“Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.”
Northanger Abbey, Vol. 1, Ch.10 (p. 71)
Despite this assertion (made by the narrator as Catherine worries about what to wear the next time she will try to run in to Mr. Tilney) and the satirical portrait of Mrs. Allen, who is obsessed with wardrobe, clothes remain an important part of Jane Austen’s novels. When I read that Catherine is wearing a “sprigged muslin” (which Mrs. Allen objected to her buying in the first place), or that Mrs. Allen takes comfort in the fact that her “pelisse” is nicer than Mrs. Thorpe’s when she has no news of children to exchange, I can look to footnotes for verbal descriptions, but it’s better to have the image.
With images from online and from the film Pride and Prejudice, it’s clear that the clothes are a reflection of the modesty of 18th-century England. Not only were dresses floor-length, they came in muted tones. It seems to me at least that you’d have to have an eye as sharp as Mrs. Allen’s to truly distinguish between any two dresses. As with the average woman, the main goal of Austen’s female characters in choosing their wardrobe seems to be to put their own twist on an established trend.
The way Austen’s women dress mirrors their social behaviors–to act according to accepted social standards while standing out just enough to catch the eye of a potential future husband. (After all, Elizabeth and Jane discussed fashion trends with Mrs. Gardiner, but we never saw them go on shopping sprees like Lydia.)
It’s also interesting to me that some of the fabrics worn by the women, like “mull” or “jackonet,” are derived from Indian languages. (According to my Penguin edition, “mull” comes from the Hindi term malmal, which is a type of muslin; and “jackonet” comes from the Urdu word Jagannathi, which is a wagon under which followers of Siva sacrified themselves.) These clothes are the only instance–the slightest acknowledgment, which may not have been at all intentional on Austen’s part–of Britain’s colonization of India, and it’s an interesting revelation of how little British people not directly involved in India thought about the country, given the irony of women wearing Indian fabrics daily.