This post is based on a presentation for The Glasgow School of Arts Crafting the look Fashion styling conference, click below to find out more about it
For those of you who have lived your whole life in a cave, Pride and Prejudice, the infamous novel by Jane Austen was first published in 1813. It has now been one of the nations best-loved stories for over 200 years.
The story follows its protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet as she deals with issues of manners, upbringing, morality, education, and marriage in the society of the landed gentry of early 19th-century England.
Long before Bella Swan tripped into the lives of teenage girls, before even Scarlett O’ Hara suffered, struggled and captured our hearts, there was Elizabeth Bennet.
Lizzie’s mix of intelligence and cheekiness has made her, as Jane Austen herself put it “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” for 200 years.
Although the story is set at the turn of the 19th century, it retains a fascination for modern readers, continuing to top lists of the nations most loved books. It has become one of the most popular novels in English literature.
Continued interest in the book has resulted in a number of dramatic adaptations and an abundance of novels and stories imitating Austen’s memorable characters and themes. To date, the book has sold some 20 million copies worldwide.
It is not hard to see why the story, which is both funny and romantic has remained so popular, many of the themes the story covers still resonate with young people today.
It is always hard working on project themed around a much-loved book, but this was the task that faced myself and my wonderful team of volunteers, once the Jane Austen Festival director had agreed to our show proposal.
The Jane Austen Festival started in 2000 as a small event run over a weekend at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. The 2011 event ran over two weeks and attracted over 600 people just to participate in the promenade around the historical Georgian town centre.
People travel from all over the world to observe or take part. The festivals aim is to bring people together, to celebrate the work and world of Jane Austen, and to attract new audiences to her work. In 2013 the festival wanted something special to mark Pride and Prejudice’s 200th Anniversary, what we came up with was a fashion show with a difference.
This was to be a show on a grand scale, one which would be shown to an ever-growing group of costumed promenaders as well as being shared with fans across the world.
Many, if not all of the audience would be in costume, they would have read the book numerous times, many of them will have made their own costumes or at least know their Regency fashion better than most, our show had to live up to the expectations of this challenging audience.
Everyone creates a picture in their minds when reading a book, Jane Austen herself had a view on how her creations would be dressed, as she writes following a trip to a gallery.
“Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly herself — size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow”
And then there are the many film and TV adaptions, which have added to the story and defined each characters look, often inline with fashions of the time it was filmed, they often but become so popular they become almost inseparable from the original story.
However we didn’t want the show to be too safe, we wanted to challenge the audience’s expectations as well as recreating key moments in their favourite story.
My first step was to reread the book and read, watch and listen to as many adaptations a possible, creating a bible of key moments and references to fashion, from this we selected the scenes we felt would work best on stage.
The show itself was structured in the same way as a standard Fashion show, starting with daywear working through to evening wear and ending with the wedding dress but throughout the show, we planned short narrative sketches from the story. We were fortunate that many of our models had acting experience and were able to swap from standard catwalk modeling with a regency twist to playing (in some cases more than one) character.
No new costumes were made for the show, aside form Lizzies wedding dress which I will get to later. We had an open submission for models and outfits, alongside this we had my own studio’s stock of costumes. This was all we had to work with and as such, the narratives sketches had to be created out of what we had, although, we knew there were some “moments” which simply could not be left out.
I am going to look at three in more detail
The first is Lizzie’s “muddy heam”
“Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise”
It is the reaction of Bingley’s sisters that most people remember
“And her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office”
This moment is so important as this is when Mr. Darcy first starts to fall for Lizzie, so enamored is he with her pretty flushed face he simply states
“Her dirty Petticoat quite escaped my notice”
But that first image of Lizzie, on the way to see her sister, enjoying her walk is able bring to mind what follows and that is what we focused on,
We knew we didn’t need to tell the whole story just to tell enough and let the audiences imagination do the rest.
So for this sketch Lizzie wondered across the stage bonnet in hand, admiring the nature that surrounds her and oblivious to her muddy hem and dirt caked boots
This required a little help from the model herself, Katie who was dressed in a Regency day dress and was sent into Bath to find puddles and dirty her heam and boots.
The second is not from the book at all but the BBC’s 1990’s adaptation for television, in which Mr. Darcy, played by Colin Firth takes a dip in his lake and emerges in that wet shirt.
To do this properly we knew we needed a wet shirt and thankfully one of our Models, Richard was willing to stick his head under the tap and slip into a soaking wet shirt just moments before walking onto the stage, dripping wet, in his breeches and stockinged feet, he made a good many peoples day. He was so popular we had to have a second showing. He could almost be accused of milking the attention.
It’s uncanny, right?
Lydia is an eternally popular character, I like to think we all have a Lydia side and her elopement with the handsome cad Mr. Wickham is one of those moments which could not be missed out.
Much as we wanted this in the show we did not have access to any uniforms and so on the day of the show, when Bath is filled with “officers” we sent our own giddy group of boys and girls out to find us a Mr. Wickham. Up until the last moment we were not sure if it was going to happen, but thankfully Mr. Wickham was able to join us and return our Lydia’s Hankie.
Sadly our Mr. Wickham had a ball to attend, and no doubt many other girls to seduce and so was not able to stay for the second half of the show, so when It came to Lydia’s wedding we had to make do with his jacket and Lydia showing off her wedding ring to the audience. Which worked very well, again proving how little of the narrative has to be involved for the whole story to be told.
As our models and outfits came from all over the world to take part, the whole show had to be styled and ordered on the day of the show, before this we had a basic plan on the outfits, models and key narratives we wanted to include.
On the day models had to be matched with outfits, ordered to allow time for changes, allowing for a total lack of zips and the presence of corsets!
Accessories multi tasked, covering tattoos, giving the models a way to give catwalking a regency feel, marking the occasion and often helping to tell a part of the story
The over all look was more of a collative decision, overseen by myself and the producer, Kirsten Stoddart, with everyone mucking in to make it look and feel the part. As well as creating a feeling of collective ownership, the book after all is owned, loved and imagined anew by each fresh reader.
We didn’t want the show to future the classic catwalk strut and pose, live music from the BBC production helped set a more suitable pace and fans, reticules and even quill pens allowed for more regency poses. Stairs had to be negotiated carefully and delicately with long gowns and trains adding to the gentle pace which allowed the audience to admire the details.
It was important for us that our show reflected a wide range of different people, just like the story, our only requirement for models was a wiliness to take part, and much like the fuss created by Mr. Bingley arriving unexpectedly at the Bennet household, the buzz backstage included everyone turning their hand to what they could, be it sewing, hair, make up or helping with the show plan. It simply would not have happened without everyone involved’s hard work and ideas.
Alongside this and reflecting on the theme of inclusion we wanted the fashion of Austen’s devoted readers to play a part, we chose to do this by taking the audience through 200 years of changes in fashions, both in dress and in reading, the one constant being the continued popularity of Austen’s work.
We also wanted to ensure we started by telling the audience not to make any assumptions about what they are about to see, starting with the modern day and rewinding 200 years of readers fashions taking them back to 1813.
The show opens with this song
To this, Richard appears, wearing a kimono loaded with swords, worn over jeans and a t-shirt, reading the graphic novel of Pride and prejudice with zombies, sadly not captured on film, shown here is a picture from the rehearsal
At a fast pace models then tag team a copy of Pride and Prejudice, each reader is shown fitting the book into their life with music from their era. This gave us about 30 seconds to “pitch” each decade or era to the audience
The film starts in the 1990’s, which I ended up modeling;some of you may remember this film;
Only when we have returned to regency times then did the piano start and the story begin
Both the story and the show end with a wedding, the book features four weddings, we have already spoke about how we portrayed Lydia’s and before we finished on lizzies wedding we also show Jane’s wedding to Mr. Bingley.
The one dress made for the show was Lizzie’ s wedding dress; Annalise Harvey Bridal and Occasion Design created this especially for the show.
Rather than being a replica of the type of dress worn for weddings at this time, this stunning design it is a reinterpretation made by a true fan of Austen’s work. Read more about the design here;
I have worked at the festival for the past three years running last years regency fashion show was by far my biggest challenge, I spent much of 2014 locked away, as I have been busy working on a book on recreating Georgian and Regency women’s clothing, which will be published later this year
Creating so many styles over a short period has required a clear out so if you have been inspired to go to the festival, many of the dresses from the show are for sale in my Etsy store
Should you want to you can see more stills from the show here