has a very good Regency silhouette, as well, even though her gowns have no trim.

    5. I don't think I've ever had the opportunity to see that one - I wonder if it's on Netflix? - but looking through the screencaps, it does seem to be very good!

  3. Very interesting! I've just been watching the mini series of Sense & Sensibility and Emma and the tv-movie of Persuasion (all BBC productions) and a lot of these issues may also apply to those.
    And about 1995 P&P being held up as a standard... There's an exhibition of 19th fashion in a museum here in my home town of The Hague right now which opens with costumes from this show and shows clips of it throughout (in fact, there are also a couple of Downton Abbey costumes and clips from other older tv-series). I was slightly annoyed by this when I visited because the focus of the actual historical garments on display is on the Victorian looks. The museum's website is here: and my pictures from the exhibition are here:

    1. I'm going to have to have another look at all the Austen adaptations, I think. :D The neckline issue is one that affects basically every single Regency movie out there.

      I saw some photos of that exhibition! The picture was of one of Caroline Bingley's evening dresses and there was some confusion at first over whether it was an antique or not. Thank you for the links!

  4. Thanks for a really interesting post. I look forward to reading your other reviews on the subject.

  5. On the subject of shifts, I have noticed that in many Austen adaptations, the women will be shown wearing gowns that have such very short and/or very sheer sleeves, and no shift underneath. Elizabeth's day gown in P&P 1995 (, Emma's (, and Harriet's ( evening gowns in Emma 1996, and Fanny's ( and Maria's ( gowns in MP 1983 are just a few examples.

    Unless I am mistaken, a proper Regency shift would have had short sleeves, not thin straps, and would therefore have been visible through the sheer fabric of these gowns. Now, my question is this: Would Regency women have worn shifts under these kinds of gowns, regardless?

    Perhaps gowns with very short or sheer sleeves were actually not worn by the vast majority of women in England at that time, and are, in fact, an inaccuracy in these films. I would love to know your opinion!

    1. It seems that gowns with sheer sleeves are more typical in French portraits than in English ones, at least during the Neoclassical period. I'm still unsure about the Regency period, though.

    2. I suppose I should admit here that I was posting as "Anonymous" earlier in the comments.

      At any rate, this issue with the Regency shifts seems to be in most Austen adaptations. Here is Anne's sheer white gown from Persuasion 1995: and From the back, especially, it does NOT look as though the gown is worn with a short-sleeved Regency shift. Interestingly, in the same scene, Mary looks like she might have a shift under her similarly sheer muslin gown: It is either that or some sort of lining or underdress. I don't suppose that there were shifts with straps, instead of short sleeves, during the 1810s.

    3. Sorry, I can't believe I never replied to this thread!

      Shifts and chemises in general are problematic in period films - they seem normal to most of us in the community, but the people who make the movies seem to think, rightly or wrongly, that the general public would think it was weird to wear something under your underclothes (corsets being thought of as a basic undergarment instead of a middle layer), and so they don't bother to put them in, like, ever.

      It's hard to gauge in fashion plates and paintings when a gown has sheer sleeves (because if there's a shift sleeve, it will make it look not sheer, and because of artistic licence), but you're right, 1790s French portraits do show some sheer sleeves, possibly even worn without any undergarments. And based on extants it does seem to be an earlier (technically pre-Regency) phenomenon. In the 1800s and 1810s, what I mainly see are totally sheer gowns, which would have been worn over slips/undergowns/dessouses, where the chemise wouldn't come into play at all. It seems very plausible to me, though, that designers are influenced by museum mannequins dressed in sleeveless petticoats and sheer gowns that give the impression of lined gowns with sheer sleeves.

      I don't believe there are any sleeveless shifts extant from this period at all. There are a few bodiced, sleeveless petticoats, but they're pretty definitely petticoats and not shifts.

    4. Thank you for the thoughtful reply! It makes sense to think that most sheer gowns of the Regency would have been worn on top of other, less flimsy gowns. It seems that most costume designers will make sure that bodiced petticoats and stays (which are usually made to be historically inaccurate, but functional, as in P&P 1995 and several other films) are worn under the gowns, but that's about it. The costuming in the 1995 Persuasion film caught my attention recently because it looks like shifts are used in some outfits but not in others; several of the characters, including Mary, Louisa, and Henrietta, usually seem to be wearing some sort of short-sleeved undergarments (possibly shifts) under their sheer gowns, but in the screencaps I included in my previous post, Anne's gown clearly has no shift underneath. Elizabeth probably doesn't wear a shift, either, but it is hard to tell for certain.

      It also makes perfect sense that, as the Empire line was becoming fashionable in the years just before the turn of the century, there would have been a great deal of experimentation with the fabrics and cuts of gowns. Still, I would think that most English women's dress would have been far more conservative and less revealing than what we see in so many French portraits of the period. That being said, the clothing shown in those French paintings is not representative of what most people were wearing in France, either, I would think.

  6. Remarkable post. I simply came across your blog and desired to say that I have really enjoyed searching your blog posts. Thank you for sharing such blogs. cinderella divine dresses


Post a Comment