The history behind Mr Darcy’s wardrobe

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Triborough Reference Librarian, Gillian Nunns looked  at the history behind Mr Darcy’s wardrobe in Chelsea Library’s Costume Collection.

In the Regency period, Paris was no longer the centre of men’s fashion that it had been – velvets, lace and satins went to the guillotine as fashionable gentlemen distanced themselves from the aristocracy.  Also, Europe was now at war, and as England became cut off from France a style of men’s tailoring developed in England that was to dominate the European fashion scene during the Regency period.  The Regency period in England gave birth to the Dandy, a style that has its routes in more practical and masculine pursuits than the French Court.

 The precursor to Regency men’s fashion in England was the Macaroni, a style that the Dandy reacted against.  Here is a great image of a Macaroni which we found in a book published in 1884 called Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency by Lewis Wingfield.

A Macaroni from 'Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency' by Lewis Wingfield
A Macaroni from ‘Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency’ by Lewis Wingfield

And here is another great example that we found in The Saville Row Story by Richard Walker.

Another Macaroni from 'The Saville Row Story' by Richard Walker
Another Macaroni from ‘The Saville Row Story’ by Richard Walker

The Macaroni’s fashion tastes were aristocratic and French in origin, with frivolous and extravagant styles: hair piled up high with small French hats on top, colourful short breeches, large and sparkly buckles and buttons and tightly fitting coats.  The Macaroni is part of a mood of extravagance that those with more robust tastes opposed after the French Revolution. 

The beginning of a more masculine style has its origins in the outdoor pursuits of an English country gentleman, for whom lace ruffles, powdered hair and embroidered coats were wholly unsuitable.  The influence of this style was spurred on not only by disorder in France but also by George Brummell, who made notable contributions to English costume, and was the original Dandy.  Here is a page from The Saville Row Story by Richard Walker, describing Brummell and the extent of his influence.  He describes Brummell’s dressing routine as

‘a mesmerizing performance of several hours that drew the Prince to the Beau’s home in Chesterfield Street.  The Prince was now the pupil and Brummell the arbiter of taste’
George Brummel at his dressing table from 'The Saville Row Story' by Richard Walker
George Brummel at his dressing table from ‘The Saville Row Story’ by Richard Walker

And here he is in an etching and mezzotint by Robert Dighton, 1805, that we found in Dandies by James Laver.

George Brummell- the original Dandy from 'Dandies' by James Laver
George Brummell- the original Dandy from ‘Dandies’ by James Laver

The clothes of a Dandy are simple but impeccably cut.  Notable features include long trousers, which would previously have been scorned in the world of fashion, as well as impeccably tied neckties, top hats and coats that are practical for riding horses on a country estate.  This is the fashion that Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice would have been influenced by, as we can see in this illustration by Hugh Thomson in a 1894 edition of the book, depicting Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy at Charlotte’s house.

Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy- illustration by Hugh Thomson in 1894 edition of 'Pride and Prejudice'
Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy- illustration by Hugh Thomson in 1894 edition of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

As well as in England, the style of the Dandy spread across Europe.  Here are some images of the Dandy’s style as interpreted in France, also in Dandies by James Laver.

The Dandy style from 'Dandies' by James Laver
The Dandy style from ‘Dandies’ by James Laver

As well as having a huge influence on fashion in the Regency Period, Brummell’s character has been popular ever since, and there are lots of anecdotes and satirical accounts of his activities such as in a story found in the February 1902 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine, entitled ‘The King of the Dandies‘ by Charles Wilkins.

‘My dear fellow’ exclaimed Brummell, ‘Aw – where did you pick up that extraordinary affair you have upon your back?’
The Prince laughed good-humouredly as he added, ‘It is not your fault, mine goot sir.  You shall not be to blame because a devoid-of-conscience influencing tradesman deceives you when you purchase from him his delusive fabrics.’
 ‘Is there anything the matter with my coat?’ I inquired in dreadful confusion.
 ‘Coat!’ exclaimed Beau Brummell.
Coat! Cried his friends in chorus, all in extreme astonishment.
 ‘It’s no more a coat than a cauliflower-if it is, I’ll be d—d!’ cried Brummell himself, everyone continuing to scrutinise the garment.

After finding this story, we decided to have a look in the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1813, to see what a fashionable gentleman would have been reading about in the year that Pride and Prejudice was published.  We came across this article in the Abstract of Foreign Affairs in September, which is an article about what must be a very early submarine?

‘In the American papers it is asserted that ‘A Gentleman at Norwich U.S. has invented a diving boat, which by means of paddles, he can propel under water at the rate of three miles an hour, and ascend and descend at pleasure.  He has been three times under the bottom of the Ramilies, off New London.  In the first attempt, after remaining under some time, he came to the top of the water like the Porpoise for air, and, as luck would have it, came up but a few feet from the stern of the Ramilies […].’

The article goes on to describe how the diving boat inexplicably decides to use a torpedo to ‘perforate a hole through her copper’.

We were also interested to come across review of Emma, by ‘the writer of Pride and Prejudice in the Review of New Publications section in September 1916’s Gentleman’s Magazine.  It says that “… a good novel is now and then an agreeable relaxation from severer studies.  Of this description was Pride and Prejudice…” 

And goes on.

 ‘ […]If Emma has not the highly-drawn characters in superior life which are so interesting in ‘Pride and Prejudice;’ it delineates with great accuracy the habits and manners of a middle class of gentry; and of the inhabitants of a country village at one degree of rank and gentility beneath them.’

And finally, in a book called The New English Dandy by Alice Cocolini, we found some great images of modern day Dandies.

A modern day Dandy from 'The New English Dandy' by Alice Cocolini
A modern day Dandy from ‘The New English Dandy’ by Alice Cocolini
Another modern day Dandy from 'The New English Dandy' by Alice Cocolini
Another modern day Dandy from ‘The New English Dandy’ by Alice Cocolini

And even some advice for how to tie a good necktie!

How to tie a necktie from 'The New English Dandy' by Alice Cocolini
How to tie a necktie from ‘The New English Dandy’ by Alice Cocolini
Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian
Gillian Nunns

Gillian Nunns,  Tri- Borough Reference Librarian

Chelsea Reference Library

Bibliography

All these sources are available to view at Chelsea Reference Library:

  • Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency by Lewis Wingfield
  •  The Saville Row Story by Richard Walker
  •  Dandies by James Laver
  •  The Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1813
  •  The Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1916
  •  The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1902
  •  The New English Dandy by Alice Cocolini
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6 thoughts on “The history behind Mr Darcy’s wardrobe

  1. Interesting and insightful. To my uneducated eyes, and going by what you said, Dandification was a step away from a more pompous dress style towards something which allowed the individual a greater freedom of movement. The Dandy looks more at liberty than the Macaroni. Loved the left-feildness of the ‘diving boat’/submarine story.

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    1. Hi Mark, glad you enjoyed reading about the Regency Dandies, Mark. As you say, Dandies certainly would have had more freedom of movement because their dress would have been suited for riding horses and fox hunting – hence the shorter coats and longer trousers. It is interesting that the pictures of the women’s clothing of this era show a similar move to more comfortable clothes. On the other hand, Brummell spent an immense amount of time and money on his clothes, so they could not have been wholly practical! We also enjoyed the surprising array of stories in the Gentlemans’ Magazine, there were loads to choose from!

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