Jane Austen on women, men and clothes

the book:

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

published 1817 chapter 10

[Catherine Morland is hoping to see a certain young man at a cotillion ball]

What gown and what head-dress she should wear on the occasion became her chief concern. She cannot be justified in it. Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening. This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt, might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown. It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull, or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter. But not one of these grave reflections troubled the tranquillity of Catherine.

observations: Not much has changed in the intervening 200 years – who women dress for is still a subject up for grabs, and surely it is still true that most men don’t notice all that much, and certainly can’t distinguish between different outfits, or styles, or levels of smartness or fashionableness. This idea about men and their muslin-uselessness is repeated elsewhere in the book – in fact hero Henry Tilney is bizarrely knowledgeable, what can this mean? – and there are many references to muslins and their types. More blog entries to come. 

Jackonet and mull are (who’d’ve guessed?) light muslin-esque cotton fabrics. Tamboured muslin has an embroidered pattern on it.

One surprise in the book: Henry Tilney accuses Catherine Morland of ‘this delightful habit of journaling’ a verb that many people would think of much more recent invention.

Links up with: Virginia Woolf considers
men, women and clothes in this International Women’s Day entry, accompanied by a truly fabulous picture. The Woman in White wore muslin, as did the Little Princess’s doll, the Fossil sisters, and Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters.

picture is of the recently discovered ‘Rice Portrait’ which some people believe to be a likeness of the young Jane Austen herself.