Sprigged Muslin

Sprigged Muslin Dress

Left: Sprigged Muslin Dress

“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.

2 thoughts on “Sprigged Muslin

  1. Hi Maggie,

    You make an excellent point about the link between fashion and imperialism, and how the slightest traces of the latter can be detected in the casual language (or perhaps jargon) of the former. Your other point is also very interesting, which is that the women of Austen need to find a way to stand out visually within what seem to be very narrow limits. I wonder f we can bring these two things together? On the one hand, it seems to be that imperial conquest and forced market expansion somehow play a part in dictating the limits within which a women may be visible. On the other hand, it seems that the material conditions of possibility for those limits (i.e. muslin) is conquest, meaning that while imperialism drives fashion, fashion also seems to demand imperialism. Or if they don’t actually drive one another, what would be a better way to explain their interrelation, or their status as “symptoms” of some “deeper” cause?

    Great post, and thanks for your insightful answer to my question from last weeks post!

    • Hi Phil,

      This is an interesting way of linking the two together. I’m not sure if this directly answers your question, but after our historical context discussion last week, I began to wonder whether Jane Austen’s novels reflect an actual absence of political discussion and awareness in Austen’s life (were they taboo, like Branson’s talk about Irish resistance in Downton Abbey?) or whether the books are merely intended to focus on the social, rather than political, experiences Austen observed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>