Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I Was a Model in a Regency Jane Austen Fashion Show

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 or @sarahmseltzer.

99 Comments / Post A Comment


LOVE. Also, belong squarely in“WET T-SHIRT COLIN FIRTH” camp. '95 P&P is the ONLY P&P.


@iceberg YES. CLEARLY.


@iceberg My partner and I cannot discuss Pride and Prejudice or ever watch it together because I will have nothing to do with the new one and he thinks it is the best thing around. We...may have fought bitterly over it.




@wee_ramekin agreed!

evil melis

Let us not forget the fourth class of Janeite: "Jane Austen's vision is a fraction from being a despairing one, her final chapters are dispensations of kindness, like the fifth acts of Shakespeare's comedies, in which we are spared bleakness by a hair's breadth, though we feel its presence all around...She was too satiric for DH Lawrence's taste and too unforgiving for Kingsley Amis's, but you would still not call her hellish."


@evil melis
"You could not shock her more than she shocks me:
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of "brass",
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society."


LET'S JUST TAKE THIS MOMENT TO SAY: The 1995 BBC version of Pride & Prejudice is THE ONLY version of Pride & Prejudice that we will ever refer to - EVER - on this site. None of that half-baked, tight-jawed Kiera Knightley shit.




@wee_ramekin I could not agree more. I know Lizzy Bennet, and Kiera Knightley is no Lizzy Bennet.


@wee_ramekin Yes, but pleeeease tell me you've seen the 1940 version with Sir Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson. It has my favorite interpretation of Lady Catherine de Bourgh!


@Radio_LJ yes! Why does everyone ignore the 1940 version. IMO, Olivier was the hottest Mr. Darcy, Firth's wet shirt notwithstanding.


@charlesbois Because of the costumes, I reckon.


@charlesbois I think it's because some of us *raises hand* are totally uptight literature purists and the 1940 adaptation WAS NOT RIGHT. I saw it when I was around 12 and immediately turned my back on it, so perhaps it's time for a re-watch. Olivier is the hottest Mr. Anything, however, so I will concede that point.


@anachronistique Also that. Hello, 1830s. Are we suddenly at Thornfield or something?


@KatPruska I totally agree with the uptight literature purists and the fact that it was so not right. But then I see Olivier smoulder and all is forgiven.


@anachronistique oh god, I must have blocked those. They are lovely but yeah, waaay wrong. Maybe I only had eyes for the pantaloons.


I would also like to add my support for the 1940 P&P, especially in the matter of Greer Garson being an excellent Elizabeth. (Olivier is, I think, fine, but she is wonderful.)


@wee_ramekin Perhaps (although, I guiltily admit I liked that version), but if Kiera Knightley as Lizzie Bennet is unspeakable, then Kiera Knightley as Anna Karenina is downright apocalyptic.


Seething with envy (or is that hunger?) over here. Lovely, flattering (esp for those of us who already look pregnant even though we're not!) Empire waist dresses!


When I was doing study abroad in Bath, they had a special exhibit at the Costume Institute of outfits from various Austen adaptations, with an audio tour narrated by Harriet Walter (who played the horrible sister-in-law in Sense & Sensibility). It was awesome, not least because they had to substitute in a random gentleman's white shirt because the actual Colin Firth Wet Shirt was owned by a private collector who would not loan it out.


@anachronistique Can't say I blame that private collector. I'd carry it everywhere like a security blanket.


@anachronistique I also studied abroad in Bath! At one point there were men in Edwardian costumes hanging out near the Crystal Palace (filming something, I think?), and we were alerted to their presence by my friend rushing into the house and shouting, "There are TWELVE Mr. Darcys outside!"


@meetapossum You didn't go via ASE, did you? Also that is an AMAZING story.


@anachronistique I DID! Spring 2006. Linley! (I just booked a trip to England in February, and I was debating whether to do a day trip to Bath, but I think I'll have to.)


@meetapossum AWESOME, high five! I was Spring '05, 18 Northampton. Which was the worst hill in the WORLD to get up after a few drinks, I tell you what.

And definitely do a day trip, you will not regret it at all.


@anachronistique Oh man, Linley was awesome. So close to everything, and my room was a single because there was only 7 of us.

I actually went back in 2008 when I was living in Oxford to visit my friend who was still at Bath Uni at the time. We went to a cider festival, which was pretty much the best thing ever. SO many memories of that semester abroad. I might get nostalgic and look at pictures now.


@anachronistique NO WAY! I lived at 18 Northampton! Fall'00. I just heard it's not a residence for ASE anymore. Did you have Lizzie as a teacher? We worshipped her.


@LinaLamont OH MAN. I didn't personally have Lizzie, but this is amazing. Sad that it won't be an ASE house anymore, though! I loved it in all its crammed and uphill glory.


It's an awesome mini-ASE reunion :)


I make an exception for "1995 version is the only version ever" rule for the Bollywood version, aka Bride and Prejudice, simply due to the sheer campiness of it.


@schrodingers_cat I heart Bride and Prejudice too. No life without wife.


@schrodingers_cat why stop there? let's just rule that Bride and Prejudice is the best Jane Austen adaptation, nay, the BEST MOVIE, ever made!


@redheaded&crazie yeah no


@redheaded&crazie It has to stay behind the 1995 version for the lack of Colin Firth in a wet shirt, at the very least.


@redheaded&crazie In a world where Clueless exists, this can never be true.


@schrodingers_cat YES YES YES. If there's one thing missing from Austen, it's casts-of-thousands Bollywood musical numbers. Oh man I know what I'm doing tonight.


@alannaofdoom You should also check out the Kollywood adaptation of Sense and Sensibility! Kandukondain Kandukondain. The dubbing is a little distracting, but it's really great. A song to sweeten the pot.


@schrodingers_cat Yes, I heartily endorse more musical numbers in my Austen adaptations.

Redheads have even more fun

@schrodingers_cat The Mr. Collins character! (who's name I can't remember and am too lazy to google.)


@Redheads have even more fun The scene with him on the bed! So terrible, yet so hard to look away from


I FINISHED EMMA THIS WEEKEND, so good. When she ran into Mr Knightley, I shrieked "Don't fuck it up, Emma!" out loud.

But poor Harriet.
Also, my high school music teacher was involved in writing this.


So, are there men at this event? Because if there is a dance, shouldn't the ladies have partners? Not that dancing with other ladies is wrong, because it was and is quite legit. I'd love to dress up Mr. Charlesbois is knee breeches and a waistcoat and drag him to one of these. And being a Regency gentleman, he'd have to take all the attention with good humor and grace.


@charlesbois Speaking as a literary scholar who has attended (nay, spoken before) the JASNA Conference, I can definitively and authoritatively answer your question "Are there men at this event?": Sorta.


@charlesbois The Jane Austen Festival in my city always draws a surprising number of quite attractive straight dudes in costume, browsing the pewter mugs and hand-carved pipes and flirting with every fan-fluttering woman in sight.


@charlesbois - and at ours this summer, they also had a fisticuffs demonstration. Men in boots without shirts!

Pocket Witch

I have tried reading Pride and Prejudice at least five times in the last seven years. I reach page 60 or 70 every time, get unutterably bored, and put the book down for another year or two. (Because I'm clearly a Philistine? I don't know! What's wrong with me?)

evil melis

@Pocket Witch You're fine, nobody's going to like everything (but it might make Texts from Mrs. Bennett a bit incomprehensible).


@Pocket Witch I say just watch the miniseries. I find Austen's stories as costume dramas much more enjoyable than actually reading the books. That way you can admire the clothes and the dancing and the eyesex.(I could also be a Philistine. In fact, it's likely.)

Pocket Witch

@JanieS I do love dancing. Ballroom/swing, I mean, not whatever kids are doing in clubs these days.


@Pocket Witch I think you might be me. I've tried that book 3 or 4 times and I get within about 100 pages of the end, and I just can't do it. I've kind of given up on reading Austen at this point.

But I can watch 'Sense and Sensibility' (Emma T's version) all day and not be bored.


@Pocket Witch I had that exact problem for years! Watching several adaptations of it helped though - once I knew what was going to happen I didn't find it so hard to read.


That first picture is utterly adorable. I'm just over here imagining the quiet, shared giggles.



Ok, you should all watch the Lizzie Bennett diaries on youtube! P&P comes to the 21st century. It's a great adaptation. www.youtube.com/LizzieBennet

Kathleen Flynn@twitter

Sarah, you look great as Jennifer Ehle! I am sorry I missed dressing the Miss Bennets; I was at some serious Jasna event taking place at the same time.


Please tell me there are 2005 P&P fans around... I feel so alone.
I mean come on. Matthew Macfadyen versus Colin Firth? No contest. I just do Not Find Him Attractive. 2005 was a gorgeous movie, if a little condensed. Also Dame Judi Dench as Catherine de Bourgh! And Mr. Collins! Ugh it's wonderful.


@Shayna I have likes and dislikes about both. Personally, I am extremely pro-Mr. FirthDarcy, so there's no contest on that score. But there are things that I like about 2005, not the least of which was that I thought it was much porn-ier. (In a mostly good, slightly cheesy way.) Also, dirtier (as in, mud), but that seems redundant. '95 P&P was my first P&P love, so I don't think anything that comes after will be able to truly displace it, but there are redeeming qualities to '05, and some things that are done better.


@Shayna I do prefer the Jane and Bingley from the 2005 version - Rosamund Pike is breathtakingly lovely, and the scene with Darcy and Bingley practicing the proposal is hilarious. And I like the take on Darcy as incredibly socially awkward rather than very reserved.


@Shayna I like both! I think the Colin Firth one is better, in that it's really loyal to the book in a way that a movie just can't be due to time constraints, but I actually really liked nearly everyone in it. Also, I loved the soundtrack, and I tend to get really attached to movie scores sometimes.


@Shayna I loved the 2005 version too. Obviously in only 2 hours they can't do the book the same justice as a 6 hour miniseries, but they told the story and it was really well-cast. And when he walks across that field at dawn? Damn. However: for the record, when I watch the DVD I turn it off BEFORE that last puke-inducing scene on the balcony. Scandyhoovian - LOVED the soundtrack. I had to download it. (I also realize I just wrote pretty much exactly what you wrote.)


@Shayna I totally do like both for different reasons. I think 2005's cinematography and soundtrack are just achingly lovely. And Matthew Macfadyen walking across the field with his collar all unbuttoned and his hair ruffled from a sleepless night? "I love, love... love you"? UGH the sexy.

I have to fast-forward through the scene where Charlotte tells Lizzy that she's engaged to the horrible Mr. Collins, though. "Don't judge me, don't you dare judge me" absolutely brings the momentum of that scene clunking to an awkward anachronistic halt. Putting 20th-century vernacular into a Regency woman's mouth... it makes me want to throw things at the screen.


Thanks for the lively post. Regrettably, I missed the fashion show as I was on the beautiful but foot-wearying botanical gardens tour.
While I like both the 1995 and the 2005 versions, I think the 1995 version is best. That said, I prefer Keira Knightly to Jennifer Ehle.
Matthew Macfadyen vs Colin Firth? Why choose? Both are sensational. Olivier is wonderful in the 1940s version (made with leftover costumes from "Gone with the Wind") but the script is appalling, especially the last scene with Lady Catherine claiming she'd known Elizabeth was right for him all along. Greer Garson is annoying, too - always mugging at the camera.
Another version I love is the 2003 Mormon P&P; don't be put off by the colours in the initial bathroom scene.
Any comments about the subdued 1980s BBC one? Elizabeth Garvie is okay but David Rintoul as Darcy is so stiff he looks like there's a coat hangar stuck on his back. Women over age 70 seem to prefer this one but I cannot believe they've actually watched it recently. All those BBC productions from the 70s and 80s are so stilted, dated and deadly.
I cannot abide Bride & Prejudice but love Kandukondain Kandukondain, the Tamal version of S&S.


@EdmontonAusten I must be about 40 years ahead of myself but I really like the 1980's version. I think David Rintoul's stiffness works for the character, and the transformation once Elizabeth Garvie tells him his feelings are reciprocated is pretty amazing. I'm also probably the only person in the world who really dislikes the 1995 and 2005 versions. It seems to me that they both were attempts to give the story a more modern sensibility, and a lot of the interesting sexual tension is lost when the stories become less period-appropriate and more overtly hearty or sexy.


@EdmontonAusten Ooh, I'd forgotten the Mormon version. The scene of Darcy running down the escalator loosening his tie is worth the price of admission, IMO.


So true about the bonnet obsession! I played Lizzy in a Chicago production this summer, and we had talkbacks led by members of the Jane Austen Society. I got YELLED at more than once for not wearing a bonnet in an outdoor scene, and no amount of "well, it was a directorial decision" or "well, the bonnets make it hard to see the actor's expressions onstage" would calm them. Also, those women would shove me aside to get to our Mr. Darcy, who was, admittedly, very handsome. But to them, I was the bonnet-less whore who was keeping them from their dreamlover. VERY Caroline Bingley of them.


@LMac Amazing--(how dare you go bareheaded though, for reals?). Ha. What production?

Redheads have even more fun

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Could I please have your permission (with proper attributes, of course) to reprint it in the December issue of The Wire, the JASNA-Wisconsin newsletter?
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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). Save money


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