Taft Museum to Honor Jane Austen’s Fashionable Legacy

To promenade through ”Jane Austen: Fashion & Sensibility” is to stumble upon an ideal blend of literature, history, and fashion design.
Dress, Spencer, and Cape, Pride and Prejudice, 1995, Simon Langton, director. Worn by Julia Sawalha as Lydia Bennet. Dinah Collin, costume designer. Day Dress, Pride and Prejudice, 1995, Simon Langton, director. Worn by Polly Maberly as Kitty Bennet. Dinah Collin, costume designer. Pinafore Dress, Pride and Prejudice, 1995, Simon Langton, director. Worn by Lucy Briars as Mary Bennet. Dinah Collin, costume designer

Flush with passion and wit, Jane Austen’s novels have captivated readers for over 200 years. On pages, stages, and screens, people are continuously eager to observe the intricacies of Regency society; fortunately, an upcoming exhibition at the Taft Museum of Art aims to satiate Janeites and casual fans alike.

Jane Austen: Fashion & Sensibility will open to the public on June 11, featuring 40 costume pieces from film and television adaptations of Austen’s works. Pre-selected by Cosprop Ltd., a costume house based in London, these garments have never before been displayed by a North American venue. From the embellished bridal gown worn by Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1995) to the tailored breeches worn by Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (2005), each article of clothing offers a fictionalized glimpse into the Georgian and Regency eras. The exhibition is to be presented in the Taft’s Fifth Third Gallery and historic house.

“So it starts with Pride and Prejudice, and then goes to Sense and Sensibility, then Mansfield Park, and then finally Emma,” said Tamera Lenz Muente, curator for the Taft. “When people move to the historic house, the costumes there are mainly from Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility because they have a thematic or historical connection to a room.”

Attendees can also see an authentic mid-1700s map of London in the Sinton Gallery, or consider participating in additional activities associated with the exhibition. Some options include docent-led tours, specialized talks, and embroidery or bookbinding workshops.

“You can access the show from so many levels,” Muente said. “If you’re a huge fan of Jane, you’ll love it. If you love film, it will be interesting. Even if you just love beautiful fashion, you can come in and learn about this particular period through fashion.”

Barbara Wenner, an associate professor emerita of the University of Cincinnati, has volunteered to guide tours of Jane Austen: Fashion & Sensibility. Having studied Austen extensively throughout her career, Wenner is equipped to discuss the significance of specific pieces. One such piece is a white shirt worn by Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice miniseries (1995), which is well-known amongst fans of period pieces.

“The infamous shirt that Firth wore when he dove into the lake to cool himself off would have been very, very risque,” she said. “That will be fun to show people because that’s the basic undergarment a man would have worn at that time.”

Wenner thinks the exhibition is a thoughtful tribute to Austen. Since she was writing for a Regency audience, Austen assumed she didn’t need to pen lengthy descriptions of clothes.

“However, in her letters, there are all kinds of mentions of clothing,” Wenner said. “I want people to know she was interested in fashion, and she might have liked this exhibition if she had been able to see it herself.”

In recent years, Regency aesthetics were integrated into mainstream fashion, especially with the arrival of Netflix’s Bridgerton in 2020. Empire waist dresses, puffy sleeves, pronounced collars, corset tops, and pearl accessories are all elements of “Regencycore,” a style of dress inspired by the early 19th century. Season two was released in March 2022, achieving swift success.

“It’s sort of Jane Austen on steroids,” Wenner said about Bridgerton.

Bridgerton is saturated and sparkly, but it still relies on the fundamentals of Austenian charm when it comes to costume design. The production team even alluded to Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, having Anthony Bridgerton fall into a lake and emerge with a sopping wet shirt in the fifth episode. Ultimately, costumes are utilized to convey the enchanting nature of Austen’s world. The slightest brushing of hands, accompanied by a heated stare, can begin an unlikely love story.

“I want to say it was around 2019 when we first committed to the show,” Muente said. “So it’s truly a happy accident that the second season of Bridgerton was released this year. I think that’s going to bring us a lot of interest.”

Jane Austen: Fashion & Sensibility will be on display at the Taft Museum of Art June 11 to September 4.

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