Within the endless landscape of Jane Austen obsessives, two categories of fans predominate. On one side there’s the “SUBTEXT” group, who devour analyses of the class implications of Emma Woodhouse’s manipulation of Harriet Smith as expressed through free indirect speech. On the other there’s the “BONNETS” faction, who prefer learning how tea was served in Austen’s living room and how to replicate stitching she used on, umm, whatever she was always stitching when she wasn’t writing prose that demonstrated complete genius.
I’ve always been squarely, even snobbily, in camp Subtext with zero interest in camp Bonnets — right up to the moment I found myself parading in front of 200 Janeites in, yup, a bonnet and an Empire-waisted gown last week as a model in an Austen-themed Regency fashion show.
Before I forget my intersectional lens, though, I acknowledge that there’s a crossover contingent — crocheting readers of post-structuralist analyses exist in droves! And of course there’s the third and perhaps largest circle of the Venn diagram, which shall be henceforth referred to as the “WET T-SHIRT COLIN FIRTH” camp.
All these folks converge annually at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting, an affair that includes: sophisticated scholarly talks (including presentations by Cornel West and Anna Quindlen this year), reticule-stitching workshops, and of course a Regency dance. It feels like Comic-Con meets Civil War reenactment meets serious academic conference, and yes, it is awesome.
In order to attend this year’s “Sex, Money and Power” themed conference in Brooklyn (the largest yet, with over 700 attendees), I was encouraged to volunteer. So a friend who belongs to a busy group of young Janeites called the “Juvenilia Society” and I decided to donate our bodies to the cause, wake up at dawn, and be models for a special session called “Dressing the Miss Bennets.” Because seriously, why on earth would we not do this?
When I arrived at the designated hotel room (late), I discovered that I hadn’t received the email urging me to wear a push-up bra, a slip, and ballet shoes. These, I would learn during the session, were approximations of authentic Regency undergarments like a “stays” (essentially a 17th-century corset-cum-Wonderbra), a full-length petticoat, and either crotchless panties or none at all (seriously, this is a matter of historical dispute). Ankles were not to be shown, but cleavage was essential and again, panties were apparently optional. Henceforth, I would never think of Emma and Harriet the same.
Meanwhile, I was unprepared for my modeling gig, even unsure I’d remembered to wear the right deodorant. Did I mention it was really, really early and I live in Uptown Manhattan?
Still, none of these concerns stopped me from diving headfirst into a stack of gowns that were offered to me by the patient director of the show, trying them on with button-ripping vigor until I found two that worked.
And oh, did those high waistlines work. One, I learned, was actually a vintage '70s lace prom dress that was meant to show Janeites how to find Regency-esque fashions at the thrift store. I dressed in this one with a pair of gloves and, of course, an awesome straw bonnet with a lovely “trim.”
The other dress, which didn’t fit as well, had another quality that recommended it highly. “Oh my god! This is SO P&P ‘95,” I said loudly of the two-tiered green and white affair. “So Jennifer Ehle!”
No response. Everyone around me was busy having their hair curled and adjusting their Spencers (which are short jackets) and fiddling with other Important Fashion Things like spinsters’ caps, parasols, and, of course, bonnets.
“Seriously, this is just like Jennifer Ehle’s outfit. Colin Firth is totally about to come out into the pond, haha,” I tried again. Mild amusement. We were soon instructed to practice our catwalk struts and curtseys, which to me and my friend clearly meant taking a lot of Instagram photos of us throwing up gang signs while facing off bonnet to bonnet.
I decided to try some Austen humor with my fellow models, beginning with a joke about getting my petticoat six inches deep in mud.
“Not today,” rebuked one model.
“I fear my behavior is displeasing,” I continued to no one in particular. “I think it shows a sort of conceited independence.”
“That may be true,” another model responded instantaneously. “But you have very fine eyes.”
Reader, I was really excited by this. “Indeed, have they been brightened by the exercise?” I asked.
“We could go on like this all day,” she replied. It’s true. We could and we did. They may have been more into stitching reticules than I was, but I was among my people.
Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist in New York City and a newly minted graduate of VCFAs' MFA program in writing. Find her being an obstinate, headstrong girl at www.sarahmarian.tumblr.com