The Dress Form | Kathryn Hughes

In our Holiday Issue, Kathryn Hughes dives deep into the Regency-era closet in a review of Hilary Davidson’s “riveting and beautifully illustrated” history Jane Austen’s Wardrobe. Taking care to spotlight the period’s elegantly “long and lean” aesthetic idiom, Davidson used sources ranging from letters to her own savvy re-creation of Austen’s silk pelisse to write a sartorial biography. “Davidson reveals that the wearer of the pelisse could have been up to five foot eight, certainly no less than five foot six inches tall,” writes Hughes. “At a time when the average woman stood at a smidge over five feet, Jane Austen wasn’t simply tall; she was gigantic.”

As a historian and biographer, Hughes’s own field is slightly later, Victorian England. She has written books about George Eliot; Isabella Beeton, author of the best-selling Book of Household Management (1861); and the figure of the Victorian governess. For The New York Review, Hughes has taken on biographies of D.H. Lawrence and Maria Montessori, as well as group biographies of the British Premonitions Bureau and the downwardly mobile and incredibly charming Olivier sisters. We e-mailed this week about the craft of biography and, what else, clothes.


Lauren Kane: Both Jane Austen and the world depicted in her novels are enduringly popular. Where does this abiding fascination with Austen come from?

Kathryn Hughes: I think of Austenland as a planet that travels around our own in an elliptical orbit: it comes close for a while until it continues its loop and gets farther away. It has of course been proximate before. In 1940 MGM filmed Pride and Prejudice from a script by Aldous Huxley that quite clearly intended to showcase a particular brand of Englishness thought to be in peril unless America could be persuaded to enter the war. Fifty years later, following another full orbit, we got a string of gorgeous adaptations—starting in 1995 with both the fons et origo that was the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice miniseries and Emma Thompson’s Sense & Sensibility—which also inspired several postmodern parodic plays for the commercial mainstream. I adored Clueless, as well as Bridget Jones’s Diary, which reworked Pride and Prejudice for what was being called—oh how quaint it seems now—the “postfeminist” age.

Austenland has once again swung back into fashion, and it shows every sign of staying a while. It occupies a similar place in British culture as the Tudors, a creative space where current preoccupations can be worked out and worked through. The Netflix series Bridgerton has provoked a fertile conversation about race in the Regency period. With its colorblind casting, which shows us an aristocracy and a royal family that includes people of color, it presents early-nineteenth-century Britain as an alternative lost Eden of social inclusion. The inevitable feather-ruffling that this deliberately anachronistic, counterfactual approach brings has resulted in all sorts of corrective articles reminding readers that Austen’s gentry was intimately enmeshed with enslaved labor and extractive capitalism, safely out of sight on the other side of the world. An eagle-eyed reader will have got this point from reading Mansfield Park, with its references to the Bertram estates in Antigua, or Persuasion,with its retired naval men rich from prize money won during the Napoleonic wars.

Is the subject of “historical fashion” something that you have a special interest in?

My interest in historical fashion is late-arriving, and it began with a book I published in 2017 on Victorian embodiment, Victorians Undone. The Victorians have a reputation—in popular perception at least—for wanting to censor or suppress any signs of embodiment. I wanted to try and write those signs back into biographical inquiry, and some of that involved looking at and, where possible, touching the clothes worn by actual Victorians—fingering their sweat stains, as it were. I was writing a chapter about George Eliot’s right hand, which the novelist liked to claim was larger than her left on account of all the milking she had done on her father’s farm as an adolescent. Lo and behold—and it seemed miraculous at the time—one of her gloves (the right) turned up in someone’s attic.

So for me, clothes don’t simply provide an outline of the unclothed body. They tell us so much about the wearer’s engagement with their own arrangement of sinew and muscle, and the accommodations that they are obliged to make with the wider world. Hilary Davidson demonstrated this brilliantly when she recreated one of Jane Austen’s most handsome surviving articles of clothing, a coat-dress, or pelisse, made out of patterned brown silk. I knew that the real Jane Austen was engaged with a world that went far beyond the assembly rooms in Bath. But still, I always thought of her as physically diminutive. There’s that famous quote of hers about “the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush” that makes you think of her as a miniaturist in every sense. Yet thanks to Davidson’s work, we are confronted with this really tall woman. You couldn’t miss her.

With this knowledge, throwaway comments in Austen’s letters start to make more sense. Davidson highlights one in which Jane, half-humorously, reminds her sister Cassandra to buy an extra half yard of dress material on her behalf: “it is for a tall woman.” In another letter, she insists that she will only wear flat shoes (she was doubtless pleased that the heels of the previous decades became unfashionable and were replaced by neoclassical silk slippers). These kinds of details have been available to readers ever since scholarly editions of Austen’s letters started to appear in the early twentieth century. But it is only with Davidson’s material recreation of Austen’s pelisse that we start to get a real sense of what she might have been feeling.

Your earlier reviews of biographies—of the Wyndham sisters and the Olivier sisters, and to an extent D.H. Lawrence—seem to take some delight in juicy details and narratives of social intrigue. What is your philosophy about historical gossip? Like the gossip of everyday life, do we undervalue it as a way to understanding human experience? What meaning can be found in the sordid or socially fraught aspects of a life?

I wrestle with this a lot! Biography as a genre got itself a bad reputation in the 1990s for what Janet Malcolm, in The Silent Woman, her anti-biography of Sylvia Plath, skewered as “voyeurism and busybodyism.” In a coruscating passage—I have to feel strong to reread it without crumpling—she characterizes biographers as people rifling through their subjects’ private drawers, fishing out the dirty linen, and dumping it for everyone to see. Having said that, Malcolm herself didn’t seem able to keep away from biography. She kept writing it, brilliantly too, even while pointing out what a mucky enterprise it was.

I hope I don’t sound like one of the sanctimonious double-dealers Malcolm describes when I say that I think I would want to reframe gossip as something more nuanced than dirty linen. For me there’s an unhelpful conflation of gossip with slander—something hurtful, salacious, and probably not true. Whereas in fact good gossip is, as Patricia Meyer Spacks suggested all the way back in 1985, a form of intimate knowledge and knowing, a way of understanding the self and the world. That famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice —“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—both honors the importance of gossip in building a community out of disparate individuals while simultaneously pointing out its tendency to self-deceiving limitation. It can’t possibly be universally true that everyone thinks Mr. Bingley wants to find a nice girl to marry, but it is the case that everyone in the vicinity of Meryton thinks that he does. It is that shared knowledge that starts the plot moving.

What are some challenges of reviewing biography? What is unique about the genre that makes it an interesting subject of criticism?

Above everything I’m interested in form. These days it is rare, thankfully, to be presented with a biography that tells the story of one life from birth to death. Even the most unimaginative biographers are now aware of the fictionality of that structure, of its bogus sense of inevitability, and know that they need to do something different. But what to put in its place? There are breakthroughs that become trends and then start to seem stale relatively quickly. I’m thinking of using “objects” to tell a life, which started as an admirable attempt to deliver some of the discoveries of material history in an easily digestible form but now seems slightly exhausted. Group biographies have certainly had a moment, working from the premise that life is lived relationally rather than as a singular self-willed exercise. This can be seen in the books on the Wyndham sisters and the Olivier sisters. (I don’t underestimate for a moment how difficult it is to keep multiple lives spinning in the narrative at the same time—there’s always the danger that the least interesting sister will drop out of view.) Another method is to put two lives in conversation with each other, even if the two never met in real life. I’m thinking of Frances Wilson’s brilliant biography of D. H. Lawrence, which reads Lawrence against, of all people, Dante.

Some of my favorite biographies are the ones that don’t simply “play with form” but break it and then see what, if anything, might be recovered. Jonathan Coe’s biography of the 1960s novelist B. S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, is a standout, as is Alexander Masters’s Stuart: A Life Backwards. Most recently I was swept away by Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.

You yourself have written a biography of George Eliot. Why her? Was she an easy or difficult subject? Could you imagine there ever being a book titled “George Eliot’s Wardrobe”?

It sounds odd, but when my publisher suggested a biography of George Eliot there hadn’t been a proper one since Gordon Haight’s 1968 classic. She had been terribly out of fashion for decades, not least because the great feminist scholars of the 1970s and 1980s hadn’t known quite what to do with her. While the Bröntes had been ripe for rereading—the madwoman in the attic was waiting to shout the house down—the same was not true of Eliot. You didn’t need to go looking for subtexts or alternative readings, because she managed to write the whole world into her books. We don’t need to forage to discover the sources of Dorothea Brooke’s frustration with the small orbit of her life, because she tells us. Sometimes Eliot’s knowledge of what might be going on inside someone’s mind is so piercingly right that it does make you gasp and wonder, How does she do that?

Then there was the fact of Eliot herself. She didn’t think much of the novels that women wrote—she had said so in her famous “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” and early on she appeared to dismiss Austen as living in a walled garden. She was skeptical of the virtues of higher education for women. She gave the smallest amount of money possible to help establish a women’s college at Cambridge, and she didn’t see why they needed the enfranchisement. She was no one’s idea of a feminist foremother. All of which made her an alarming although intriguing subject.

The question of George Eliot and clothes is actually a lot more fascinating than one might assume. She’s often accused of weaponizing dress in her novels. The “bad” girls are addicted to too much finery: Hetty Sorrell and her earrings, Rosamond Vincy and her silks. Meanwhile, “good” girls like Dorothea Brooke and Romola manage to pull off the remarkable feat of not caring about their clothes and still looking absolutely stunning. (How one longs to know their secret, even though it seems to consist simply of allowing their inner virtue to shine through.)

As a pious teenager, Eliot delighted in appearing slightly unkempt, as if she had better things to do. Later, as a young journalist, she reliably got it slightly wrong: she turned up to a party in black velvet, something only a married woman should do. Generally, her physical awkwardness demonstrated itself in the fact that she never knew quite what suited her. In middle age, and by then extremely rich, she threw a housewarming party to show off her Regent’s Park villa, which had been designed by Owen Jones, the premier interior designer of the day. Jones was so horrified at the thought of his client ruining the effect of his carefully considered aesthetic that he demanded that she have a new dress made in silver moire, something both discreet and chic.

There is a sad coda, which always makes me wince. At the age of fifty-eight, Eliot got engaged to a much younger man, John Cross, and she went on a shopping spree, getting herself an ultrafashionable trousseau but managing, as always, not to know quite what suited her. People sniggered and wrote to their friends and families so that they could snigger, too. You wonder how they dared.

How would you describe your own personal style? Is there a historical period that you consider, if you will, the best dressed?

Thank you for asking. After leaving Oxford I worked for three years in glossy magazines before deciding to do a masters and then a Ph.D in Victorian history. You can take the girl out of fashion, but you can’t take fashion out of the girl. So, yes, I do love clothes. I’ve been through many phases, but at the moment I’d describe my style as “Japandi”—Scandinavian functionalism crossed with Japanese minimalism. If I could afford it, I would buy clothes from the Row, and, like many others, I have style crushes on Tonne Goodman and the late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy.

Naturally, I have thought endlessly about how I would dress if transported back to the Regency, and my honest opinion is that pastel muslin and a high waistline just wouldn’t suit me. But I think the men’s clothes are simply terrific. Beau Brummell’s uniform of a navy coat with an artfully tied neck scarf and fitted buff trousers and knee-high boots is my idea of loveliness. So basically just think of me as a Regency cross-dresser.

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