Historian Hilary Davidson, chair, Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice, has been busy this summer. Ahead of the September publication of her second book, Jane Austen’s Wardrobe, Davidson has written several articles exploring the dress and times of the writer whose novels have come to define a genre and a period.
Writing for the Financial Times in an Aug. 22 article, Davidson took readers into the process of researching Austen’s wardrobe through the writers’ letters, novels, and a handful of accessories. Despite the “scant beginning” she had in the research—just one picture of Austen exists today, along with 161 letters out of about 3,000 the author wrote in her lifetime—Davidson is able to tease out tantalizing details about Austen’s upbringing, the types of garments Austen wore, and the importance of dressing up. Davidson shares the astonishing fact that Austen, who came from a middle-class family, spent nearly half of her income obtaining and caring for her clothes, an amount that would be unthinkable today for most people in a similar social class.
In July, Davidson wrote an article for the blog of Yale University Press where she shared the genesis of Jane Austen’s Wardrobe and described the process of deeply researching a single figure during a global pandemic when movement was deeply restricted. “Historians delight in the archival chase,” Davidson wrote, describing her tremendous pleasure at unearthing new information about a figure as extensively researched as Austen. In her work, Davidson definitively established the historical location of Grafton House, a warehouse where Austen frequently shopped, and identifying the “list shoes” that Austen once wore home from a dance. Her research also refuted the current belief that Austen was a “sheltered, rural, modest, and retiring” woman in favor of a person who appreciated good clothing and put some effort into being “reasonably fashionable.”
Austen is everywhere in the popular consciousness these days, with Austen House in the United Kingdom this spring launching “The Making of Pride and Prejudice,” an exhibit about Austen’s best-known novel. In tribute to this exhibition, Davidson published an analysis of the costumes in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for the museum. “The TV series set a benchmark for adaptations of Jane Austen’s work that has never been surpassed in terms of cultural influence and audience adoration,” Davidson wrote, “and the costumes were a huge part of the effect.”
On September 7, Davidson also appeared on a newly created podcast produced by the Jane Austen Society of North American titled Austen Chat. She discusses Jane Austen’s Wardrobe and its insights. Listen to the episode here.
Jane Austen’s Wardrobe will be released Sept. 12; an on-campus book launch event scheduled for Sept. 26 in Katie Murphy Amphitheatre is free and open to the public.